The Many Pretentious Failings of Spec Ops: The Line

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Spec Ops: The Line is, from an artistic point of view, one of the most important games released in the last decade. A brutal no-holds-barred deconstruction of the generic Call of Duty/Medal of Honor style first or third-person shooters in which your average everyman protagonist whose personality – if he has one at all – can be summarized as smartass, badass and jerkass, somehow saves the world by shooting an indiscriminate number (usually in the thousands) of people from non-USA countries named something like Saudi Irania or Afghaliban in order to prevent the release of a virus/execution of several high-profile hostages/attempted sabotage of a badminton tournament, etc.

In Spec Ops: The Line, you play as a man named Walker who leads a small team into Dubai following a failed evacuation attempt by the military, with the simple goal of finding out what happened and/or if there are any survivors, and then leaving to report your findings and call in help. But due to some horrific luck, unforeseen circumstances, and Walker’s well-meaning but ultimately quite selfish desire to be a hero, he just keeps making things worse for everyone and alienating those around him, which isn’t that surprising when his chief method of solving a problem is finding someone nearby who he can point an assault rifle at.

The game sold poorly but was critically acclaimed for its story, which was both critical of the unchallenging nature of the generic first-person shooters of the time, and also the industry itself for catering to the whims of the people who are easily entertained by repeatedly throwing frag grenades at infinitely respawning waves of specifically not-white people, by creating a game in which you constantly make things worse and eventually the game itself calls out the desire of Walker and the player to be seen as heroes for ‘pow pow bang bang dakadakadakadakadakadaka thwip now throw me a parade for saving the world’. It’s very… art.

It’s also one of the few (less than 10) games that I absolutely fucking hate.

Up there with the PS2 port of Just Cause, Mario VS Donkey Kong 2 on the DS, and the first Spider-Man movie game. You hate it too, don’t lie. Someone has to be held responsible for those bomb defusal levels. I really, really thoroughly hate Spec Ops: The Line. Every element of it; the gameplay, the story, the meta story, the design, the… I don’t know, the soundtrack. Actually I think there’s some Jimi Hendrix there, so… okay, I hate almost every element of it. And since I have a captive audience, at least until you switch to a new tab, let’s explore why.

Gentlemen, welcome to Dubai.

Gameplay

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I figured I would start by discussing the gameplay because that’s the least important part of the game. That sentence actually goes a long way to explaining my issue with the game. Since the focus is on the story, the gameplay is rarely, if ever, covered in any detail in reviews of the game, and if it is, it’s briefly glided over with a few forgiving sentences like ‘It’s nothing special’ or ‘It gets the job done and that’s about it.

And I’m here to say; the gameplay in Spec Ops: The Line is fucking atrocious.

You know every negative stereotype about generic first/third-person shooters? Let’s go over some of them. Endless waves of repetitive enemies? Locations that all serve the same purpose? Characters who can inexplicably only carry two guns at once? Chest-high walls to crouch against in every combat situation? Slowly regenerating health so that your squad of three can feasibly kill dozens of enemies at once?

Spec Ops: The Line has all of those, but since gameplay isn’t the main focus, nobody seems to care. If you took out the plot, it would doubtless be one of the blandest, least-interesting games ever made – not just in the FPS/TPS genre, but ever – and at 12-13 hours, it’s tedious, monotonous, and every other word I can think of that could accurately portray what a chore it is to play this utterly dismal game. And it’s not just that this game is bad when judged on its gameplay, it’s that it’s actually a lot worse than the mindless repetitive shooters it’s supposed to be deconstructing.

I’m not really into shooters but they’re not exactly difficult or time-consuming to beat (or expensive) so after finishing Spec Ops: The Line, I bought a few second hand games that I would never have played otherwise. Call of Duty is the main offender on the market, so I wanted to get a taste of the good, the bland and the ugly, so I bought Modern Warfare, Black Ops and Ghosts. Gears of War and Medal of Honor: Warfighter were only 99p each so I got them both too. Here are some quick mini-reviews, focussed mainly on the gameplay.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is alright. The story was interesting, you all know which scene in particular I’m talking about. Gameplay-wise, there’s a little bit of variety, honestly not very much, but the game is more than a decade old, so there’s nothing particularly wrong with it. Black Ops was honestly my least favourite of all five games because I found it to be the most repetitive. All you do is run and gun, with a few vehicle segments that don’t add anything. There’s an interesting story there too, but all I can really remember from it is ‘What do the numbers mean, Mason?!?’ As for Ghosts, it was surprisingly good. Maybe because, since I haven’t been keeping track of this series, I haven’t had to play a new Call of Duty game every year for the last 12 years. But honestly, there’s a lot of variety, underwater levels, the bits where you control a dog. The story is bland and garbage but it wasn’t un-fun to play.

Speaking of which, Medal of Honor: Warfighter surprised me by being the best of all five games. The gameplay was solid – again, lots of variety to keep me more entertained – and if you’re wondering if the game takes itself seriously, there’s an entire level that lasts about 20 seconds and it’s literally just the ending to Captain Phillips. That’s it. There are also some driving/crashing segments that are reminiscent of Need for Speed: Most Wanted, especially when they somehow integrate car stealth into the game in a level where you have to avoid enemy vehicles. It’s dumb, but honestly very fun. On the other hand, Gears of War was a close contender for my least-favourite because despite having an expansive alien world to take advantage of, it ended up being the least visually-appealing, the least-interesting, and almost the least-good, if it hadn’t been for one or two gameplay tweaks, like the area where you have to stay in the light to avoid a bunch of instant-death bats, then it would have ranked 5th out of 5.

But it still would’ve been 5th out of 6 if Spec Ops: The Line was in the group too! Because oh my God, even after playing a selection of the games that Spec Ops was trying to deconstruct, none of them even come close to how superiorly this game celebrates blandness, mediocrity and monotony. The entire game is the exact same cover-based shooting, with a few turret sections here and there, and occasionally a sandstorm occurs, at which point the gameplay changes ever so slightly by taking that cover-based shooting and removing all visibility and still demanding you kill enemies even though you can’t see them and can be two feet from one, spraying and praying with a full clip from your assault rifle, and still fail to hit anyone.

I can say one thing in Spec Ops’ half-defence. Spec Ops is so entirely intentionally not fun, with its story, both meta and otherwise, that it would be very unfitting if the game was genuinely a barrel of laughs to play. But gameplay doesn’t have to be just good or bad. There are plenty of games I can think of where the narrative is the focus, and as a result the gameplay takes a backseat. The Stanley Parable springs to mind – nobody found it inherently fun to walk from room to room, but at the same time, nobody would criticize the gameplay as ‘bad’ because it wasn’t the point. Telltale Games – and trust me, I have plenty of negative things to say about Telltale Games – also do this pretty well. In games like The Walking Dead, all you do is walk around a few locations, talk to people, and occasionally complete a Quick Time Event. But that’s not the focus of the game, so even if it’s not great, it doesn’t have a negative effect on the experience.

Spec Ops: The Line does not have that luxury. The gameplay is tied to the experience, and there’s a huge difference between the gameplay being uninspired and generic, and the gameplay actively being annoying. The amount of times you have to run uphill towards people firing at you with turrets, ducking back into cover to wait for your regenerating health to kick in, is unforgivable. And not to get on my high horse, but frankly I think it’s genuinely dishonest that more reviews of Spec Ops: The Line were so focussed on the story that they didn’t mention that the gameplay is akin to swimming through a pool of vomit. Utterly unenjoyable on every single level.

Bottom line, Spec Ops: The Line starts as it means to go on. And it starts with a turret section. Do you know what other game starts with a turret section? Ride to Hell: Retribution. Just saying.

Basic Plot

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When I say ‘basic’, I mean the self-contained story of the game that isn’t a commentary on video games and player agency and whatever the hell else Walt Williams thought he was writing about. This is just the story of a guy named Walker who made life a hell of a lot worse for a whole bunch of people due to his selfish desire to be seen as a hero, and the question of whether he deserves to be forgiven, or whether he even wants to be. But enough about the Nostalgia Critic.

Walker and his team of Lugo and Adams are sent into Dubai on a reconnaissance mission to find out exactly what went wrong in an evacuation attempt. Sandstorms were storming through Dubai and an infantry battalion of the US Army known as the ‘Damned 33rd’ were in charge of the efforts to get the citizens safely out of there, but no attempt was successful and there’s been a lot of reported infighting, followed by radio silence. Walker has been sent in to confirm the presence of survivors, and then radio in for support and leave. Given that the game is about 10-12 hours long, Walker does not radio in for support and leave, but rather makes the situation worse because everyone is on edge and everyone you run into wants to shoot you, only out of paranoia rather than malice.

As a set-up, it’s not too bad, but… okay, just because I’m not talking about what the game tries to say about the video game industry, doesn’t mean that the basic plot doesn’t have some pretty obvious messages too. It’s hard to tell exactly what the writers were trying to say, because speaking bluntly, they were all terrible and trying to do too many – occasionally contradictory – things at once, and I’ve read several interviews where, depending on the time of day and the name of the interviewer, they writers have decided that the game was explicitly anti-war, not explicitly anti-war, they really wanted to keep players inside Walker’s head, while also keeping players completely detached from what Walker was doing. Point is, I feel like there was no overarching theme that any of the writers were actually in agreement with each other on.

But in a Call of Duty game, three guys strolling into Dubai with their guns out would’ve uncovered a sinister conspiracy by the global elite, shot a bunch of vaguely foreign people, and then flew away in a helicopter to the tune of some garbage Bullet For My Valentine song while a hastily-written ending explains that they all got medals for saving the world. In Spec Ops, Walker and his crew constantly make things worse because they genuinely don’t know what’s going on and pretty soon their very presence is enough to justifiably make people want to kill them, which forces Walker to make things even worse and… none of this is inherently bad. It’s fairly anti-war and even specifically a little bit anti-American intervention, given that these people might sincerely want to help but they have no stable long-term plan to make things better, so it ends up being impossible to actually accomplish that. Which, hey, I’m an extremely anti-War guy, I don’t disagree with any of this, but what exactly does Spec Ops have to say about this that wasn’t said in 1970 by Edwin Starr?

War, huh! Yeah! What is it good for, absolutely nothing, say it again!

Also, minor gripe, but for a game to be tackling what appears to be a serious subject, when the meta plot is mostly about player agency in video games, it kind of feels like they had an opportunity to talk about a very big thing and then it turned out to be a not-so-big thing. No offense, I love video games about video games too, it just could have aimed a little bit higher. And that’s about as far into the meta as I can get, so let’s get back to basics.

One of the biggest reasons the story doesn’t work for me is that there are too many factions to keep track of. There’s the Damned 33rd, a failed rebellion of the Damned 33rd who were cast out and are possibly all dead before the game starts but they might also be some of the Damned 33rd you stumble across at some point. There’s a guy from the CIA who helps you out and a guy from the CIA who wants to kill everyone, and civilians, who only ever show up to die so that you feel bad. Let’s talk about the CIA a little bit more.

What I think the game was going for was having a character from the CIA, Gould, be nice and good and help you out, which instills in you a feeling that the CIA are the good guys here. Later, a guy named Riggs, also from the CIA, asks for some help in a mission. It turns out that he wants to destroy one of Dubai’s last remaining water supplies so that everyone will die, thus ensuring that nobody can find out about the Damned 33rd’s failed evacuation attempt. So what a shocker, it turns out that the CIA are actually the bad guys!

Except… when I found Gould nearer the beginning of the game, he was being interrogated by the Damned 33rd. And to try and make him talk, they were shooting civilians. So the CIA are the bad guys for trying to kill the civilians, but the Damned 33rd are interrogating the CIA by also shooting civilians, so… why exactly should I care about either of these sides, or anything about this situation? Everyone sucks. And it kind of undermines the white phosphorous incident later in the game, when you bomb a bunch of Damned 33rd soldiers and it turns out that there was a nest of civilians nearby that they were protecting and you killed them as well (casual spoiler for the biggest event of the mid-game) because on all sides of this conflict, everyone is already killing civilians. And that had a huge impact on my ability to care about the plot, because every side is terrible and the situation is so thoroughly and completely fucked that when the game tries to start telling me that I’m making things worse, all I can think is a sarcastic ‘Oh no, you’re right, civilians were dying in seven different ways and now I’ve accidentally bumped that number up to eight.’

But I very rarely felt that I was making things worse, or rather, I rarely felt that I was making things worse in a way that wouldn’t have happened in a few days’ time with no intervention. The writers did such a great job of constructing a morally bankrupt wasteland where everyone was terrible, that I just felt disconnected whenever it tried to hold me to task for any of the negative things that I did. And that’s probably a good point to switch over to the meta plot, because you know the negative things you do in this game? They’re mandatory. If you want to play the game, you have to do the things that the game will criticize you for doing. And I have some words to say about that.

Meta Plot

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Okay, so most of the words I have to say about that are actually just variations on the words ‘pretentious egotist fuckface’ but let’s continue anyway. I feel like I should apologize to Hideo Kojima, because I know that ‘You enjoy the killing, don’t you Snake?’ is one of those sentences that sums up an entire genre of storyline in video games. The deconstructive point of criticizing a player for enjoying the video game they’re playing in spite of the negative actions they’re causing. A blurring of the lines between fiction and reality that asks how morally upstanding you can be if you commit virtual war crimes for fun.

I have never, ever seen this done well.

For one thing, it’s way too close to the Fox News-esque “It was DOOM made those kids shoot up that school!” way of thinking. But the main reason I hate it is because it’s so smugly self-defeating, and I’m not talking specifically about Spec Ops’ message, but the intent of any message a game developer tries to put across which, comical or not, is intended to raise the question of whether the player is doing something wrong by playing the game. I have yet to see this done in a way that I wouldn’t describe as fundamentally wrong.

I know that ‘business’ and ‘art’ are almost seen as opposites, and for good reason, but video games cannot escape the fact that they are constructed in order to persuade people to buy them and play them. That’s not to say that every game has to be fun, but they do have to be rewarding in some way. And there’s something about designing a video game for people to spend money on so that the video game can criticize them for playing the video game, that strikes me as wrong on every possible level. That’s not a bold, daring move, having the guts to stand up to your audience. That’s condescension. That’s patronising. That’s genuinely asking people to give you money so that you can call them a piece of shit for giving you money.

The only game that I’ve played that came close to accomplishing this is Undertale, because that game does go out of its way to call you a piece of shit if you play it in your standard RPG ‘Kill the enemies to gain EXP!’ way, but the huge difference between Undertale and Spec Ops: The Line is that you genuinely do have alternative choices within the game. In Undertale, you have to go out of your way to play the game in a way that the game warns you is depressing and not fun, and it’s entirely your choice because there’s another way to play that’s much happier and more rewarding. In Spec Ops, there is no other choice.

Oh, wait, I’m sorry. The developers have said that you do have another choice. And that choice is to stop playing the game.

This is where we come back to what I would describe as ‘fundamentally wrong’. Because I know, I’m sure it’s all very artsy or some shit, but what you’re telling me, Yager Development, is that you want me to spend £30 on your game so that your game can criticize me for playing your game because the morally superior thing to do is not to play your game. Y’know what? I’m kind of glad that this game’s sales were disappointing. And I’m sure Yager are too; after all, they very clearly wanted people to not play their game, right?

This is just one element of the meta story that bugs me, but to cover all of the other elements would be extremely time-consuming because the team behind Spec Ops seemed to have a behind-the-scenes bet on who could deconstruct the most themes. This game is trying to deconstruct practically every element of game design; morality systems, player agency, the nature of choice, the role of a protagonist, action set-pieces, and as a result of trying really hard to deconstruct so many of these things, the game does a completely half-assed job of all of it. This game deconstructs morality systems in video games by not having one. It deconstructs player agency by giving the player no agency. It deconstructs the idea of Call of Duty games being fun by being Call of Duty, but with even less fun. It’s like when a contestant presents a deconstructed dish on a cookery shows; it’s done for no reason other than being different in the most pretentious way you can think of.

Anyway, the leading deconstruction, and the most consistent message I could find from several contradictory accounts, is that the game wants to examine what it means to take a life, even a fictional one, for the sake of entertainment. And the ham-fisted attempt at that is the white phosphorous incident halfway through the game. You attack the Damned 33rd with white phosphorous, only to discover that you’ve also killed a den of civilians, along with the people who were protecting them, even though these same people were murdering civilians just a few hours earlier in a different location because consistency is just another tool trying to prevent people from making art.

The big problem I have with this is that what the developers were going for was a (this word has lost all meaning to me) deconstruction of those moments in Call of Duty – let’s be specific, I remember one from Call of Duty 4 – where you take control of a helicopter or satellite or drone and shoot several dozen glowing heat signatures until your plucky band of four or-so heroes manages to escape from their predicament. In Call of Duty 4, there’s a scene just like that where you easily kill more than a hundred people thanks to the limitless missiles and hundreds of thousands of bullets in your helicopter.

But is what Spec Ops does really a deconstruction? In Call of Duty, the people you’re shooting are both very much not innocent civilians and very much trying to murder you. There’s a reason people find these reprieves fun; after slogging through waves of enemies who are intent on using your freshly-shot gall bladder to repaint their vacation homes, there’s something relaxing about getting to take out a few hundred of them with a plane or a drone or a droneplane. And while that does sound pretty violent, it’s the same kind of sentiment as when you play the level in Ghostbusters 2 on the SEGA Genesis where the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man attacks you intermittently throughout the entire level, and you finally get to defeat him at the end. It’s like that, only realistic and violent.

The weird thing here is that if the brains behind Spec Ops were trying to generally criticize the way in which certain games in this genre cater so much to this idea that it could possibly give people the notion to join the military because they would get similar enjoyment out of shooting several heat signatures attached to real people and not lines of code, then they would at least have something interesting to say, but they’ve stated several times that this is not an anti-War game, and it appears that their scope was strictly limited to talking about video games. So this ends up being a bland comparison of apples and oranges in which Spec Ops ends up wildly flailing its arms and saying “See? See? Isn’t this bad? Isn’t this situation that you’ve created bad?!?” To which a correct response is “Uh, yes. It is. What exactly are you trying to say here?” To which Spec Ops gestures vaguely in the direction of Call of Duty and hopes that you’re able to piece together some message out of the vague, non-committal ideas it presents.

The other weird thing here is that this could have worked as a deconstruction had they just played up the similarities between the situation they were presenting and the situation they were deconstructing. Take one of those Call of Duty setpieces with the helicopter, and have the protagonists walk through the aftermath of the attack. It turns out that one of the squads that was shot down was actually from a nearby military battalion who were coming to assist you, and you accidentally butchered them. Then, you come across this battalion, and in order to keep the boat from rocking, you’re forced to pretend that the accident didn’t happen, and the squad were simply killed by your enemies. You have to watch the pained reactions from these people as they come to terms with their friends’ deaths, and to top it off, right before you leave, they recover footage from the incident that shows that it was actually a US helicopter that shot them all. They don’t scream at you or try to kill you, but they’re brutally disappointed that your recklessness led to so many deaths, and that you lied to their faces about it. I came up with that idea in literally ten seconds. Walt Williams had five years, and the best he could come up with was ‘vague gesture in the direction of an idea’.

But there’s although the ending, which I believe is also vague enough that some people can gleam the appearance of an idea out of the mirage of inconsistent garbage that is thrown out, and it wouldn’t really be a discussion of the meta story without this. Once Walker kills a bunch of people with White Phosphorous, shortly afterwards he starts hearing the voice of Konrad, his personal hero and the leader of the Damned 33rd, over a walkie-talkie that upon closer inspection is completely broken. The rest of the game is Walker trying to reach Konrad, pausing only to shoot way more people and destroy a water supply, because do you get that the point is that you’re not making things better yet? Do you? No? Okay, the friendliest member of your team is also lynched by a mob of angry civilians – do you get it now?

When you reach Konrad, it turns out that he was dead all along and that Walker just invented a villain for himself because he couldn’t accept that the real villain was him. There’s a lot of ‘Walker is a metaphor for the player!’ stuff, with Konrad explicitly saying “You’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not. A hero.” The big problem here is that since Spec Ops is one of the first games to try this, it gets a free pass from – no offense – legions of pretentious fans for all the weird inconsistencies and ways this doesn’t work.

For one thing, Konrad is supposed to represent the game developers… ? Because if Walker is the player, then Konrad is the person they blame for the disasters they encounter that are actually their fault. Except the game developers literally programmed every bad thing you do, so to claim that it’s actually entirely your fault, and they were just innocent bystanders who created a world which would have remained perfectly happy, if only you had quit the game as soon as you started playing and never thought about it again – basically the same tactic as slamming a book shut and pretending that the ending doesn’t exist – is cheap and doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Also, if Konrad is the game developer, does that mean the game developer is dead? Because, y’know, if we’re talking creatively and financially, then that was a bang-on prediction, but otherwise it doesn’t add up.

Also, I’ve been told that there are several details in the game that vary slightly, like a hanged body appearing for a second that apparently foreshadows the death of a character, or your surroundings changing slightly depending on whether you shoot the FBI man who you helped to destroy the water supply. And normally I like changes like these, except I guarantee that the players who talk about how incredible these little touches are didn’t actually notice them. They watched Easter Egg videos on YouTube or read about it on TVTropes or in the lead writer’s book. Apparently Konrad’s face appears on billboards early on in Dubai, and it’s a sign of how Walker’s mind is already unravelling… except you haven’t seen Konrad in the game yet, so it just comes across as a picture of some random guy that you wouldn’t recognize unless you were on a second playthrough, because why let Walt Williams call you a piece of shit once when you could get it twice for free?

I think the biggest reason I dislike this is that Walt Williams doesn’t present an argument (‘You have made things worse, and video games like this should not empower violent acts like these.’) and then try to demonstrate why he’s correct. Instead, it’s just a furious but empty scream of ‘I am right, and you are a monster.’ followed by the sound of him giving himself a big pat on the back. In the book that he wrote, Significant Zero, he responds to the potential argument ‘But it’s just a video game!’ by first portraying the questioner as a stuttering fool who has already been destroyed by the sheer force of his logic, but by simply saying ‘No.’ There’s no actual counter-argument or reasoning, it’s just ‘This is what Walt Williams thinks art is and he thinks there is inherent artistic value in trying to make you angry and if you disagree then fuck you, just fuck you, okay?’

Speaking of Walt Williams and his book!

Writing

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I was so tempted to make this entire point ‘Lead Writer’ because Walt Williams was the main force behind this trainwreck of a storyline, and he also wrote an entire book about, amongst other things, his experiences making Spec Ops: The Line, because trust me, the guy who helped write Bioshock 2 – the best Bioshock game, I think we can all agree – and one terrible third-person shooter, has some truly prophetic ideas about how to change the video games industry. Although in the interests of honestly, he also worked on The Darkness, Mafia 2, and the first Bioshock, but I can’t make snippy remarks about those being poorly-received so screw ‘em.

Walt Williams is kind of an extreme person. Not an extremist or anything, but the kind of guy who always invokes very forceful reaction from me. Reading interviews/AMAs with him and extracts from his book paint the picture of a failed laboratory experiment where scientists were attempting to create pure, unbridled ‘smug’. But he also has a Twitter account where he’s currently talking about how dolphins are ‘rad af’, making fun of the New York Times, and saying things like this.

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So basically what I’m trying to say is that Walt Williams is the personification of the pervasive superior pretentiousness of the artsy indie video game scene, but also that he is a goddamn national treasure and we need to make sure that he is preserved at all costs. It is nice to remind myself that Walt is no egotistic supervillain specifically trying to say things that annoy me at all times, and he’s just a guy with his own, admittedly quite unique and interesting, opinions on the video game industry.

But God damn if he doesn’t make it difficult to remember that sometimes.

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This is from Walt’s book, Significant Zero, which is probably an accurate description of his talents. In it, Walt talks about his experiences working on various video game titles, and his beliefs about the industry and video games as an art form. And Jesus H. tap-dancing Christ, it’s, uh… it goes a long way to explaining why I think Spec Ops is pretentious garbage. I honestly thought that if I went into this book, it would open my eyes and make me feel humbled and probably a bit foolish for misreading Walt’s intentions, but nope. Fair play to him though, writing a book is difficult at the best of times, and it can’t be easy to produce one when your head is lodged entirely inside your own rectum.

Minor gripe to begin with, but Walt talking about creating difficult choices in video games when Spec Ops contains spectacularly few choices and they’re all either meaningless, patronising (just stop playing the game, duh!) or inconsequential. None of them are burned into my mind, Walt. Secondly… oh God, I feel like I don’t have to point this out, but the over-defensiveness mixed with the hostility – you can see why I think this game and this guy are incredibly pretentious, right?

“I can hear your sad little cries all the way from the future. “B-b-but it’s just a game!” No.”

Okay, so… Walt Williams pre-emptively believes that any negative feedback he gets from Spec Ops: The Line players, or disagreements with his way of thinking, are sad little cries from people who can barely string five words together without stuttering because they are so intimidated, or in awe, or just outright cucked by Walt Williams’ superior galaxy-sized brain. This… you know what would be nice? I understand that Walt is going after the people who disagree with his opinion, and presumably don’t like his game, but it would be fantastic if a Spec Ops: The Line fan could acknowledge that being unbelievably obnoxious like this is maybe not the best idea. Because I have a great deal more to say about the Spec Ops: The Line fandom, but the idea that ‘It’s okay that he’s being the most grating, self-important tosser right now, because he’s talking about people who I also disagree with!’ is not a great look.

As for Walt’s explanation, I don’t know if I’m missing something but it just sounds like word salad. I have the image in my head of Walt Williams trying to redeem a Pizza Hut coupon at Burger King, and when the cashier tries to inform him of his mistake, he starts shouting about how “You don’t get to deny me my choice. Not since we decided that it was *finger-quotes* cool to be *more finger-quotes* transgressive!” Transgressive being something the crosses moral or social boundaries, often in an uncomfortable way, it sounds a lot like Walt Williams genuinely thinks that he has made the first ever video game that criticizes players for doing bad things.

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This follows up that train of thought. Walt considers one conversation in which one of his superiors says that in video games, players often have to be made to feel correct, and concludes that this guy doesn’t only represent the video game industry as a whole, but also that this is ‘the most insightful and damning description of video games that I had ever heard.’ This poses the important question – has Walt Williams ever played a fucking video game in his life?

Hey Walt, there’s this game called Shadow of the Colossus where you kill beautiful, majestic creatures, some of whom don’t even fight back against you, and you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and it doesn’t turn out great. In Command & Conquer: Red Alert, one of the first levels concludes with a cutscene where one of your planes guns down an innocent family, including a poignant shot of a little girl’s stuffed toy. Your superior immediately congratulates you on a job well done. It’s pretty dissonant.

There’s also Bioshock (A man chooses, a slave obeys!) and the aforementioned Metal Gear Solid series (You enjoy all the killing, that’s why!) and various other games less focussed on player agency but still wholeheartedly containing negative courses of action that lead to the game drawing your attention to the fact that said courses of action would only have been chosen by a real piece of shit. Walt Williams’ ground-breaking revelation about player agency is neither ground-breaking nor even a revelation. The only thing Spec Ops did different was slam the player with this message so loudly and unsubtly and condescendingly that people felt irritated instead of inspired.

And that’s a big problem that links the intent of Walt Williams with the reaction from the fanbase. Walt Williams made this game with the intent that your average Call of Duty player would pick it up, find it unrewarding, and get angry when the game continued not to reward them and instead spiralled them into committing even worse acts for a reward that never comes, and eventually the game just outright says ‘You’re playing this because you want to feel good but this isn’t good so nyeh-heh-heh, enjoy your depressing, unsatisfying conclusion.’ There are two problems I have with making a game with the intent of purposefully making the audience angry. A) Just on a personal level, it’s the exact same tactic as the guy who posts pictures of his dick on a forum for sexual abuse survivors, right up until the moment he gets banned and tries to hastily add that the entire thing was a social thought experiment or some bullshit. B) It doesn’t require any skill. Literally, none. I absolutely despise how people have assigned a value to how efficiently or thoroughly you can anger someone. This is shitposting, not art.

And let’s round it up to three things because C) I also utterly despise the reaction of the people who ‘get it’. The people who play the game and think ‘Ah, this is wonderful, because I agree with Walt Williams, and therefore, he is not talking about me. He is talking about the mindless, gullible Medal of Honor players, and their stupid games that are not as smart or intellectually challenging as the games that I like. He has won my respect and praise, but I can see how… lesser-minded people would instead react with anger, thus playing into his masterful trap.’ I’m obviously being a little bit over the top, but I really can’t emphasize this enough; intentionally or not, Spec Ops: The Line has created one of the most elitist, self-satisfied fandoms, because Walt Williams crafted this game to perfectly cultivate one. I don’t really see how it’s possible to like Spec Ops: The Line without liking that other people don’t like it. And to like something because other people – people who like to play games that you don’t – don’t like it, is honestly kind of fucked up.

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A final word, but since I just brought up elitism, in one of Walt’s latest interviews, he bemoans that it’s impossible for a triple-A title to be ‘art’. Which, whether you agree with him or not, is almost the definition of elitism. It’s not a point of view that isn’t backed up with mountains of evidence – the number of games I consider art (Papo & Yo, Actual Sunlight, Braid, possibly LISA – lots of generic picks, I’ll admit) are basically all indie, with only a few Metal Gear Solids and Bioshocks – Bioshock Infinite especially got a good reaction in this regards, although it appears to have died down more recently – making the cut – but I find the inherent idea that art can only be made by small teams to be defeatist. The idea that we should completely rule out looking for depth and meaning in anything that was made by a larger company with a double-digit number of staff is pessimistic and wrong, in my opinion. Yes, most of the braindead garbage on the market is churned out systematically by these exact same companies, but it’s entirely possible for a large team to make a work of art too. I think this just bugs me because it links into that same idea – the reason why I’m quickly growing to hate the ‘arty’ indie scene – that in order for something to be art, it has to be weird and alienating to all but a select few, and not bound by the same rules as triple-A titles, such as… not being a fucking chore to play. When I read a passage from Walt Williams’ book, I called it pretentious, and one of my online friends replied ‘Welcome to art!’ and while I can understand why, I absolutely hate the idea that art has to be pretentious, or in Spec Ops’ case, that something pretentious has to be art.

Fanbase

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I’m no nihilist, but as the owner of a Twitter account, I am fully aware that there are a great deal of assholes on this planet. And it’s for this reason that I tend not to ever taken fanbases into account when I judge something, because anything popular tends to have a notably bad fanbase because the more people there are in a group, the higher the likelihood of the presence of assholes. That’s why, despite making more than a few jokes about irate Rick and Morty fans demanding Szechuan sauce from overworked McDonalds employees, I tend not to judge things like Undertale or Five Nights at Freddy’s on their apparently bad fanbases.

Spec Ops: The Line is, once again, kind of an exception. Let’s talk about its most famous and respected supporter in the world of video games.

I am, bluntly speaking, not a big fan of Zero Punctuation or of Yahtzee. I think that when The Escapist put Ben Croshaw (Yahtzee) next to Jim Sterling, it highlighted how one of these characters has a larger-than-life ego which is clearly intended to be a joke, which in itself turns the persona into an act of slight self-deprecation, and the other character genuinely sounds like he hates you and wishes you were dead. I know, I know, before you feel the urge to Yahtzsplain all over me, I know that Ben has stated several times that not only does he exaggerate his feelings on video games a lot of the time, but that he also hates the idea that video game reviewers can somehow have a negative effect on someone else’s enjoyment of the game, as if it somehow detracts from your enjoyment to know that someone else doesn’t like something as much as you. Which is kind of like a reverse-Spec Ops, given that the whole game is angrily trying to annoy people who play and enjoy Call of Duty games.

But generally, I’m not a big Zero Punctuation fan. Being over-the-top obnoxiously self-satisfied and acting superior, even for a joke, wears really thin if you make mistakes, and I’m not talking about just having opinions about video games that I disagree with. Not to say that he doesn’t have opinions that I don’t disagree with; I’m not exactly aiming to rally the crowd to my defence here (if I was then I’d probably mention Super Smash Bros) but remember how I mentioned that I played Medal of Honor: Warfighter and ended up enjoying it for the sheer ludicrousness of some of the levels, the passable gunplay and the interesting and actually really fun in the Burnout 2 ‘Ha ha ha, enjoy driving directly into oncoming traffic, enemy car that I just nudged into the way of a big fucking truck!’ way vehicle sections? Yahtzee reviewed it, and, um.

He got 90 minutes in, to roughly Mission 3 (of 13), said it was too boring for him to continue playing, and then decided – having played less than a quarter of the game – that it was bland boring garbage and also one of the worst examples of a generic modern military shooter in history. He later named it the 2nd worst game of the year, again, without getting further than halfway through Mission 3. He’s saying this about a game he knows almost nothing about, and here’s a kicker. Do any of the people reading this know how Medal of Honor: Warfighter ends? Because I do, and I’m here to spoil it for you, because god damn have you artsy fartsy more-refined-than-thou critics been missing out!

There’s a very generic end level, and in the final cutscene, the player character is being award the Medal of Honor (get it? Do you get it?) and everything is great. Until… the player character keeps flashing back to the horrible memories of the things they’ve survived, and the things they’ve done. It keeps flashing back and forth from the happy ceremony with everyone smiling and applauding and there are literally balloons and confetti, and these burning wastelands filled with the screams of the dying. And, y’know, the game isn’t saying ‘Yeah, you really suck for blowing up this boat!’ because the boat was carrying explosives and heading for a major capital city, but it definitely highlights that this kind of thing doesn’t wind up as a happy moment in your scrapbook. These events weren’t exactly unnecessary, but they also weren’t worth celebrating or glorifying.

The final scene of the game is the player character sat at their desk when the phone rings, and it’s the mission control from all of the previous levels. They’re calling you back in for ‘one last job’ and talking about how you’re ‘the only man who can get the job done’ and you just politely refuse because you can’t go back to that world any more, and you’re sincerely making an effort to get out of it. There’s a really profound line here that I’m forgetting, which is irritating, but in a final nice touch, there’s a note on your calendar reminding you of an upcoming therapy appointment, and it’s written in your wife’s handwriting. You have to admit, that’s a pretty nice way to end a game, especially a trigger-happy gung-ho game with a name like ‘Medal of Honor: Warfighter’.

Ok, so…

I’m trying to put off revealing that I totally just made all of that shit up. Warfighter ends with you shooting the really bad guy and then I think it was just credits, I was barely paying attention. But the terrible point I’m trying to make here is that I absolutely bet that some of you who haven’t played the game actually believed me when I said all of that ridiculous nonsense. Because you haven’t played the game, you haven’t looked into the game, and you didn’t really know or care how it ended. And in this case, your assumption was right, but I think it’s important to float the possibility that things were better than you anticipated and you just didn’t realise it. Case in point – a real point this time – Call of Duty: Ghosts. Every person I’ve talked to about this game brings up how at the very end, you kill millions of people with a space laser. Just thoughtlessly wiping out a continent of living, breathing, thinking people, without pause for thought. And they have a point; that would be a pretty disgusting thing to happen in a game.

Except it fucking doesn’t.

See, in this case, I’m actually not lying. You kill maybe a few hundred people with your *sighing as I realise that saying the next few words contribute to the defeat of whatever point I’m trying to make* space-laser, and it’s worth noting that those people are literally driving tanks towards you, shouting ‘I’m going to kill you dead and take over the world because I’m a two-dimensional placeholder villain in a Call of Duty game!’ So, no, you do not wipe out all of South America with a space-laser. So why does everything I’ve talked to think that you do?

Well… Yahtzee says that you do. In his review, he says that that’s what happens. And it couldn’t possibly be that his fans believed a negative thing about a video game they didn’t like but hadn’t played, without checking that it was true, right? I swear I’m not just writing this to make snippy remarks about a handful of people I’ve encountered who are fans of a video game critic who I am not a fan of, but there is genuinely a point here. If it doesn’t apply to you, I’m not talking about you, but you do have to honestly acknowledge that there are a lot of fans of this guy who take his word to be the gospel truth. Which is kind of why I hate that he has so much influence – he’s basically the South Park of video game reviewers. “Everything is garbage, except for maybe four games per year, and liking any of these games makes you a mentally deficient sheep-fucker and you should do the world a favour and kill your entire family for the crime of not killing you sooner. Ha ha, only joking. Mostly. Without the fast voice and the British accent, I’m basically just a 4chan post written by an Angry Video Game Nerd parody.”

Anyway, Yahtzee very famously doesn’t like modern military shooters, and in the world of art video games, modern military shooters are SCUM. They are the opposite of art. They are shooty shooty pow pow dead yippee you win credits please pay us another $60 next year for the same experience only now the people you’re shooting are a slightly different minority. The weird thing is, I also think that these games are pretty terrible. The Call of Duty game I enjoyed the most of the three I played was Ghosts. Ghosts. If that doesn’t say something terrible about the genre then I don’t know what does.

So Yahtzee doesn’t exactly do much to inspire the ‘art games’ crowd, but he does consistently shit on every Call of Duty game post Modern Warfare and every Medal of Honor, Battlefield, Sniper Elite, etc… a bunch of games that I probably think are rubbish too. But… and this is the one point that I don’t really have an example for, but I’m still going to throw it out there – if there’s one thing that art connoisseurs enjoy more than art, it’s the feeling that comes from thinking that you’re better than someone else. Again, obviously not all of them, but… the word ‘pretentious’ exists for a reason.

So what gets me here is the combination of terrible events. Yahtzee, who has fostered a fanbase (partly – I realise that I am being pretty flagrant about describing large groups of people here so please take this with several pinches of salt) of people who enjoy that he shits on 90% of video games, and particularly that he hates those damned modern military shooter games enjoyed almost exclusively by those Xbox-headset-wearing, tantrum-throwing, PewDiePie-subscribing, once screamed at their own mother for ‘distracting’ them because she attempted to bring them some refreshing snacks, children. And he really likes a game that deconstructs how shallow and terrible these games are.

That’s another minor thing; I hate that Yahtzee saved Yager from the self-inflicted hell they had rightfully earned that was marketing this game. Spec Ops was intentionally identical on the surface to only the most generic and bland modern third-person shooter, and to reveal that it was actually aiming for more than that would spoil the twist, so they were doomed to sell a game that would only sell a handful of copies, solely to people who they were intending to anger. That’s a recipe for disaster and commercial failure, and yet Yahtzee had to go and reveal to the world that it was actually *not enough finger-quotes in the world* ‘deep’, and his fans, themselves willing to lavish praise on anything that agreed with them that Call of Duty was literally ruining society, flocked to the golden child.

… I know that I’ve said it in passing a few times but I really do need to state again, because I’m dangerously close to implying that I think that I’m superior to all of the ‘gullible Spec Ops fans’, that this doesn’t apply to everyone who watches Zero Punctuation videos, or everyone who has played Spec Ops: The Line, or everyone who thinks Call of Duty is garbage. Because I’m all three of those things too! I just think that all of these elements combined to create something incredibly terrible. A game that was, let’s say, ambitious, was instantly surrounded by an impenetrable wall of fans who adore it because it says ‘I also dislike the thing that you dislike, and the people who like those things are bad. Let’s try to piss them off.’

I still believe what I said at the beginning, that judging products based on their fanbases is stupid and not really a fair way of judging, well, anything really, but I also believe this, because it’s happened to me, and it’s true. I have never, ever, come across a larger group of people who say the following things:

“Look, you just don’t get it. Okay? You don’t get it.”

“You don’t understand – since the game was designed to make you feel angry, then if you don’t like it, that’s just the game succeeding!”

“I think it’s really brave of the developer that they made a game that was *objectively bad adjective* on purpose, you know?”

“I appreciate it when a developer has the guts to tell me that I should stop playing their game.”

And my personal favourite. Not a lie, multiple people have said this to me.

“It’s designed badly/a chore to play/stale and repetitive on purpose!”

They purposefully made it bad. And that’s why it’s good.

In short, I truly believe (I should’ve put this bit sooner because it’s the closest I’m going to get to sounding intelligent) that there is a spectrum of anti-intellectualism. On the one end, you’ve got, well, anti-intellectualism. “Boo! I don’t want to have to think about things in my games! I just want to shoot some people and then get told that I’m the best person ever, and all games should be like this!” But the other end of that spectrum isn’t happy, enlightened people who appreciate games with loftier goals than just ‘fun’; that would be near the middle. The other end of the spectrum is “You pathetic babies, you play games for fun? You intellectually-starved cretins. I wish you at least had the intelligence to realise how much smarter I am than you, because while you’re playing Mario or Pac-Man, I’m over here at the grown-ups table playing an RPG Maker game about the Holocaust.”

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The reason I brought up Yahtzee so much is that an interesting thing happens in that Medal of Honor: Warfighter review. In spite of not even playing the game for more time than it takes for me to cook a batch of enchiladas, he immediately brought up Spec Ops: The Line. He says ‘I don’t understand why games like Warfighter are still even being made! Spec Ops: The Line showed them all up for being stupid, pathetic, shallow empowerment fantasies! You’ve been rumbled! You should be slinking away with your tails between your legs!’ Again, I understand the persona, the critic, he might not be being serious although he probably is, but he’s genuinely stating that a game series that he doesn’t like that is nonetheless enjoyed by a million or so people, shouldn’t have bothered to produce another game, because… he likes a different game, and this other game says that the first game is garbage. He would almost certainly have had that opinion without Spec Ops: The Line, but it’s still interesting to me, because sarcastic or not, it’s another ingredient in this perfect failure. Spec Ops: The Line apparently proves that nobody should make games for the people who don’t agree with Spec Ops: The Line.

This ended up being by far the most personal part of the blog, which is why it’s also so erratic and probably judgemental, so I would like to say again that you absolutely don’t have to agree with me – I’m not sure I entirely agree with myself – regarding why it’s terrible that Spec Ops: The Line has a fanbase. But I think you do have to agree that this combination; a video game critic and audience who hate modern military shooters, a clunky video game whose lead writer was actively trying to anger people who like modern military shooters, and the arty video game scene who look at modern military shooters the same way you look at things that stick to the bottom of your shoes, and conclude that this has all of the ingredients for one of the most toxically elitist fandoms out there.

Also while it’s much less serious, I should point out that my problems with Yahtzee apply to his more-than-a-decade long reviewing career, so any anger I have towards his 2012 opinions don’t necessarily still apply now, and I genuinely believe he has become a better reviewer as he gradually realised that it was okay to say that he liked things, and he doesn’t have comically over-exaggerate the flaws of everything, and his opinions can still be respected, even though – hold on, he just reviewed the new God of War. He says that Kratos trying to raise a child without really knowing how, is really boring and just assimilating the franchise into the triple-A scene, and that the old, angry, urghle-burghle smouldering with generic rage all of the time Kratos was actually interesting.

Never mind, fuck it, ignore that guy and his stupid opinions forever.

Conclusion

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Whew! You made it! And so did I! I somehow typed out these 9,000+ (don’t say the meme) words without exploding into rage or smashing up my keyboard or getting banned from Twitter for sending suggestions to Walt Williams for his next game; how about an RPG where you load it up and it just says “Fuck you!” and then closes itself and uninstalls and you have to re-buy and re-download it and it costs $500? The art crowd would eat that up; it’s actually a commentary on the state of the sale and ownership of video games, and the practises that developers can get away with if their advertising is targeted to – okay, shit, this is actually sounding plausible now.

I say this at the end of every blog, but I genuinely mean it in a really big way; thank you! Thanks for reading this entire… I don’t know what to call it; a mind-map? A collision of thoughts and ideas related to the multitude of reasons why I didn’t enjoy Spec Ops: The Line. It took a long time for me to write this, and it probably took even longer to read – that doesn’t make any sense – but you made it and I’m so proud of you all right now. I guess I should finish with some inspirational summation of my points.

If I had to pick the single reason why I most hated Spec Ops: The Line, it would be because it has unintentionally – or, fuck, maybe intentionally – become the poster child of games shitting on games, which leads to gamers feeling smugly superior to other gamers, and I don’t give a flying fuck if you think you’re making art or not; that it not something that we need right now. And I just don’t buy the messages about art that Walt or may not have been trying to say, but definitely came across in Spec Ops. “It’s not art unless you’re making someone angry.” That sounds pretty deep, and it’s not like history isn’t filled with things to infuriated millions but had undoubtable cultural value, but I reject it on every single principle. It’s possible to make art that makes people happy. It’s possible to deliver an insightful message that fills people with hope. It’s possible to deliver a unique commentary on something in a way that makes people feel good about themselves.

If you found something in Spec Ops: The Line, I’m happy for you – I really am. But if the message you took from Spec Ops: The Line is that on some level, you are superior in some way to the kind of people who would’ve been angered by the message it was attempting to put across, then… I don’t think that’s right. And maybe I didn’t need 9,437 words to say that, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

I have no idea if that’s profound or not so once again, thank you for reading! This was kind of a big project so please let me know if you liked it, or hated it, or gave up halfway through and skipped to the end.

Thank – Spec Ops: The Line is pretentious garbage – you!

-The Dopefish

One thought on “The Many Pretentious Failings of Spec Ops: The Line

  1. Thank you for writing this. Your essay was a breath of fresh air.

    I finished the game an hour or two ago.
    I didn’t feel the game sucked as bad as you thought it did: while I certainly agree it was obnoxiously in-your-face at times (and now that I know – thanks to your post – more about the writer guy behind it, I realize that the in-your-facedness was indeed as shallow as it seemed), it left enough of interpretive leeway, enough open leads for me not to hate it. Some nice small narrative touches, great environmental design (kinda reminded me of this eerily similar, and similarly flawed, game called “Remember Me”), overall decent gameplay.

    But I do agree with your overall point.
    Too many people are being too fucking smug about this game and are all but eager to get dragged into the self-perpetuating, circlejerkular spiral of smugness. It’s superficial, doesn’t lead to quality games, or game-related discussion, and one think I’d like to add is – it actually feels dangerous in a twisted, slightly-hard-to-explain, way.

    Let me try, though..
    Talking about artsy, “oooh this game/book/etc. is so meta” type people is dangerous because by the very act of declaring myself as some who “knows better”, who is “above and beyond” – I could ironically end up becoming *myself* one of these hateable smug pretentious types, by the very fact of pretending to be “above” them in some way – I would get sucked down into the spiral from my imaginary, non-judgmental, ostensibly all-accepting cloud.
    ..It’s not a subject I enjoy dwelling on, so let’s move on..

    The reason why I’m even here is that one of these customary things I do after finishing an intentionally confusing game that I’m not sure how I should feel about, – is just to go online and google up people’s opinions and read and read and read, forming a patchwork “conclusion” about the game and ticking it off on my mental list; as in “this cultural product has been processed, made sense of, and can now be put back onto the shelf; time for the next one, then..”

    I kind of feel bad for doing this, though, because all I tend to find when I google around (from queries like “spec ops the line explain plot reddit”) like that is dedicated fans voicing all these seemingly well-argued, smart-sounding theories, incorporating myriads of these little things I myself had missed.
    It all ends up being somehow somewhat depressing and it makes me feel like shit. It’s as if I’m bad for not seeing or noticing this or that moment at a certain point in the game, or for not going the extra mile and developing my flaccid temporary sensation of “having enjoyed” of the game into a full-on hard-on with multiple replays and MS Word files documenting any minor detail I happen upon, etc. etc., then discussing that with people – all the stuff that being a “fan” seems to entail.

    It is hard to explain this feeling. It’s as if I’m “supposed” to replay the fucking game and “connect all the dots” in my own unique way or whatever, as if that’s what every responsible game-player does, but I’m way too fucking lazy for that. My conclusions, if there are any, are not well-formed. I may not remember the plot, or the main character’s names, or some major “plot twist”, if asked about the game the very next day, or hour, or even as I’m playing it.
    So there’s just this double-bind of feeling like shit for not having those damn dots connected, but also not giving a shit about actually going out there and collecting them, because there are other things to do.

    This was supposed to be a discussion of your post, but it turned into a mini-rant on subjects of personal concern.
    Thanks again for this post, and for your blog. At least two people now read it from start to end.
    I appreciate the honesty, the humor, and the refreshing long-windedness. You have a great style and deserve respect and appreciation for it.
    ..
    I feel like we could make good penpals
    or at least you would.

    Liked by 1 person

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