Two Men, Two Hells

Why the lead characters of Binary Domain and Spec Ops: The Line transcend the shooter genre.

By: Alexandra Geraets

Filed Under: Criticism


Character development is something often ignored in video games, especially the third person shooter genre. When it comes to the games in this particular field, narratives are secondary to game play, and game play follows a standard set of rules, involving familiar linear pathways, generic villains, intense shoot outs, and plenty of cover. Stories pad out the game play in shooters, stringing the player along, encouraging the movement from place to place, but usually one is not playing a third or first person shooter for the narrative. In these types of games, the characters on screen are less important than what they are being told to do by the player. The characters are simply stand-ins; they serve no other purpose.

This year, two particular games forced me to reconsider the third person shooter, because they push character development to the front and center of their narratives. Binary Domain and Spec Ops: The Line are two very different games, one a science-fiction narrative with an emphasis on what separates a real person from the machines he is fighting, while the other is a military horror story, exploring the events that can separate a man from his morals and turn him into a monster. The two lead characters face their individual hells, but one comes out a better man for it, the other emerges as more of a thing than a person. That two video games can dive so deeply into their leads’ psyches and create a lasting impression on a player suggests that video game writing is joining the ranks of the most important creative writing in the field right now.

The science fiction robot-destruction fest that is Binary Domain offers a rough and tumble, casually violent, bravado-spewing protagonist, Dan Marshall. Marshall’s carefree approach to life, his reckless, genial if irritating bro-attitude – these traits form his initial character. He is a familiar enough character, quick with a pithy quip, unconcerned with the consequences of his actions, and yet interested enough in the welfare of his cohorts that he’ll try to protect them when necessary. He is the kind of character shooter fans gravitate towards.

Spec Ops: The Line offers a more professional soldier in the form of Captain Martin Walker, a man more interested in getting out and getting home than in anything else. His attitude is that of the career man, one who has seen enough to make him slightly weary, but not enough to bother him. He is a very human man. A calm, focused soldier, interested in getting his mission accomplished and being a good leader for his squad, but easy going enough to laugh when one of their trio tells a joke.

The characters of Marshall and Walker are different enough that one would never mistake them for the same archetypical genre lead. There are turning points for both men, however, where their actions and the consequences of those actions, send them down very different paths. These are not the straight lines projected in their initial introduction, and these are not the familiar places men like them go. Marshall is on a path of destruction from the beginning of his story; Walker is on a path of salvation. That they end up in such radically opposite places showcases a vast step forward for character development in games.

There is a segment approximately one-third of the way into Binary Domain where Marshall abandons his squad to save other crew members trapped within a facility, water rising rapidly to drown them. While his current mission takes priority over all other things, Marshall concludes that he cannot sacrifice his allies if he hopes for victory. It is the first selfless act Marshall makes in the game, the first action he takes that does not put him or others at unnecessary risk, and as he battles through enemies on his own, determined to save the ones left behind, he does so knowing he cannot waste time. When his actions prove a success, saving two lives in the process, a newer side of him emerges, still the casual protagonist, but someone who is growing to care about more than his own self interests.

The turning point in Spec Ops: The Line also comes about the one-third mark. Walker and his colleagues approach a convoy, and, enraged by the pointless horrors and casual violence they have seen, decide to use an enemy’s weapon against them. It is a sequence that has no alternative approach, and the player participates and watches as Walker’s orders rain chaos and destruction down on the enemy. When the battle has ended, Walker and crew wander through the aftermath, discovering the casualties of their chemical weapon attack: men burning alive, dying slowly, and, then, the horrific realization that dozens of innocent civilians were caught in the attack. Walker’s men react with shock, horror, and regret. Walker orders them to move on, and shows no reaction.

These two events prove the start of each man’s evolution. Marshall moves forward from the moment he makes the selfless choice to risk his own life for others, slowly changing from the familiar, carefree man-child to a more confident, focused, and capable soldier. He becomes the professional that the game’s few glimpses into his background imply he might have once been. When he embraces this side of himself, even as he maintains his good humor, Marshall becomes a more relatable character, showing a willingness to work with his team, trusting them as they trust him, accepting that he might not always be correct, but he can still try to do the right thing.

Walker moves forward as well, shifting from focused and professional to a man obsessed with completing his task, regardless of the fallout. From the moment his great mistake occurs, he pushes on, convinced that he is still on the side of right, that he is still a good man, and can be a hero in a desperate situation. Consumed by his own delusions, convinced of his own righteousness, to the point where he can rationalize anything, Walker’s personality begins its downward spiral into insanity. It is a perverse character evolution, portraying a man who is so intent on being right, and on being the hero of his story, that he risks everything to prove it.

What Binary Domain and Spec Ops: The Line do so differently from the dozens of other shooters on the market is allow their characters to drive the story forward. Following the story, and the lead characters, drags the player farther and farther into their worlds, showing just how far the medium can go in some instances. Dialogue and character interactions drive these games and these particular stories to their conclusions.

Binary Domain offers a serious look at one group hunting another down based on the simple fact that it exists. The game even offers a blunt rationale of why some people choose to commit genocide in its closing moments, a chillingly accurate assessment that one character’s hatred of another’s parentage is justification enough for his actions. It is this simple explanation in the story that finally pushes Dan Marshall to consider all of his actions, to consider why he is so intent on slaughtering machines, even as this activity pushes him farther and farther away from his own idea of what humanity is. His character changes over the course of the story into a more tolerant, even forgiving, person, willing to listen, prepared to disobey those orders he clearly knows are wrong. He changes from hot-headed and reckless to a less impulsive, more understanding person. Marshall ultimately changes for the better, becoming a hero that a video game player would be happy to play.

Spec Ops: The Line pushes its characters into impossible situations, each one worse than the one prior to it, with choices that range from bad to unthinkable. That a city is dying as the characters wander through it, that a society has completely broken down under the weight of those who thought they could protect it, these events are not enough to prevent horrible things from happening. Watching the aftermath of each successive narrative choice, and the eventual shattering of Martin Walker’s conscience, is brutal and nightmarish. The narrative puts him through a physical and psychological hell, pushing him closer and closer to the brink of madness, until the reality of the situation – and the unnerving realization that the player is complicit in every action he takes – finally hits him.

Walker cannot be wrong, and this is the driving force behind his destruction. He is consumed with the desire to be a hero, to be the one to save the day. That he fails is not as important as the destruction of his character. In the course of the narrative, Spec Ops: The Line pushes Walker until he’s not straddling the metaphorical line between human and not, he’s washed it away in blood and sweat. There is no line for him, there is no returning to his humanity, no redemption of any kind. It’s not simple enough to label him as a villain; he is something without a name. By the game’s conclusion, he’s walking, talking, and breathing, but he might as well be a corpse for all the life left in him.

Two narratives, of two genres, character driven and invested in making the player push forward through those same characters. That the two men, Marshall and Walker, begin in similar places, and conclude their journeys at opposite sides, is no simple thing. The pacing of their respective stories leads each man into situations that have no good outcome, yet they find vastly different ways to come to terms with the person they are, and what they eventually become. One changes into a better man; the other evolves into a primal thing that is more animal than human.

Binary Domain and Spec Ops: The Line shake up the familiar third person shooter story by placing the emphasis on their characters, and encouraging players to think about how these characters are going about their actions, and what kind of people they will become due to cause and effect. By developing their lead characters’ personalities through situations grim, impossible, and conscience testing, these two games represent a solid step forward for narrative emphasis and character-guided games. It is a step in the right direction, a most welcome peek into the future of story-centered games.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Criticism

About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.

7,309 Responses to “Two Men, Two Hells”

  1. Zedric Dimalanta

    I’ve only ever played the demo for Spec Ops: The Line so I can’t really say anything about it beyond my basic impressions (I do plan on picking it up eventually, as it seems different enough in tone from your typical rah-rah military shooter), but I wholeheartedly agree with your observations regarding Binary Domain.

    What really impressed me too about Binary Domain is how the story went beyond the usual philosophical meanderings about the blurring line between human and robot identity common in Japanese science-fiction and went back to tie into the socio-political themes found in the “original” robot story, Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, R.U.R.

    I’ve written at length about Antony Johnston’s writing in Binary Domain if you’re interested in checking it out:

  2. Thomas Higgins

    I am currently playing Spec Ops: The Line. I am way past the bit where the demo stops and any relationship it may have had on a superficial level with games like Call of Duty or Battlefield has already been buried under an avalanche of horror that I as a player and Walker as a character have been responsible for. I knew about the most savage event in the game, that of the white phosphorous attack on the Damned 33rd’s compound, that ends up with the slaughtering of innocent civilians but seeing videos online and hearing about it on forums doesn’t really prepare you for when you do it yourself.

    When you as your character get killed often enough in the attempt to do the attack, your enemies stop being people and start being targets. Targets that fall when hit. I was angry enough at them to dehumanize them and to do anything it took to stop them from shooting at me. Even when I knew what was going to happen. Walker is right. There was no choice. I am not really sure how to feel about that.

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