Killing is Harmless & ideas are free

2012’s ebook Killing is Harmless, by prolific critic Brendan Keogh, is a unique beast. It is perhaps the first effort in videogames criticism to execute a book-length close reading of a single videogame title.

Despite the immense boost in the volume and public recognition of videogames criticism over the past few years – thanks in part to the appearance of games writing roundup site Critical Distance, a range of high-profile criticism-dedicated games blogs and efforts by larger entities such as Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Kotaku to either publish or publicise videogames criticism – a concerted effort such as Killing is Harmless has not, until now, been attempted.

That it chooses as its subject the game Spec Ops: The Line – perhaps the most unexpected critical darling of 2012 – is appropriate. Spec Ops took many by surprise. Its blending of the staid military third-person shooter genre with a cutting and vitriolic critique of modern warfare and the psychology of soldiers impressed me greatly despite my initial prejudices. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the game, Spec Ops focused narratively on both the perception of ‘humanitarian intervention’ as a positive force in the modern world and the experience of engaging with a fictional narrative situated in the context of modern warfare.

Upon learning of the existence of Killing is Harmless I was immediately excited. As a writer and hobbyist critic who in the last few years has focused predominantly on games it felt obvious that this book represented something new, fresh and exciting: an effort to push the boundaries of what is expected from videogames criticism and mark out new territory for an increasingly mature intellectual field. Although my optimism regarding this has taken some blows in the last few months thanks to observing some online spats between people whose critical efforts I respect, I nonetheless remain hopeful that videogames criticism can continue to evolve into a dialogic form parallelling more established analytic fields devoted to particular mediums.

It was disappointing, then, to find that Killing is Harmless fell short of my expectations.

“I don’t just want to talk about broad themes. I don’t want to try to answer the questions the game forced me to ask myself. Instead, I want to understand how the game was able to make me ask these questions in the first place. To do this I need to talk about specific moments that can’t be easily separated from the context of all the other moments around them. So many themes emerge gradually over the course of the game (such as the progression/regression of the characters) that a critical reading of the game is the only way I can think of to truly critically appreciate The Line.” – Killing is Harmless (pg.9)

It is only fair, at this point, to note that my own preconceptions have fed into my feelings about Killing is Harmless, and to acknowledge that in most respects it has succeeded at the objectives it aimed for. Whilst ‘reading’ is a verb ill-suited to the videogames medium, taken in the spirit in which it was intended it is clear that Keogh has broken down the game into its narrativistic components and picked loose the threads of every element, beat and experience he can find within. Delivered act by act, chapter by chapter, the book narrates Keogh’s experiences with Spec Ops: The Line, articulating his initial responses to each and every event of even the faintest significance within the game. Every event is analysed from multiple angles and different responses and interpretations are considered at every such juncture.

This is a solid launch point for my biggest criticism of Killing is Harmless: although Keogh breaks down such moments in great detail, providing a multiplicity of potential responses, rare is the moment in which he either applies a broader critical framework or inserts that moment into a wider response to the game at large.

This extends throughout the book: most obviously, the book lacks a conclusion which draws together Keogh’s findings and thoughts into a cohesive whole. This is a disappointment though perhaps not a surprise to the devoted reader, since at every juncture Keogh devotedly provides every possible thought he can conceive of but commits to none of them, preferring instead to present what he imagines a player might think at any given point. Only rarely does he settle for one response, or focus on one to analyse it in greater detail, resulting in a collection of thoughts that is heavy on the idea and sparse on the critical analysis.

I have chosen my words here carefully. Criticism demands analysis, and this is where Killing is Harmless is found wanting. Although Keogh regularly refers to anti-war argument outside the content of his book and Spec Ops: The Line, these references are typically made either only in passing or in efforts to contextualise a particular reaction.

Structurally it also feels backwards: Keogh begins with a loose conclusion and subsequent chapters unfold almost like footnotes. There is little effort to speculate about what might happen post-Spec Ops, or to ground the game in a broader context other than a loose “post-Bioshock” milieu Keogh seems hesitant to commit to in his introduction.

Perhaps Keogh is so focused on the idea that Spec Ops: The Line “asks questions” without giving answers that he feels compelled to simply share with us those questions and a smattering of possible responses. Spec Ops itself does more than ask questions; for all its flaws it does not shy away from some unpleasant truths. Keogh’s more personal and culturally-ingrained responses to some of the game’s scenes are among the most discomfiting and interesting moments, and it is a shame that he does not follow through with these moments of self-reflection.

What we are left with as a result is an admirable breakdown of Spec Ops: The Line and a useful text to refer to, but not a book that in itself provides great insights into it. In the absence of an authorial argument, an effort to draw together observations into a coherent whole and establish common threads, or to provide a critical analysis of a work of fiction as a cohesive entity, Killing is Harmless itself lacks cohesion.

I’ll present a few specific examples rather than continue to simply speak in generalisations.

One of the biggest problems with the way Keogh has structured his book – for the most part only responding to or contemplating what has happened in the game at that moment – is that it insufficiently explores ironies or themes that only emerge in retrospect. An example of this can be found on P61 where Keogh regurgitates Gould’s justification for what the CIA are doing; arming insurgents who were rising up against the 33rd in a city in chaos. Later events show Gould’s story to be a palpable lie, but this is not discussed here. A game like Spec Ops: The Line, like a good novel, is typically consumed in a linear fashion, but it does not surrender its meaning and depth in the same way, like a coil of rope uncurling.

Every so often Keogh expounds a point which you read and think ‘yes! He’s hit the nail on the head!’

“That final you sounds like it is directed right at me, the player. Videogame worlds, generally, are so peaceful until we come along. It is in the act of playing that their content, happy little worlds become destroyed and chaotic. We come along and we kill so many people in these worlds!” (P117)

“Yet again, through the pervasive fear of the 33rd [towards the player character] in this (sic) final stages, The Line manages to comment on something prevalent in all videogames: the unreality of how much death and destruction the player brings along with them. The Line doesn’t offer an alternative to this—it never offers alternatives—but instead it treats that death and destruction (and the player who brings it) as it should be treated: monstrous, impossible, terrifying, wrong.” (P129)

Yet on both of these occasions he does not follow through on this idea further. It is immensely frustrating when something interesting begins to be said, only to be abandoned because instead we must trudge on, recounting the linear events of the game.

The ideas I’ve quoted Keogh on above do not exist in a vacuum; one example is the final Fallout: New Vegas DLC, Lonesome Road, which made some interesting efforts to engage with similar concepts. It is clearly a matter of interest to game designers and critics and The Line is clearly similarly interested. Why not devote a few hundred words to discussing it? If not here then in a conclusion which focuses on the most interesting ideas the close reading has brought to the surface.

These are two examples of the systemic and structural problems that plague Killing is Harmless.

“Maybe it seems a copout to conclude 50,000 words with ‘it’s complicated’, but…” (P162)

I don’t wish to condemn too harshly: as I began by stating, Killing is Harmless does constitute a ‘close reading’ of Spec Ops: The Line. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a closer reading. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to imagine a book – or even a short essay – that draws together all of the meticulous breakdown Keogh has transcribed into a particular response, argument or understanding – either of the game in isolation or contextualised within a wider videogame genre or the culture which produced it. Almost any such effort would make for compelling reading. Killing is Harmless, by contrast, is mostly an exercise in nodding in remembrance of each element of the narrative, and occasionally noting details that you missed or thoughts that didn’t occur to you.

Although straying into conjecture about an author is dangerous territory, it is easy to imagine how nervous Keogh may have felt during the composition of Killing is Harmless because of its uniqueness. The first critical book-length work about a single videogame? A possible epochal shift for a medium’s critical following? It’s further easy to imagine that Keogh may have wished to avoid producing something potentially alienating to the youthful, passionate and often vitriolic field of videogames criticism – not to mention the wider videogaming audience. There is a perpetual sense, throughout reading this book, that Keogh has more to say than he does. Perhaps, then, he has pulled punches, shying away from anything which may have appeared too subjective or controversial.

But subjectivity is what lends criticism its weight and purpose; contextualising this subjectivity across a range of critical responses and working to understand the ideas of others progresses understanding. True objectivity is impossible and its pursuit a fool’s game: the best one can hope for is offending few by saying little, and there is none of the joy of criticism to be found in that. As for controversy – well, The Line itself sets out to subvert the tropes of a dominant videogame genre and the regnant imperialist doctrine of war. That’s pretty controversial in itself.

To anyone interested in videogames criticism, or in delving deeper into Spec Ops: The Line, I say: read this book. It is an impressive accomplishment. But this is a recommendation with reservations, because videogames criticism can reach so much further than this. It need only unleash its ambitions and present more than the seeds of ideas.

[Killing is Harmless is available from Stolen Projects for $4.99. Brendan Keogh blogs at Critical Damage and is widely published elsewhere.]