Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line (2012)

I think it’s fantastic the author, Australian critic and academic Brendan Keogh, wrote this book and managed to publish it at all. A critical analysis of a video game in this form represents a heartening step forward for the field, in my view. It’s great that this all came together.

As for the book itself, it starts off feeling like an academic critique, contextualising the video game, detailing its importance and uniqueness, providing interesting analysis, and so on. As it goes on, that sense shrinks, and it devolves into more of a retelling of the game’s narrative, charting the author’s emotional reactions. Those later chapters aren’t necessarily an uninteresting read, but I feel they were a step down from the higher ambitions of the earlier chapters. Often the book feels somewhat aimless – it can always revert to recounting the game’s plot (not particularly engaging), but it’s the sections providing greater analysis and insight that are by far the most enjoyable and worthwhile.

Keogh does qualify early on that the book forms a “reading” more than an analysis, review, or some such, but he clearly had the skillset to produce something aiming a bit higher, so I was disappointed by the direction the book eventually took. I know it’s cathartic and enjoyable to retell a game’s story while narrativising one’s own experiences along the way, but a more scholarly work looking at the impact of the video game and what it represented would have made for a stronger work than what often amounts to just a retelling peppered with emotional reactions. The nadir is when the book delves into talking about other video games with absolutely no context, completely at odds with the earlier direction of the book. I had no idea about some of the games and missions that were referenced later on, and the book provided little to no contextualisation for some of them.


When Keogh does provide insight, it’s keen and fascinating. I was particularly impressed by his analysis of how the video game examined the othering of enemies in war, the gamification of modern warfare, and the idea of the choice to play (or continue playing) a video game being as much (if not more!) a choice than any gameplay choice a video game offers the player. Other highlights were the expansions on the connections to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (I wish there was more on this) and the thematic analysis of the game’s endings.

Certainly an imperfect book, but I applaud Keogh for bravely treading on fairly untrodden ground, and for his more insightful analysis within. I give it three sandstorms, and a power fantasy.

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