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The Illusion of Darkness

Spec Ops: The Line works on the fascinating principle of the Russian dolls. All you need to do is open one
matriochka to find a second one, and then to repeat the operation until you find the newborn. This is how the
theme of war allowed the discovery of the games pacifist dimension, that the 60s emphasized the importance
of its ties with Apocalypse Now and the Vietnamese conflict. Evidently, there are other dolls. For example, Spec Ops
draws from two major works: the short story Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad and Adrian Lynes
movie Jacobs Ladder (1990), two outstanding creations respectively belonging to the anti-colonialist literature
and to the horror movie genre. However, if these works are indissociable from Spec Ops, it is because they
unravel its narrative construction model and underline its deeper meaning altogether. Thus it makes no
doubt that what is experienced during the adventure is false.
Made up. Yes, nothing you see in Spec Ops is real.


Going upstream

jungle and the river become a character of their own. Bereft of this link,
it can only walk away from the original work:

pec Ops shares another essential element with Apocalypse Now, that of
inspiration. Indeed, both proclaim to come from Heart of Darkness,
a short story by Joseph Conrad, an English-speaking Polish author. As
if responding to each other, the three works develop a crescendo in
barbarism, a dive into the madness of men and, basically, the idea of
the ruin of civilization. Heart of Darkness will have paved the way taken
by its followers, that of heroes devoured by their environment, their
mission, their Nemesis. In the same way, Spec Ops claims its explicit
literary references through the character of John Konrad. He borrows
the name of the author but also the painting occupation of the original
Kurtz, but without taking it much further. For the specopsian Nemesis
doesnt draw its origin or its specificities (universal genius) from a book,
and even less the idea of a deified man. Only vanity will allow us to
link the literary and game sides together. Furthermore, we can note that
Walker, unlike his cinematographic (Willard) and literary (Marlow)
references, personifies even more that theme and limits, by doing so, the
contrast between the two versions.
Beyond that, it is interesting to look closely at the structure to discover
other borrowings, this time through the use of a similar narrative
scheme. Thus we find, in the three works, a shattered, progressive and
fantasized description through which the Nemesis can finally reveal
itself. With a slight difference, however, since the game and the novella
use sparingly the surprise effect that is madness whereas Apocalypse Now
embraces it immediately. The three works then join in the shattering
of the heroic figure, that ends up resonating with his Nemesis (Walker
like Willard and Marlow draws from it.) Among the major differences,
Colonel Konrad justifies torture to find his true enemies while the
paranoiac mind of the Kurtzes makes them up. Madness accompanies
their slaughters. On the opposite, the game character, lucid, admits he
has been overwhelmed by those particular events. Here, the paradigm
shift shows how many liberties were taken with the borrowed themes. It
also shows how Walker monopolizes the themes of madness and vanity,
stripping Konrad of his substance. This is what explains the absence of
balance between the character. As for symbols, we regret that his last
words dont echo with those of his referents: The horror, the horror. All
we will find is a trophy reminding us of it. Therefore, we will have to
focus on the use of the fantastic to find a point of convergence, like in
the short story:
We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the
aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first
of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be
subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil.
[...] it seemed unnatural, like a state of trance. Not the faintest sound of
any kind could be heard. You looked on amazed, and began to suspect
yourself of being deafthen the night came suddenly, and struck you
blind as well. About three in the morning some large fish leaped, and
the loud splash made me jump as though a gun had been fired.
This extract proves essential as its symbolizes the common points
between Spec Ops, Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, as well as their
differences. Indeed, even if Spec Ops takes on a fantastic dimension, it
will never recreate this damp, almost mystical atmosphere where the

[...] I brought up in the middle of the stream. The reach was narrow,
straight, with high sides like a railway cutting. The dusk came gliding
into it long before the sun had set. The current ran smooth and swift,
[...] When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy,
and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just
there, standing all round you like something solid.


oseph Conrads short story owes its timelessness to the denunciation

of colonialism, to the contrast between the colonists progressive
speech wishing to clear the darkness blinding an entire population
and the subjection of said population. This denunciation, pointing at
Belgium as well as England and France (the story takes place in Congo,
Kurtz is of Anglo-french origin) will by the way be used again in the
Redux version of Apocalypse Now, in the plantation scene. If this scene
has been quite justifiably cut out of the theatrical version, it benefits
from its lapidary view of the conflict through the eyes of a French
colonist, Hubert de Marais. Owner of a rubber plantation, he aspires
to maintain his lifestyle, his traditions, and opposes his everyday actual
reality to the artifical presence of the United States: you Americans, you
are fighting for the biggest nothing in history. At this exact moment, the
harshness of the scene shows the American view and the henceforth
anachronic French colonialism as equally guilty. In a structural way, this
denunciation gives the Redux version the means to be considered a true
adaptation of Heart of Darkness, the movie remaining much closer to its
literary model (double narration, identical scenes, etc).
Unfortunately, Spec Ops doesnt carry this critical dimension, focusing
more on a vague representation of American imperialism. We can
suppose that the developers didnt want to raise that question, given
the nationality of their publisher and the targeted market. However, we
can see this man with an animal head, wrapped in the American flag,
wielding an AK47 in one hand and a skull-shaped scepter in the other,
wearing a crown on his head (see page 38). A mix of symbols. Nontheless,
the pure denunciation of the United States colonialism seems absent.
Yet, it would have been interesting to notice their cultural colonization
(particularly present in Dubai) and to point out the establishment of
protectorates under the cover of foreign politics (a protectorate being
a form of colonial subjugation). Now you take the French place, says
Gaston de Marais in Apocalypse Now Redux. A master chasing another
away. More to the point, according to Franois Cusset in Questions for
Dubais Comeback, colonialism is part of the city. It would have been
pertinent to slide in a few colonial hints, at least through the prism of
artistic direction:
Dubai, Arab version of The Truman Show, displays a world bent on
hiding all truth [...] A world resolute to make a vast company out of the
whole existence, to the greatest dread of the markets adversaries. A world
treating everything that gives meaning to free spirits, artists or literary
figures like more or less cost-effective atmospheric services. A world
where you not only consume goods and services but also sociability
and leisure, impressions and feelings through which the best-selling,


most touristically effective emotion is undoubtedly this sort of colonial

nostalgia that impregnates every ornamental pattern, every historical
hint, every human interaction marked by the decree of the inequality
of beings. This slightly overacted colonial nostalgia brings together,
weirdly, the Indian butler to the European hotel customer just like it
does the Yemenite taxi driver to the Saudi passenger or the Chinese
entrepeneur to the Libanese subcontractor. There, colonialism isnt not
anymore a specific, datable and localizable form of domination but the
general style of the social interactions. It is the obsequious form that
service takes in Dubai, the form of a certain intrinsic excess of service
over the service(s), equally felt by the little white tourist, ill-at-ease to
be pampered everywhere like a sultan and the young semi-veiled heiress
turned into a worldwide brand tree, carrying her idle nonchalance and
her Manolo Blanik pumps along the shopping malls ventilated alleys.

Homeric Hymn to Helios

And now, O Muse Calliope, daughter of Zeus,
begin to sing of glowing Helios whom mild-eyed
Euryphaessa, the far-shining one, bare to the Son
of Earth and starry Heaven.
For Hyperion wedded glorious Euryphaessa, his
own sister, who bare him lovely children, rosyarmed Eos and rich-tressed Selene and tireless
Helios who is like the deathless gods.
As he rides in his chariot, he shines upon men and
deathless gods, and piercingly he gazes with his eyes
from his golden helmet. Bright rays beam dazzlingly
from him, and his bright locks streaming from the
temples of his head gracefully enclose his far-seen
face: a rich, fine-spun garment glows upon his body
and flutters in the wind: and stallions carry him.
Then, when he has stayed his golden-yoked chariot
and horses, he rests there upon the highest point
of heaven, until he marvelously drives them down
again through heaven to Ocean.


vidently, we find a platonician inspiration in the novella as well as

in its video game heir. It pervades essentially through the figure of
the sun, symbol of truth, and the theme of light pulling away the veil
of illusion, clearing out the lies. For instance, the sun appears to be
omnipresent in Spec Ops where light is used to signify passage, transition.
Regarding Heart of Darkness, we know that Joseph Conrad has a taste
for platonician philosophy, one proof of that being his meeting and
epistolary relationship with Polish philosopher Wincenty Lutoslawski
(1863-1954), a Plato (427-348/347 BC ) specialist. Besides, the preface
of the recent translation of Heart of Darkness by Claudine Lesage invites
us to think about the references found in Conrads novella and she
doesnt hesitate to speak of an echo of The Republic, one major work
of the Athenian philosopher. If it werent for this misunderstanding
on the role of light in his philosophy, the following extract would be
Reading Heart of Darkness with the eyes of Plato allows one to discover
an easily identifiable vocabulary : the soul, faith, restraint, mystery,
knowledge and ignorance, education, madness, vertue, truth, reminiscence
that has been borrowed from Plato the Philosopher whereas darkness
and light [...] the shadows are much more relevant to Plato the Writer.
Unfortunately, it feels wrong to assign darkness or light to Plato the
writer only, to dissociate the literary form from the intellectual content.
Indeed, the thinking of the Athenian philosopher is first and foremost
an intellectual construction in which form and content are one. The
allegory is not only a figure of speech, it is the vivid representation of
concepts. However, images are often more striking than words, to the
point that Spec Ops itself should be seen as an allegory. Be that as it
may, the platonician philospophy remains indissociable from ancient
literary and mythological culture, which are often forged by the greatest
authors. The Greek, particularly, attached essential importance to the
luminous dimension, which would bear a religious and philosophical
thought. Said thought, however, fuels Spec Ops, as it relies on the sun
but also on mythological figures involved in illumination: Icarus, Helios
(graffiti on the walls) and Hyperion (name of a ship). While on the
subject, we wish to underline the typically Hellenic nuance regarding

Hail to you, lord! Freely bestow on me substance

that cheers the heart. And now that I have begun
with you, I will celebrate the race of mortal men
half-divine whose deeds the Muses have showed to
fire (Prometheus/ Hephaestus), light (Apollo), and the sun (Helios/
Hyperion), the first symbolizing knowledge while the second stands
for beauty and the third for truth. Thus the Greeks used to end their
sentences by swearing to Helios to ensure their veracity, Helios being
called by Homer he who sees and hears all things (The Oddyssey, XI, 109).
Also, the Homeric Hymn (see table above) shows the reach of his power,
providing light to the mortal men and the immortal gods. Finally, we need
to say a word about the statue of Icarus displayed at the end of Chapter
8, as an echo to his fall after he tried to fly up to the sun. To the truth.
It is, regardless, this interpretation of the myth that will be remembered
as a conclusion to the movie I as in Icarus (1979), by Henri Verneuil:
If we consider the sun as the symbol of truth then Icarus burns his wings
because he gets too close to the greater truth.
Of course, it is to the sun that Plato binds truth in his famous allegory
of the cave, in the opening of the book VII of The Republic. It is thus
no surprise to discover that the Dubai refugee camp is called, itself,
Camp Truth? In echo, if the Greek philosopher uses the concept of
Good, which contains Truth or Beauty, it is once again because the
Greek thinking is fundamentally aesthetic:


At all events, this is the way the phenomena look to me: in the knowable
the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of
the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that is it in fact the cause of
all that is right and fair in everything - in the visible it gave birth to light
and its sovereign; in the intelligible, itself sovereign, it provided truth and
intelligence. (Ed. Allan Bloom / 1991).
Fundamentally, the Allegory of the Cave, the main pillar of the
platonician thought, is about truth and the way to reach it by progressing
though fundamental stages from the opinion (the sensible world/ reality
as we see it) up to the thought (the intelligible reality, the world as it is
seen from a scientific view and then, ultimately, by the souls intuition).
These stages are not only a way to know the truth and to escape the
world of illusions (the cave) but also to become a philosopher and
govern the city. To sum it up briefly, the allegory expresses the end of
the illusion through the finding of truth and the understanding of the
cave by the revelation of the sun. However Spec Ops, just like Plato, calls
upon the flame as well as the light in its relation to illusions. This is why
the game is built on false pretenses, and wont hesitate to highlight the
mythological figures of illumination. Besides, if the novella The Heart
of Darkness uses the words sun and light 24 times each, fire and
truth 15 times respectively (cf extract below), it is up to the game to
turn them into images, by multiplying their presence (see the video
platonic lights on the Icaremag YouTube channel). A real bridge:
We had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense matted
jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it[...] I almost
envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame. [...]Light came out
of this river since.

The construction of illusion

Cette question de lillumination nous amne naturellement envisager
Spec Ops sous un angle nouveau. En effet, si le jeu laisse imaginer le
personnage de Walker rendu fou par le bombardement dinnocents
(8me chapitre), cette rupture savoue purement et simplement
fabrique. dire vrai, lartifice ne peut tre dcouvert sur le moment
puisque llment rvlateur apparat plus tard, la fin du 12me
chapitre, dans la rptition de la scne douverture, ce fameux combat
dhlicoptres. Sil y a une lgre variation avec la ncessit de dtruire
des missiles, le reste se trouve absolument identique. Walker lui-mme le
remarquera : Attends, ya un truc qui va pas. Cest quon la dj fait a !
Tandis quAdams rpondra : Comment a ?. Ce court dialogue, ainsi
que la rptition du combat, met le joueur sur la piste de lillusion.
Comment est-il possible de refaire une mme scne un endroit
diffrent ? Pourquoi Walker sen fait-il lcho ? Ici non seulement le hros
souligne la rptition ludo-narrative mais le joueur ne peut lignorer,
malgr le leurre reprsent par les missiles. Bien sr, la squence pourrait
tre comprise, a posteriori, comme lun des signes de la folie de Walker.
Seulement elle offre le dcalage suffisant pour sinterroger et choisir de
refaire le jeu. Cest seulement cette occasion que ltendue de lillusion
se dvoile, que lon finit par relever les rfrences discrtes Alice au Pays
des Merveilles (rabbit hole, le trophe qui prsente la montre du lapin),

les dcalages du gameplay (les ralentis, lvaporation des corbeaux

que vous tirez vue). Mieux, cest le personnage de John Konrad qui
confirme lintuition. En effet, alors que son visage nous apparaissait
pour la premire fois la fin de laventure (la rencontre au chapitre 15),
celui-ci saffichait en ralit partout depuis notre arrive (voir ci-dessus).
On le croisait aussi bien sur la remorque dun camion (chapitre 1) que
sur la faade dun immeuble (chapitre 5) ou en famille sur des publicits
de ski (chapitre 7). Konrad pose dans des reprsentations absurdes,
loignes de sa fonction de colonel, de sa figure dautorit. Or la rupture
de Walker (chapitre 8) ou mme son obsession pour sa Nmsis, ne
saurait expliquer cette omniprsence sauf accepter que celui-ci soit
fou ds le dbut. Ou bien quil hallucine. Il semble par ailleurs que les
dveloppeurs aient voulu souligner le mirage au coeur de leur jeu. Cest
en tout cas lune des interprtation de linscription LIARS LAIR - le
repre des menteurs - sur un mur du chapitre 5.
Au premier degr, les mots soulignent le mensonge de larme
amricaine ladresse des rfugis. Au second, elle indique le repaire des
dveloppeurs. Aprs tout, ne trompent-ils pas le joueur en lui faisant


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