EssRec- Killing Is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line

EssRec! My genius marketing term for Essential Recommendations in which I rattle off essential recommendations; be it books, films, games, trailers or whatever. This is my very first ‘EssRec’ so I thought I would start it off with a bang! An unconventional, wordy and incredibly niche bang! but a bang! nonetheless. Allow me to introduce you to:

Killing Is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line

by Brendan Keogh

Information at Goodreads, Available from Amazon, Gumroad.


Art by Daniel Purvis

I’ve spoken before about how I believe Spec Ops: The Line to be one of the most important games in modern video game history. From its sweeping criticisms of modern game design, war, the effects violence and killing in both the real world and it’s portrayal in entertainment, a story line that deals with complex issues such as PTSD, war crimes and the current political climate and characters that are so real and developed you feel a definite, if at time strained and regrettable connection with, Spec Ops is bold, brash and unapologetic as it forces you to experience a spiral of escalation and ugly look at the true human condition. It’s a game I’d recommend everyone play and experience and please, please if you have not or do not know the story don’t read this book, and don’t spoil it for yourself! This game is meant to be played without any knowledge or expectation of what you’re going to experience. The ignorance and shock of going into this game fresh is its defining feature.

Anyway I’m not here to gush about the game, but rather this Brendan Keogh’s brilliant 177 page piece about it. He writes a book that is the perfect companion piece to the game and will keep you thinking about Spec Ops for years to come. He goes through the story chapter by chapter, missing nothing, questioning and analyzing everything. His criticisms, comparisons and references are spot on but also have a brilliant accessibility his writing isn’t pretentious or overly academic (which is, admittedly, what I thought I was going to be in for when I bought it)- Keogh writes like a true fan of the game, speaking honestly about his experiences with it- both good and bad. The best part is his charting of the characters journey- pointing out the flaws, mistakes and shifting intentions and mindset of the main character. Killing is harmless is a good remedy to a problem that plagues video games, especially ones as complex and detailed as Spec Ops– that of length. Games that run over dozens of hours and that potentially take you days to finish are hard to follow at times- understandably, how are you to remember the intricacies of a two-minute conversation after hours of gameplay and other scenes? There’s no ‘Previously on Knights of the Old Republic’ like you’d get on 24. Keogh’s piece bridged the gap nicely, and his in-depth look at the music and soundtrack was a particularly high point, as it was something I’ve been hoping to find discussed in depth for some time.

I don’t want to spoil anything else- either the game or the book, but I would recommend it highly. Well researched, fulled referenced and very well written, it’s great read if you’ve just played or enjoyed Spec Ops: the Line. The best way to enjoy it, I found, was to read a chapter of the book, then play that chapter in the game. You’ll see things you never noticed before, I swear.

Finally, If you enjoyed Spec Ops or Killing is Harmless, I can also recommend a brilliant two part Extra Credits video on it (Part 1 is spoiler free, part 2 is all spoilers all the time!) and the review on Zero Punctuation (hint: he likes it!) as well as a pretty good analysis by Errant Signal. If you’re in a reading mood, this piece by Tom Bissell is very good. Enjoy!


In Search of a Lost Love Affair

Did I ever tell you guys how much I love trailers? Film trailers, TV show trailers, anything. I love the idea of conveying and selling a film or piece of work in only two minutes or so, utilising the (now rare) art of getting across the plot and selling the film without ruining any of the story. You’ll probably see me post about trailers a lot in the future.

Anyway, my favourite trailer is the extended trailer for 2013’s The Cloud Atlas. It was one of my films of 2013 and an incredible piece of filmmaking in general.

In the aforementioned trailer is a brilliant line, uttered by one of the best characters in the story. Robert Frobisher cannot find the end of a book he was reading, and it’s driving him mad. He writes to his lover, Sixsmith: “Half the book is missing. It’s completely killing me. A half-finished book is, after all, a half-finished love affair.”. I always thought that line was brilliant, because it has summed up the feelings I’ve had in regards to an infuriating search for a book I read in high school.

I picked the book up when I was twelve or thirteen and too bored/scared/lazy to hit the playground in High School. From what I remember, It was about humanoid aliens who lived (or had settled) on a dystopian Earth after human society fell apart. Humans live in slums of ruined cities surrounding the alien citadel acting as servants, and are dismissed as primitive and unintelligent, serving as menial workers for the aliens. The plot was told from the point of view of a young female alien and (possibly) involved the discovery or cover up of a plan to kill/sterilise the humans on the planet or cover up their intelligence. That’s all I can clean from my memory of it. I have a feeling I never made it to the end of the book.

Some points I know:

  • The aliens had some kind of ‘halo’ above their heads.
  • There is a section where they discuss anatomy and I feel as if they were described as taller and fitter than the average human
  • They use flying hover cars
  • There is a plot point of either the protagonist or someone close to her escaping in a garbage truck that serves the alien citadel.
  • Another (possible) plot point involves the protagonist wandering the human slums at night, discovering they are more intelligent than she believes or possibly evidence of a more sophisticated human culture (which makes me think the plot involved some kind of repression or cover up of this fact)
  • There is another plot point where they fly to a doctors summer-house to find him dead (I also think he may have been human. There was something notable about him).
  • The cover featured (possibly) the protagonist flying over the slums of the city in aforementioned hovercar, heading toward the citadel. It had that made think it was from the 80s/70s? Possibly?)

I read this book on and off without much interest in high school and I believe I never finished it. However, years on that book seems to have had more impact and me than almost anything else I’ve read. Every science fiction book I read reminds me of it. I don’t remember particularly liking it, but the fact I remember it so vividly makes me desperate to find it and properly read it. I have a feeling it was the first true science fiction book I ever read. I’ve googled everything I know, I’ve scoured Wikipedia pages and TV Tropes entries, I have stopped at every bookshop and even tried to contact the old librarian that lent me the book, all with no luck.

Do you know if this book? If so, tell me! I’ll reward you with all the drawings you could possibly want! I can’t live out my days not knowing the conclusion of this book. A half-finished book, after all, is a half-finished love affair.