Virtual Dubai: Spec Ops: The Line
"Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world." -Frederic Jameson, Future City, NLR 21
Where do our post-apocalyptic narratives cross with the city of Dubai, this city that is so representative of capitalism's contradictions (or are they successes?), inequalities, and ideological-utopian future building? How do we imagine its end? Is Dubai destroyed, falling as a sacrifice to excess and hubris, while the rest of the world-order continues onward, or would Dubai's destruction constitute a first line of the unraveling of capital?
These are questions that the text of the recent video game Spec Ops: The Line brings up with its action movie inspired set-piece of a crumbling Dubai being swallowed back up by the sands, as well as the madness of those that inhabit such an exotic and dehumanized local. This set-up is problematic in itself, a rewrite of Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now with all of both's colonial legacies framing a rote first-person shooter with that genres desensitized violence. The plot is simple: the rich have abandoned their capitalist experiment, fleeing to the first world, and leaving all the lower classes (the workers and migrants) to the oncoming sands. Meanwhile the American military has moved in, as a peacekeeping force, but have gone rogue led by their Kurtz figure. The player then plays as the Marlow/Willard character, who must navigate "the horror" of a city falling apart, running out of water, inhabited by crazed "others" (the same brown workers, soldiers who have gone to the other side) that must be shot on command. Filling the background are bits of imagined disaster porn, Dubai's famous sci-fi skyline laid to waste.
What the game is trying to say exactly is hard to locate. Is it just mashing-up some common tropes for pure entertainment's sake? Is it replicating Jameson's problematic from above, about the easiness with which we can imagine the apocalypse, but not the end of the processes that cause real-life apocalypses' to those living in such capitalist fantasy lands? Is it commenting at all on the colonial and orientalist fantasy behind it all, or the nature of America's 21st Century imperial projects relation to Neo-Liberal order in general? And not to mention playing into the potential American fears of an economically powerful Middle East, which can be brought to its knees in pixelated form? Reading the plot summary there are some places in the story where some interesting commentary on these themes has potential to exist (there is a sub plot about madness and fractured identity), but it seems that they are not followed through enough-entertainment trumping any deeper exploration, as always .
So, what we are left with is a virtual imagining of Dubai destroyed. The game ends in the ruins of the Burj Khalifa, collapsed like Ozmandias, filled with sand and corpses. It is a fantasy, but whose fantasy? What is accomplished from such spectacle and what ideology does it serve? As Slavoj Žižek, a philosopher who has had his own interesting foray into Dubai, said in a 2012 radio interview on CBC, "Because the fantasy is that somehow capitalism has to survive, capitalism is part of the very frame through which I observe reality, so even when I try to overcome it, I think in its own terms". Spec Ops: The Line fails in that after Dubai is destroyed, the hero returns back out into the "real" functioning outside world, and everything is OK. Nothing about Dubai's destruction does anything to disrupt the further situation that led to that destruction. It simple occurs from a natural disaster, or some alien near-eastern oriental savagery, and not from capitalism itself. The workers are left to die in the sand, or in the rest of the world system, and the frame is maintained.
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