Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days and Spec Ops: The Line – horrible games for awful people

I just finished playing Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. I'm four years late, I realise.

I just finished playing Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. I’m four years late, I realise. It is a brutal thing; a club of a game. A blunt instrument. (Spoilers ahead, by the way.)

The word that kept coming up in my head was “artless,” but it’s not quite right. Kane & Lynch 2 is a game about ruin; these two characters start off pretty messy, and then lose what little they had, and then End. Game stops, credits roll, get out.

It’s a pretty similar story to the first one, actually, which saw events descend ever further into chaos, but that at least had the narrative rhythm of trying to save Kane’s family, over and over, and a payoff where your daughter either dies or hates you. That’s an ending, of sorts.

But the sequel… no. None of that. A parade of violence set against a strange, lo-fi aesthetic, with little direction or connection, then an abrupt end. It doesn’t even have the decency to kill off the main characters.

It’s deliberate. A thumbed nose at shooter tropes, a stark examination of the mechanics without the lace and saucy winks that normally goes along with the pornography of the genre – no devil-may-care attitudes or witty remarks, no quest to save the world, no camaraderie, no higher authority. Those things don’t matter – it is an arduous slog from one set of chest-high walls to the next, sputtering out on a whimper and not a bang. It looks to leave you unsatisfied. It is actively UnFun.

WORKING AGAINST

There are definite similarities between Spec Ops: The Line and Dog Days, because both of them want you to feel bad about what you’re doing – they are both working against the standard payoffs that shooters look to instil in the player. The kicker, though, is that The Line makes you feel bad because you’re enjoying yourself; Dog Days just makes you feel bad.

The Line, for all its grey-brown sandscapes, has plenty of visual variety and no small amount of intriguing imagery, some of which doesn’t really kick in until the second playthrough – that your nemesis, Konrad, appears on the billboard adverts in the town, say. The mashup stencil graffiti blending the Statue of Liberty and that famous Abu Ghraib silhouette. The hallways of candles and corpses. The crumbling luxury of the Inside compared to the blasted dust of Outside.

The Line keeps hinting that it is something more than real; that you are breaking down, and that the things you’re seeing and hearing aren’t what’s actually happening – but it’s not so on-the-nose about it that you reject strangeness out of hand. It’s odd enough to draw you in to try and search for more.

Whereas Kane & Lynch is a game of the real, despite the fantastical elements of the way that you don’t die when you get shot in the chest and head at point-blank range, and instead just fall over; the way you survive helicopter crashes. It is a game in which people, in which you, bleed. It is exhausting to play.

kane and lynch running

The levels in populated urban areas are where the game comes close to feeling entertaining.

SUCKER PUNCH

The hook used by The Line, even if the player didn’t realise what was going on, was enough to draw them in – and get them so firmly ensconced in the action that they were standing directly on top of the rug when it was pulled out from underneath them. It was a sucker punch. The game asked you why you were doing the things you were doing – shooting Americans in the face – and then made you do it some more without telling you the answer.

Dog Days has no such niceties, no casual lead-in. It is stodge from soup to nuts, a dreary, washed-out slog of inaccurate guns and calm ultraviolence. No-one displays emotion, except during the rare moments that Lynch remembers he has a girlfriend. The protagonists are detached from events, from the killing. There’s nothing to trick you into diving headfirst into the plot, because there are no mysteries. Nothing to uncover.

Imagine an episode of Scooby Doo where the gang immediately shoot the ghost in the chest and walk away without taking its mask off. That’s Dog Days. Free-floating violence without an anchor point. A challenge, in that you are challenged to wring an ounce of enjoyment from this thing.

There are civilians running around some of the gunfights, and it’s not a big deal if you shoot them. No-one mentions it. Lynch cares about them as much as you do, which is to say, not a lot.

(AN ASIDE ABOUT AESTHETICS)

Kane & Lynch plays with The New Aesthetic. The images look low-quality and blurry, as though the technological limitations of the camera it was shot aren’t enough to keep pace with the action. The camera sways when you run, and the sound of air rushing over the microphone can be heard. The cuts between sections are marked by buffering counters, as though we’re watching this on a screen (which we are), or aren’t marked at all – cut to black, instant cut to next section. It’s disorienting, amateur.

I’ve read one piece that says it has the look of an internet snuff film; I can’t say I’ve seen one. But there’s links with cheap porn, certainly – the lack of establishing shots, the unexplained and jarring cuts, the total lack of character motivation or direction. This is what you’re here to see, says the game, before throwing you into another tedious shooting section.

At one point, when you trigger an enormous explosion, the audio can’t handle it, and it distorts and twists into a jarring, broken noise. The screen gets messy, too. I wish that they’d done that more. I wish that every explosion overloaded the microphone.

lynch naked

Kane & Lynch get entirely naked, at one point, and no-one comments on it at all. (Also, Lynch is both shiny and hairless, two traits I would not ascribe to him.)

HEADSHOTS

The Line gives you a second of slow motion when you shoot a human in the head. It’s a spotlight moment. “Well done you!” the game says, and we’re used to games congratulating us for acts of unspeakable violence, so we roll along with it. By the end of the game, you manage to hold up a doublethink thanks to multiple conflicting sources of reinforcement – killing people is bad, the game implies through loading screens, but killing people is good because look, slow-motion!

Then maybe you realise that the slow-motion isn’t congratulatory after all, and it’s just the game showing you what a horrible person you’re being. The same way you’d rub a dog’s nose in shit.

Dog Days pixellates headshots; there’s no ceremony. If you shoot someone in the face, their images are hidden. It doesn’t say why. It also hides nudity; exposed breasts at the start of the game, Kane & Lynch’s genitals in later scenes when they’re stripped naked and tortured. An early build pixelated out someone’s features when Lynch shoved their face into a red-hot stovetop, but that was later changed to hot food, and no longer pixelated. (And once, Lynch’s girlfriend Xiu, when you find her naked, bloody corpse – and it’s just her head and a mass of pixels beneath, implying nudity and total violence.)

The question the game asks is – why do you want to look at that? That isn’t for looking at.

The violence isn’t even shocking. It’s banal. There’s none of the gutwrenching anguish that I felt from watching the abuse of Joel in The Last of Us; there’s none of the dehumanising brutality that saw Lara turn into a cold-eyed murderer in 2012’s Tomb Raider reboot. Just ugly people getting hurt in uncreative ways. It doesn’t excite the viewer.

This is not entertainment. This is not even a story. This is a series of events in which you, the player, shoot men in the head.

YOU HAVEN’T EARNED A THING

And that’s the weakness of Dog Days, I think. There’s nothing to draw you in.

A good anti-shooter should make you feel good about killing then show you what you’re doing – like Train, for example, a board game where you try to fit as many little wooden passengers in a model train as possible, and keep it on schedule, and you’re all having a jolly time trying to do so, then someone reads out the final destination of the trains and it’s Auschwitz, and look what you’ve done.

That’s the lack of art that I couldn’t put my finger on; it doesn’t counter, it doesn’t trick, it doesn’t lull you into any sort of a sense of security. It doesn’t say that this should be enjoyable. It doesn’t say that shooting people is, in any way, a good thing.

You know what you get, if you shoot all the people? Nothing. No redemption. No damnation. No heroism, or even any proper villainy. No glory. No reward. Not even any resolution, or closure.

You don’t die. You spend the game not dying and your payoff is also not dying. Even porn has a money shot, most of the time. A sense of direction, of building tension and delivery.

This is not the sort of thing that warrants a reward, says the game. You haven’t earned a thing.

You see Lynch's expression, here? That's the closest you're going to get to enjoy watching him act. The poster.

You see Lynch’s cheeky expression, here? That’s the closest you’re going to get to enjoying watching him.

DELIBERATE

And that’s harrowing, man, that’s tiring to play through; because at the heart of it, judged against current metrics, Dog Days is a bad game. It is bad entertainment, in that it is not entertaining even in the slightest. The shooting is boring; the controls are imprecise. The narrative is thin and constricting, like a rope around your neck. The challenge offered by the game swings into “too difficult to be enjoyable” far too often.

None of these seem like missteps, on the designers’ part. Kane and Lynch is terribly, relentlessly deliberate. But I can’t honestly recommend that you play it, if you haven’t already.

Christ, I can’t even say that I’m glad I played it. It’s bad, and it knows that it’s bad, and it makes no attempt to cover that up. It is an unusual marriage of game and narrative, and both are awful – awful mechanical actions undertaken by awful people. The Line wanted to invert glory and entertainment tropes into something grotesque and out-of-control, hold up a mirror to you and ask if you were really happy with what you were doing.

Dog Days just hits you in the face and refuses to apologise because you asked for violence, and here it is.