The Long Kill

by James Blair

Interactive Novel - Thriller

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The war comes home, November 28, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

(Spoilers in this one)

What I like most about The Long Kill is its harshness. Oh, as always, I brought it on myself – there’s a trio of difficulty options at the beginning of this nicely-presented Twine game about a British sniper deployed in the Afghan War (the just-concluded one, that is), including story mode and a conventional “pick whatever choice you want” one. But no, I opted for “Sniper Mode”, where you have to do math and dice are rolled behind the scenes, so you can miss your shots even if you do everything right. And it’s not just the violence: the game has flashbacks and flashforwards to civilian life, and I fucked up my one chance to have a girlfriend because after winning her an elephant at a carnival shooting game, I thought she wanted me to show off and go double or nothing, but actually she was cold and wanted me to go home. Some of this may feel unfair, but who says a game about sudden, explosive death coming before you even have a chance to blink should embrace fairness as an ethos?

(OK, there’s an undo button, and I did use it once or twice, but I felt bad about it).

What I like second-best about The Long Kill is its obsessive focus on shooting. Again, this goes beyond the scenes set during the war. The protagonist – he’s given the uninspiring nom de guerre “Mister” – bonds with his father only through shooting targets and rabbits; as mentioned above, he tries to impress his not-girlfriend by shooting; when he interviews for a job, he talks about how shooting gave him great math skills; even when he takes on a home improvement project, the scene ends with him leveling a power saw and pulling the trigger. Mister is very, very good at shooting; it’s not so much that he’s bad at everything else as that there isn’t anything else.

What I like third-best about The Long Kill is the prose. There are some typos, but it manages to be evocative while sticking to a terse, militaristic style. This sentence is about 2/3 of what the game shares about Mister’s relationship with his father, but it communicates just about everything the player needs to know:

"Even without looking though you can picture the little non-smile, that happy frown he does when you do or say something he likes."

What I like least about The Long Kill is its fantasy of victimization. After an opening sequence where you support a house-raid that bags an important Taliban leader, Mister’s convoy gets hit by an IED and he’s captured alongside his unit. They’re subject to torture, and he’s given an ultimatum of teaching the enemy soldiers to be better shots, or his companions will be executed. It’s a queasily compelling sequence, even if it ends rather abruptly, and by making Mister weak and frightened, it finally renders him something close to human. But this was still a bad authorial choice. We know that in the flashforward, Mister has PTSD and a discharge, but there’s no need for a period of abjection to connect the precise, effective wartime operator with the haunted shell of a man; that’s just what war does. More damningly, this sequence creates an underdog narrative that inverts the far more common reality of the war – the number of Western POWs and casualties was miniscule compared to the Afghans captured, maimed, and slain (many, of course, were innocent, and many, of course, were not). To elide this reality, and instead opt for a shell game that seems to swap the positions of the players: that’s kid glove stuff. Not at all harsh.

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