Morally questionable choices, a challenge to video game ethics, a military shooter with a deeper meaning. Spec Ops: The Line was one of the best story-focused experiences of the previous generation, and a great lesson in doing a central theme justice.
“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless”
When Spec Ops: The Line released in 2012 it largely flew under the radar, averting the attention of the majority of gamers and generating little excitement, despite positive reviews. Interestingly, one of the reasons attributed to this lack of initial fanfare was The Line’s generic appearance -- yet another mindless and uninteresting third-person military shooter in the midst of a slew of other action games. Having myself ignored Spec Ops’ existence until around a year later, I picked it up in a sale for barely a third of its original retail price, and it proved to be one of the greatest bargains in the medium (until it released on PS+ anyway).
To this day, I still hold Spec Ops within my top 10 games of all time, and probably the greatest narrative experience I’ve played. I remember it with a strange mixture of emotions: unease, respect, discomfort and admirement -- The Line made me question my view of the video game industry, of war and of shooting games in a way no other experience had; including film or book. Looking back in retrospect, the main reason for why I believe it had this profound impact upon my psyche was the purity of its narrative, and how stunningly it deconstructs our expectations of what an action game can provide in terms of critical dialogue.
I wanted to explore some of the ways in which it achieved this, given that I still firmly believe no other game (that I’ve played anyway) has managed to recreate the same dissonance that The Line crafted. Be warned, there are MAJOR spoilers throughout, so if you’re one of the many who still have yet to play Spec Ops, go dig out a PS3 or Xbox 360 and discover it for yourself before proceeding any further. It’ll be more than worth your time.
Do you feel like a hero yet?
Spec Ops tackles a multitude of heavy, difficult themes; including the brutality of war, the nature and counter-productiveness of heroism, the consequences of conflict and lastly, of blind loyalty and misplaced belief. However, it doesn’t look at these issues in isolation of a singular video game, it applies and generalises these across to real life -- to the larger video game industry and to actual conflicts being conducted in our world. The protagonist - Captain Martin Walker - represents not only his own persona, but he takes the on the mindset of the general player controlling him, acting as an avatar for both his own experiences, and for ours.
Walker and his squad enter Dubai cocky, brash and full of bravado, in the same manner many of us would have approached yet another third-person action game we’ve played multiple times before. He rationalises and justifies terrible and heinous decisions based on the false belief he had to do them, the same way we justify the digital slaughter of hundreds of thousands of enemies because that’s just the way the game is designed -- the developers give us no choice. He denies and refuses the evidence put before him, either by his team, or by the supposed villain Konrad, in much the same way as we refute that Walker’s actions are the responsibility of the player. The way in which Yager managed to reflect real-world people’s assumptions and behaviours onto a character is astoundingly precise and deliberate; creating a level of connection that makes the ending so much more of a sucker punch when it’s revealed. We’re left reeling in the same manner Walker is left devastated.
The use of choice within the game reflects this beautifully. We’ve become accustomed to games with binary choices the likes of which Mass Effect had crafted into the norm. The typical hero and villain response was clearly mapped out, the way to be overtly good or dastardly bad made simple. Spec Ops targeted this expectation to great effect -- the consequences of choices aren’t obvious, with most decisions falling into the category of terrible vs awful. Take the decision on whether to shoot Rigs or let him burn; a man who has single-handedly tricked Walker (so by extension, the player) and damned the lives of all remaining survivors, do you choose to end his suffering with a bullet, or walk away as the flames engulf him. Both present a sentiment of revenge; he dies regardless, the only difference being your perception of how much punishment he should endure, or whether he’s worth the effort to aim at and kill.
Or we have the example after Lugo is lynched by the mob of people you’re supposedly there to save. Presented with the choice of pacifism or conflict, you have the dilemma of seeking retribution for your squad mate’s brutal murder, or letting him have died without justice. What should be a simple decision (heroic would be to not fire upon them) is charged with negative emotions regardless of what you decide, there’s no discernible right from wrong response we as an audience find comfortable. This clever play on typical choice within games strikes at our sense of autonomy to be the hero of the narrative, we can’t make the “right” decisions to get the best outcome because there simply isn’t one. This channels our discomfort, our sense of unease at being able to succeed that we are so usually accustomed to.
There is no difference between what is right and what is necessary.
This tortuous conflict that we experience within the game’s choice system also extends to its climactic reveal moment, where all of our understanding of events is shredded; torn asunder as Konrad points the finger squarely at Walker, and the player. Reminding us of all the hideous things we’ve done up to that point, he subverts our moral compass and reflects the idea that we as players are not free from the responsibility of having rampaged our way through Dubai in the name of being a hero.
Using scene transition, the developers allowed The Line to have a central core story, while leaving much open to our own interpretation. Each scene is either begun or ended with a fade to black - which represents something moving along that actually happened - or fade to white, which suggests Walker hallucinated the whole sequence. Interestingly, the opening scene of Walker and his squad entering Dubai fades to white; while in the multiple endings you have available, the only ones that fade to black are the ones where Walker dies -- where the player is finally forced to take responsibility for their actions in the game, and allow the player avatar to cease continuing. Heroism is at the core of Spec Ops, and its ending forces us to surrender the idea that we can commit the crimes we have and still escape unscathed, with our ethical fibre intact. The one “good” ending suggests just this -- if you leave with the soldiers to go home, the scene fades to white, it doesn’t exist. Yager distilled the actions of the player through the entire experience and the gameplay to allow that final moment to shine, to not just pull the rug out from the player, but to tear it away and set it on fire.
The very starting sequence of the game is of the helicopter chase that encapsulates how The Line challenges typical military tropes. The first time you play it, it’s generic, cliche and largely uninteresting. It’s then followed by that fade to white as Walker enters Dubai, which many have interpreted to mean Walker and his team die at the end of that escape, with Walker reliving his own personal Hell by recreating the events that led up to that point. Of course, you don’t know this the first time around, and when you reach the same segment in Chapter 12, as Walker exclaims “we did this already”, there’s a palpable sense of confusion that really begins to unravel. Yager took a boring, tired old turret sequence, and used it to hitch one of their most pivotal plot reveals on, while still leaving some open-ended questions to remain.
It also puts into perspective many of the strange and haunting things Walker sees throughout the chapters leading up to the helicopter chase. People hanging from street lights that weren’t there a minute before, Konrad’s face appearing on billboards, posters and on the side of skyscrapers, Adams’ and Lugo’s names appearing on the death list of the 33rd, the imagery on the board changing depending on whether you shoot Rigs or let him burn. All of these subliminal elements go largely unnoticed by the majority of people - they certainly were by me - but subconsciously they’ll be noticed by the player (and by Walker), eating away at our sense of normality. The industry of military shooters has largely desensitised us and shortened our attention span to look for finer details, usually with the promise of bombastic action sequences. The Line subverts this by never expecting you to notice them first time around, but to allow them to gnaw away slowly over time, so that the sense of unease festers as you play.
We all want to have our cake and eat it, we all want to be the hero of the story, we all want to be badass killing machines that always make the right choices. Unfortunately, The Line doesn’t allow us to escape it’s version of Hell with that opportunity, we don’t get to consciously walk away without first acknowledging that doing so would prevent us seeing the events through to the end; by which time it’s far too late.
You cannot understand, nor do you want to.
What differentiates a game’s story from being serviceable or good to being fantastic though, isn’t just the use of cutscenes, themes and endings; it’s instilled within the fabric of the game itself: the gameplay. Progression in The Line is signified very differently to what we as an audience are used to -- no skill trees, no XP bars, no exciting gadgets to utilise. Instead, Walker and his squad become more visibly ruined as the gameplay marches on. Walker’s clothing becomes tattered, broken and charred. Dialogue becomes weary, aggressive, battle-hardened and short. Lugo and Adams begin to rebuke your commands they so willingly obeyed in the early sections. The aesthetic changes as you play reinforce the perception that you aren’t the pristine, glorified do-gooder you’re supposed to be. Ravaged by war and your actions as you actually play the game, The Line reflects the trauma its put you through by mirroring it from the physical state of the characters.
More than this though, the mechanics of the game never feel “right”. The shooting never feels satisfying or rewarding, the turret sequences don’t produce that adrenaline rush and the scenarios never really challenge you to provide a sense of achievement. Some of this can be considered to be lazy or poor design on the part of the developers, of which I partially can agree. However, I firmly believe this was an intentional design decision on the part of Yager. The entire message of the game is that war is Hell, heroes do horrible things and cover up their enjoyment of heinous actions by using false justifications. The Line never plays well because you’re not supposed to enjoy killing its inhabitants. You’re never meant to feel satisfied having mowed down dozens of American soldiers or having shot a civilian in the name of retribution. At no point in my playthrough of the Spec Ops did I feel the game compelled me to carry on through its mechanics; and yet I mustered on regardless, determined to reach the fated end goal; the reason for all the destruction I’d wrought. This for me was one of the greatest things Spec Ops achieved -- it made me morally regret slogging through its game intentionally, delivering a masterclass of how to demonstrate cognitive dissonance. I didn’t get a reward from Yager’s game, yet I did all those horrible things despite it.
Funnily enough, one of the statements Konrad throws at Walker - and more so, the player - is that we could have stopped at any point had we chosen to. Indeed, the opening sequence entering Dubai outright tells us that Walker’s orders were to make contact and then extract. We achieve this within the first 10 minutes of the game, meaning both our protagonist and we should end our adventure there, obeying the orders we were given, preventing all of the destruction that follows. Unfortunately, we will Walker to carry on, to march into Dubai and begin the unrepentant killing spree, because that’s where we expect the good stuff to be -- the action sequences, the violence and the gore. The game throws the accusation straight at us: why carry on playing past where we were told? Why continue decimating the city when you could stop and walk away whenever you want to? As players, we absolutely could quit the game and drop the controller. Of course, a lot of people will challenge this by saying they bought the game so wanted to experience the content. But, it raises the question by Yager of whether we willingly partake in something that makes us feel uncomfortable, just because we feel we deserve to play through to be the hero and reach the anticipated outcome.
Lastly, The Line cleverly makes use of traversal during your time wandering Dubai’s ravaged landscape. Throughout the gameplay, Walker and his squad are always descending, travelling directly downwards. At first it’s hardly even noticeable, until we realise that through most of the experience we move down, and yet we still end up on rooftops of skyscrapers in the middle section. After this, we keep descending down to where it appears we would be well below ground level (and imagery-wise into Hell or purgatory), yet we always end up on ground level. Again, Yager used this to reinforce our descent into darkness, to moral ambiguity and into Walker’s own personal demons. We as players are never moving forward or upward, we progress but still remain stagnant, the only changes we see from one area to the next are devastation. It’s another example of a typical and uninteresting gameplay mechanic that feeds into its wider narrative and themes, largely without players noticing until they become aware of it or on their second playthrough.
In the end, it’s sheer blind motivation and habitual stubbornness that fuels our desire to reach the end, to defeat the bad guy and absolve ourselves of all the killing we did along the way. Propelled on by our own digital blood lust and crusade to be righteous, we become more than ready to sacrifice Konrad to save our own consciousness, right up until the moment he flips that motivation straight back upon us - if what he did was so evil, why are we doing worse just to stop him?
Can you even remember why you came here?
There’s so much more depth, nuance and intrigue to Spec Ops: The Line’s story that even a 10,000 word essay wouldn’t do it justice, nor tackle every element that it exposes about our military and video game culture. I haven’t even touched on the presentation of dissociative disorder, the extent of the endings implications or some of the other horrendous ordeals you experience playing the game. There’s been scientific papers written on it, in-depth discussion videos and various promotions from outlets about how it introduces such important moral and ethical dialogue. Hell, I even used the game’s loading screen “hints” to sub-title this entire article.
The Line merges so many small, intricate details to create a reveal moment that for me is largely unrivalled within the industry, or in most entertainment pieces completely. It merges its narrative and themes in such a way as to weave them into the moment-to-moment gameplay and make you question everything you experience, and yet still drives you to carry on forward like the obedient, blood-lusting killer it knows we’ve become conditioned to be, but shielded from perceiving.
At the end of my playthrough, presented with the choice to allow Konrad to shoot me, shoot myself or shoot him, I chose to accept my responsibility for raining white phosphorus upon civilians, for shooting the soldier who killed the man for stealing water, for destroying the radio tower and robbing Dubai’s survivors of its water support. In my playthrough, Walker ended the vicious cycle himself, choosing not to ignore what he had done, but to acknowledge the monster he had loosed and prevent the circle repeating forever more. Choosing to shoot Konrad and trying to go home would have meant Walker beginning the journey again, and again, and again, until he finally reached the conclusion: telling yourself you’re the hero doesn’t make you so, your actions will.
After all, the game would only have faded to white, and had Walker died on that helicopter, would likely have continued re-living that same hellish experience, forced to see his own villainy and evil nature whether he wanted to or not. There’s a compelling parallel here of us as players, and the industry itself, wanting the idyllic ending - we go home, but we’re then ceasing to acknowledge our own inner willingness to be corrupted by the capacity to do digital evil. Sometimes we have to metaphorically bite the bullet, accept our role as the driver behind the protagonist, and walk away.
Yager crafted a narrative masterpiece that left me with the only option of having the protagonist mentally commit suicide in order to face his actions and accept his own descent into darkness in order to be freed from it. No other game has left me with the emotional disconnect Spec Ops did. In terms of pure narrative and story, the experience of Captain Martin Walker is one that’s unforgettable -- it’ll challenge you, confuse you and criticise you, in a way most game’s now would never dream of doing. But then again, as one of Yager’s helpful hints told me: If you were a better person, you wouldn't be here.
LOOK WHO CAME: