After completing Spec Ops: The Line I have been thinking about it compulsively. I cannot shake it, the game is haunting me. I feel the need to write down my thoughts about it to sort everything out so please indulge me. I will not be saying many different things than what many critics and the writer of the game have said, but I need to state my opinion. I will include a ‘press package’ at the end of the post for you to check out other extremely good reactions to the game.
Also note that this blog post will be FULL of spoilers. I will not be holding back. If you intend to play the game or are in the middle of playing, please stop reading and play/finish it. As for me, business as usual will resume once I get these thoughts out of my head. I hope you all enjoy it.
Spec Ops: The Line
In my opinion, Spec Ops: The Line is the most important game to come out during this console or PC generation. I place it above the sacred cow of Bioshock. Spec Ops is the new standard, the first true fully realized exploration of a video game as a piece of art by a big budget studio. Bioshock lambasted the medium of video games. Spec Ops condemns the players who play them. Everyone who owns a piece of technology capable of running the program should play it.
Spec Ops: The Line is a third person cover-based shooter that looks very similar to every other modern military game you see at the store or on Steam. The plot takes place in the immediate future where a freak sandstorm has almost completely buried the booming city of Dubai. Giving somewhat contested international aid, the United States dispatches its "Damned" 33rd infantry battalion to aid the emergency evacuation of refugees. Soon after, communication with the division's commander, Colonel Konrad, is lost when he is ordered to pull out and refuses, opting to set up a martial government to organize a new evacuation plan as more sandstorms erode the city. You, the player controlling Captain Walker, are sent in with a two man recon team to seek out any survivors and report back to headquarters. Upon reaching Dubai, the squad finds slaughtered US soldiers in the desert and is soon confronted with armed civilian resistance who open fire on the squad. You and your teammates, Lugo and Adams, take down the aggressors and push on under the impression that Colonel Konrad has established his own military force of refugees and US soldiers and is occupying the city much as Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now did. Of course, the name Konrad is an obvious reference to this.
The game only uses Heart of Darkness as an inspiration and is not an adaptation which is made evident as things fall apart. Walker declares that the recon mission has now become a rescue and leads his squad into the buried city to evacuate the refugees and seek retribution on Konrad.
Mechanics, Game Play, and Meaning
The portrayal of Spec Ops as a standard, by the numbers modern military shooter is completely intentional. The game is a honey pot meant to attract people who play these types of games all the time only to pull the rug from under their feet unexpectedly. What may not be intentional is that the mechanics of cover-based shooting feel dated and do not work well. This makes for very frustrating play and many player deaths causing combat to be tedious and unfun which I think works in the game's favor. Why should killing people be fun? What I am sure IS intentional is that each 'action node' is easily identifiable with lots of 'cover' objects like sandbags appearing and endless waves of enemies emerging. Some battles result in the deaths of dozens of soldiers, and lest we not forget these are US Army personel even though we assume they are deserters. What this does is push the player into the mindset of most shooters where killing ceases to have any meaning beyond the idea that as soon as everyone is no longer moving the game can go on. This is on purpose. I even found myself saying "Jeez, how many more guys do I need to kill?" which horrified me in this context.
Do you want to go on? Ok.
After several chapters of fighting through luxury condominiums and hotels, the team sees a white phosphorus shell detonate, showering molten metal onto innocents and soldiers alike. A front row seat for its destructive properties as people scream and writhe on the ground while their flesh falls off of their bones. Only a few minutes later, your squad is brought to a standstill by the retreating 33rd Batallion. An army is guarding the retreat and is about to open fire on you leaving only two options: one is to use conventional weapons to attack, and the other is to use a nearby white phosphorus mortar to take out the troops. This is not a choice. Using standard arms results in your position being quickly overrun as you are outnumbered. When setting up the mortar, Lugo says "We shouldn't do this! We have a choice!" to which Walker responds "No. We don't." This is the discussion between our own conscious and that of the game designer. We want a way to progress without doing this because we've seen what white phosphorus can do, but the designer says "YOU MUST" and so we do, presumably given a free guilt pass out plot necessity. This is on purpose.
Do you want to go on? Ok.
After raining hell down on the troops, the squad treks through the mangled bodies. Survivors scrabble and ask for help. I put one troop out of his misery by shooting him to which Walker states on the screen "He was going to die anyway." After traversing the scorched battlefield, it is revealed that civilian refugees were at the head of the retreating column and were also caught in the rain of fire. The camera focuses on a dead mother holding her child, their smoldering flesh falling off the bones. Walker says "We didn't have a choice. Konrad forced us to do this." I felt sick. The game has tricked me, tricked the player into doing something I didn't want to do. What a betrayal.
Do you want to go on? Ok.
The loading screens get more and more bizarre upon each death. Their previously helpful gameplay tips of "Use your squadmates to flank your opponents" and "Press Q to throw a grenade" now read "Do you feel like a hero?" "How many Americans have you killed so far?" "You are still a good person."
There are only two options: either turn off the game or keep committing atrocities at the behest of the game designer to get to its end. Do you want to go on? Ok.
The squad fights through a shopping mall to reach a helicopter it uses to destroy a radio tower filled with US troops broadcasting propaganda. Adams yells "THIS IS FUCKED UP! THESE ARE AMERICAN SOLDIERS!" Do you want to go on? Ok.
After countless battles and the eventual death his squad mates who slowly became unhinged along with him, Walker arrives at the penthouse where Konrad is based. He is dead, having shot himself several weeks earlier. The entire hero fantasy has fallen apart. All the radio communications, interactions, and admonishments of Konrad were a delusion. Walker's only orders were to find survivors and radio for backup. If he had stopped at the beginning and never entered Dubai, none of this would have happened. The 33rd battalion had been fighting Walker's squad under the impression that he was working with the CIA who were attempting to cover the whole embarrassment of Konrad's evacuation. A simple misunderstanding that we were dragged into along with the gung-ho heroism that is the center of all modern military shooters. Did I feel like a good person? No, I was the bad guy. Before disappearing, the imagined portrayal of Konrad asks Walker, asks ME, "Do you feel like a hero yet?"
We have arrived.
My critique and critique of the critics.
Spec Ops: The Line is not perfect, but it affected me so deeply that I had nightmares of failure and misplaced confidence in myself the night after finishing the game. Many players I have read reactions from feel betrayed that the game forced their hand to commit violent acts and then blamed them for it. Is this incorrect? Not if you judge it solely based on this game. You are playing and have no choice about the matter while interacting with the mechanics. What it DOES do is recontextualize all future interactions you have with video games. You DO have a choice as to what you want to play and do. Does using an attack helicopter to mow down infrared blips on a television make you feel like a big man? Go ahead, I probably won't. Do you want to unleash your heavy machine gun on a crowd of huddling innocents? I sure don't, but you can do what you want.
Spec Ops does NOT give any choices because we own it and the designers have made this the only way, but does that remove any culpability from us? Maybe it does, but having played through this experience I will certainly think more about all of my game choices. We only have the options to accomplish what the designers of games craft for us, but we also have the choice to never enter Dubai. We do not need to buy these games that upon closer examination are glorification of violence perpetrated by us through mechanics. I am not against violent video games. I am against engaging with them at the cost of forgetting what they mean. In a way, I am a paradox with respect to what Spec Ops is attempting to communicate. I do not buy military shooters, but I am very interested in using games' mechanics, narrative, and visuals to deliver a deeper meaning to the player. This is what art does. My only hope is that others who NEED to experience its message play the game.
The intentions of Spec Ops are not a resounding success, but they are closer than anyone has come so far. That gives me hope.
Press Package of Reviews:
Errant Signal's discussion.
(Errant Signal is one of my favorite game bloggers and meshes well with my ideas. Please subscribe to his YouTube channel.)
Yahtzee's (uncharacteristically glowing) Zero Punctuation Review
Something Awful Discussion Thread -- Hugely Impassioned opinions both for and against the game.
Tom Bissell's Review