Personal blog of Rutger Harder

Crossing the line in Spec Ops: The Line

So, I was not expecting this when I first heard of the game. The title alone sounds like the kind of bland modern warfare Call of Duty shooty-shooty-bang-bang clone we are already drowning in. Still, yesterday I played through Spec Ops: The Line in one terrifying soul-wrenching sitting and seeing how under appreciated the game seems to be in the general gaming press, I am now gonna tell you what is so special about it. And completely ignore the sucky tacked on multiplayer component that has been called “a cancerous growth” by the developer itself.

But first things first: go play it. Now. This game is pretty hard to talk about without going into specifics on the way the narrative and gameplay are intertwined, so I am going to spoil the hell out of this thing. If you care about the gaming industry and want a perfect example how we can push the gaming medium forward into new, unexplored territory, buy it. This game is the perfect example of how gameplay itself can be meaningful.

After the in medias res helicopter scene, you, captain Walker start the game with your three-man squad of U.S. soldiers on the edge of a completely destroyed and abandoned version of Dubai, glass skyscrapers sticking out of the sand. The whole premise at first is really vague, and the situation itself does not get much clearer as the game progresses, although I feel this works in favour of the overall confusing atmosphere. As a player, you only hear something about ‘sand storms’ and a confusing radio signal of a senior officer named Konrad thought long lost. If this premise sounds familiar, the creators claim to be influenced by Heart of Darkness, the book that inspired Apocalypse Now, going so far as to name the missing officer after the writer of the book (Joseph Conrad). This inspiration taken goes, story- and decor-wise, quite far, especially if you take Apocalypse Now into account, so if you know those works, you can pretty much guess where the story of the game is gonna go. As you descend further and further into Dubai, you come across increasingly weird and disturbing scenes of degrading civilisation and you begin to doubt your own sanity more and more.

If the only thing this game was doing was to tell this story over a standard Call-of-Duty-chest-high-wall-shooter it would still have made for a pretty great game. The decors and music, the great atmosphere, the story and mystery surrounding it, and how everything is open to interpretation make up for the quite bland and not very tight shooter mechanics. The shooter mechanics hold their own, but shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield have perfected these mechanics to the point that everything below that standard feels sloppy.

But Spec Ops’ finest aspect, where the game really shines is how the gameplay is interwoven with this narrative to not only enhance the story being told, but also to create a massive breakdown of modern military shooters and why they are so insane and disconnected from reality. Which of course ties in again with how disconnected from reality the war thing in real life is, the main theme of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. See what they did there?

They do this by starting the game as any ordinary modern shooter. Arab looking peeps come running over gun blazing and you have to shoot them. They are obviously bad guys, right? This changes quite quickly into shooting American soldiers. But hey, they’re shooting at you, and you heard people talking about how this “Damned 33rd” division went rogue, so shooting them is ok, right? And before you know it, you are actively murdering civilians, seriously believing that to be the best solution to the problem. Still convinced that you’re the good guy, the hero, and that they gave you no choice.

And the game calls you out on this. The first time this really happens is when, in order to press forward, you have to battle a small army worth of soldiers of the Damned 33rd. A conveniently placed white phosphorus mortar is the obvious solution. Your team mates have their doubts, but hey, what else are you gonna do? What follows is a typical modern warfare satellite-view point-and-kill mini game where you have to click the white dots representing the enemy soldiers on the ground and then a mortar lands there. You get a big adrenaline rush as you see a large group of ’em stacked together behind an entrenchment, and you don’t hesitate to click. Boom, one hundred points.

After this mini-game, you have to walk through the terrain you just bombarded. Have you ever seen what white phosphorus does to a human being? I dare you to google it (seriously, NOT for the faint of heart).  Yeah. As you walk through the still smouldering corpses, some of them still alive, begging for you to kill them, you get to the entrenchment where the large group of white dots was. Turns out, those white dots were not ‘enemy soldiers of the Damned 33rd’. They were civilians. Now all laying in a big burning pile, thanks to you. In the middle, you see the corpse of a mother still cradling her also burned-to-death child. You begin to feel seriously ill.

Now, modern shooters have done the ‘shock’ scenarios before. Remember the ‘No Russian‘ outrage? The big difference is that these shock scenarios were usually orchestrated by the villains, the evil Russian/Arabs/Chinese/North-Koreans or whoever the hell else was threatening the big ol’ US of A. They were meant to make the player angry, to desensitise them. To make the people responsible a clear evil enemy who has to be stopped, preferably by putting a bullet in their brains. Spec Ops is different in that here, the player, an American soldier who only wants to do what’s best is responsible for the massacre. They make the player feel guilty about their actions and powerless at the same time, this in stark contrast to the power trip these shooters usually provide.

As you descend deeper into the madness and insanity of Dubai you come across more of these kind of scenarios. Every time they play out wrong because of what you did, and you begin to doubt the sanity of Captain Walker, while at the same time growing increasingly nervous about the whole situation. You completely lose track of who is good and who is evil. Is there even such a thing? When a large mob of angry people is threatening you because you destroyed their only water supply (in the middle of the desert) in an attempt to hinder the Damned 33rd, what do you do? The only way forward is through the crowd.

In the beginning, the loading screens were just giving the usual tips on how to play the game. “Press Ctrl to toggle crouch”.  But now they are starting to taunt you. “This is all your fault”. “Can you even remember why you came here?”. “Do you feel like a hero yet?”. Sometimes they even try to comfort you in a way that makes you even more uncomfortable. “You are still a good person”.

This descent into madness is also visible in the characters and the gameplay itself. While at first you are a tight-knitted group of clean shaven professionals, as more things go wrong, the whole team changes. Where at first the orders and reports are neat and clean (“Target down”), near the end they are shouting and cursing (“Target fucking down! And stay the fuck down!”). At the beginning of the game, executions were clean head shots. Near the end, you are savagely bashing in heads, shooting knee caps and savouring the fear of your victim.

At this point you also become more aware of the fact that a lot of what you are seeing is not actually real. You start to guess this as the whole scenery and soldiers become more and more unreal, and your actions more over the top, but it is confirmed after the fight with your deceased squad mate Lugo and the whole scene with Konrad in the end. How everything plays out exactly is left open for interpretation. One possibility is that Walker died in the helicopter crash, and the rest of the game is his purgatory, as mentioned by the writer of the script.

Some people react to the white phosphorus scene with an indignant “but the game did not give me any choice!”. But that is exactly the point. While some scenarios do give you an alternative option, the one option that is always present, is to stop playing the game. Konrad even says this directly to your (the player’s) face: why did you not stop? Why, through all of this, when everything was going wrong, while you knew that you were only making things worse, why did you, the player, and Walker continue? To feel like a hero? Was feeling like a hero really worth all this suffering? All of this could have been avoided if you had simply not been there. Players will answer: “but I had to, to progress in the game!”, which poses quite a nice (and horrible) question about games and escapism themselves. All this time, the game was using shooter mechanic to talk about our ridiculous behaviour in other shooters.

After being berated by the game like that, while already feeling utterly miserable about my actions, I decided to put a bullet through Walker’s brain.