Spec Ops: The Line is one of those interesting games that seemingly appears to sporadically pop up in brief mentions on places like the /v/ board of 4chan or the Steam forums whenever someone just so happens to play it for the first time. It wasn’t a major release by any stretch but has gotten a good deal of exposure to gamers simply because it’s also one of those games that happen to pop up on just about every Steam holiday sale. When it does get these brief mentions, reactions are by and large the same and countless others come out of the woodwork to recollect and share their experiences of trauma. In a way, often times these collectives almost act as a small mutual aid group like AA to both induct and offer support to a new victim.
To take a step back and provide a bit of background on this title, Spec Ops is, or more accurately, was a tactical shooter franchise from the late 1990s to early 2000s. The last entry before The Line was released back in 2002, a whole decade earlier. While bringing decaying franchises back from the dead is no unique feat, Spec Ops remains largely unknown even among veteran gamers especially given the monumental and overshadowing success of Call of Duty and Battlefield in more recent history. Also aside from being under the umbrella of the Spec Ops franchise, The Line has very little in common with its initial motivations or titles which aimed to bring a “realistic” bent to the shooter genre straddling that fine line between the simulation-nature of Arma to the Michael Bay-esque abundance of Call of Duty.
The Line is more fantasy then reality, taking place in a pseudo-apocalyptic Dubai where sandstorms have literally engulfed the city leaving behind a vast desert canyon with walls made up of a meshing of skyscrapers and sand. In other words, not the more stale and contemporary setting one would expect from a tactical shooter hoping for realism or parallels to current military operations.
Narratively, The Line seems quite derivative as wel,l borrowing from both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation Apocalypse Now. The main antagonist is aptly named “John Konrad” and mirrors Marlon Brando’s Kurtz as a mad self-appointed despot in a foreign land. With Spec Ops: The Line, things have simply been recontemporized going from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the Near East. The Doors “The End” have subsequently been replaced with various tracks from the likes of The Black Angels, Mogwai, and NIN.
What immediately is striking about Spec Ops: The Line, at least when people talk about it in Internet circles is that there is a lack of understanding of why the game seems to resonate or stick with people long after playing. Most sentiments summarily seem to state a sense of nausea and self-loathing that has never occurred before, at least with this medium.
On the surface and procedurally-speaking Spec Ops: The Line is seemingly quite unimpressive. It does appear by all intents and purposes to be a cash-in on a popular genre of games. Procedurally, it plays like dozens of cover-based shooters already on the market and brings nothing new to the table. That’s not to say it does it poorly, on the contrary played casually I actually found the game quite fun and worth a purchase which naturally leads me into my own experience with this title.
As indicated, this title was a familiar one to me prior to purchase as it regularly popped up on Steam sales and on its store front. It largely didn’t interest me until it went on a highly discounted sale with an available demo to try out. I did so, and found it engaging enough to pick up. What followed however was not at all what I expected.
“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”
The notion that violence in video games and in other media has had an effect on society isn’t a new one. And really only ever seems to be posed when a mass shooting occurs and various news outlets, the NRA, and Hollywood start to play the blame game. As seen with Sandy Hook, the NRA’s following statement blamed the glorification and casual treatment of violence in films and games as a culprit, not the lack of gun control.
It has conversely been the stance by both Hollywood and videongame developers that there hasn’t been any clear evidence to point to their works as being harmful in the least and blame was thrown back the other way.
Spec Ops: The Line seems to stray away from their brethren though and actually pose the question of whether or not the overabundance of violence in games is damaging, and more importantly, the way in which it is treated as arbitrary or even commonplace.
The issue with games like Call of Duty isn’t that they are inherently violent, rather that the violence, shooting, and killing, is quantified and reduced to a mere gameplay mechanic. It isn’t any different from dropping blocks in Tetris or scoring a touchdown in Madden. It’s a means to achieve a winstate and the emotional baggage or toll is often never addressed. If they ever are, it is done through textual or narrative means, and not through the processes or procedures of the game.
While this is largely not an issue of realism since The Line is far from it, violence in the real world is never so casual. Those in war often return mentally broken and damaged beyond repair and it’s important to note that nearly none of these individuals go through the torrent of violent acts that most video game protagonists deal with continuously.
I remember playing through Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater where the game had a sequence which had you walking down a river of death dealing with all the lives you took. Keep in mind that Metal Gear is a stealth franchise where kills can be avoided entirely. That said, my walk down that river was long and tiresome. The number of ghosts that passed me by were easily nearing the triple digits, putting me past the majority of the worst serial killers in history. Regardless somehow both Snake and myself felt no guilt or demons at all the lives lost by our hands. Those people were simply obstacles in our way from achieving a winstate. My only real thought or emotion at the time was to limit enemies killed on my next playthrough for bragging rights.
Spec Ops deals with death both differently and in the same manner. At the onset, you immediately find yourself in battle after battle with countless lives lost. But the repetition and how it is ultimately constructed paint it in a very different picture.
Procedurally, the game introduces a rigged choice mechanic that forces the player to perform absolutely horrendous acts in order to progress. This isn’t akin to the nonsense of the airport scene from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where shock without proper context was simply used to drum up more publicity, here these acts play into the narrative and often times you as the player don’t even realize the extent of what has occurred until afterward.
The white phosphorus mortar attack is the clearest example of this where the squad is met with the 33rd blocking their path. The player is directed towards a mortar with phosphorus shells as a means to dispatch the 33rd forces. Already this is a moral quandary since while it seems the 33rd are renegades and acting outside the scope of control, they are still/were American soldiers. Lugo, one of the squadmates, even questions the validity of its usage. Before resting control back to the player, Adams comments that there is no choice. Lugo responds saying “there’s always a choice.”
Despite this, the player isn’t inherently given much choice. I’ve gone back and seen what would happen if you simply try to take the 33rd on without the white phosphorus and odds stacked against you are insurmountable. Also, even if you hack the game with a hex editor/debugger, the game has no alternate trigger set in place to progress. In fact, it seemed certain hostiles kept respawning making it impossible to beat without the usage of the white phosphorus.
Actually shelling the men is a disconnected affair. The view is pixelated and monochrome seen from the birds-eye view of a drone’s camera. The killing is simple and detached as possible. The player using thermal vision, targets both vehicles and groups of men that show up on the display. The shelling ends when you finally dispatch an enormous group to the North.
Once done however the squad walks through the carnage and the sight is one to behold. Men with limbs burnt off, many still alive and crawling across the floor like some hellish version of Johnny Got His Gun. Screams abound and another minor choice offered. As Walker, you are confronted with ignoring the cries of pain, or putting them out of their misery as you walk by. Both Lugo and Adams will verbalize their disbelief at the situation and as Walker, you respond by telling them to shut up and ignore the screams. As a player you still have the option of putting the various soldiers you come across out of their misery, but the damage is done and neither choice will make you feel any less sick.
Surprisingly this initial carnage isn’t the worst of it. As you continue upward, you come across a dying soldier who painfully asks “why?” and that “we were helping…” before ultimately succumbing to the burns. At the same time the squad sees a group of huddled burnt corpses. All clutching each other in protection and frozen in screams or pain. The realization is absolutely sickening and it’s clear that you as a player not only murdered hundred of soldiers that were actually helping the citizens of Dubai, but dozens of the very citizens you are here to rescue.
The only way to win, is to not play
Ultimately the game makes you culpable and guilty for violent acts in a way video games have shied away from. Violence takes a mental toll and the remainder of the game continues this trend with Walker literally losing his mind.
He sees the faces of his squadmates in enemies he kills blurring the distinction between friend and foe also serving as physical manifestations of fighting guilt, and schizophrenically fires at mannequins in an abandoned store not realizing there is no one there.
When Lugo gets lynched by an angry mob, as Walker players shoot into the air to disperse the crowd. But by this point most players have shook the notion that Walker is a hero and act emotionally and angrily, shooting into the crowd instead. The game doesn’t direct this action but it’s an available choice.
By the game’s end it becomes obvious that much of Walker’s actions didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Through flashbacks we see him talking into a radio without a battery and certain scenes play out differently then we previously experienced. It becomes clear that Walker’s mental state was unstable far before it initially became apparent. This makes sense as players who play as Walker, we wouldn’t immediately notice our own deteriorating mental health. It is thus revealed that Walker ultimately rewrote much of the narrative we experienced earlier on to justify the atrocities committed.
Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t only throw criticism at its own industry however for depicting violence without consequence, rather those who engage in it, and especially those that play this very game and irrationally feel compelled to keep playing despite the horrendous nature of it. Walt Williams the lead writer stated “one of the game’s endings is simply for the player to put the controller down and stop playing.”
While this might be an odd suggestion it makes sense in context of a medium that is largely interactive. With a film or text, we are never participants but outside observers but with games we are always front and center, the main instigator of action. We are as culpable for what happens as the developers and writers who crafted the scenarios contained within. When one watches Schindler’s List, we witness the horrors and are shown why as a society we cannot forget such tragedies to ensure they never happen again. But with Spec Ops: The Line, while this same attitude can be taken, it also has us actually committing the atrocities ourselves.
It’s also quite telling that the game seemingly doesn’t offer much in reward for completing the game. Multiple endings are available but none of them offer the least bit of satisfaction or comfort to the player. It’s honestly hard to even see one out of the possible four as a “good” or “best” ending. Very much like the changing state of Walker physically, with his uniform getting torn to shreds, body armor full of holes, and half his face and ear burnt off, his mental landscape is past any sort of recovery. At the final confrontation between himself and Konrad, it is revealed that Konrad committed suicide long ago. All that remains is his decaying corpse calling basically the whole game’s narrative into question.
Walker was never in contact with Konrad, Lugo and Adam’s constant questioning could have been more about his illogical choices rather then poor moral judgment. But ultimately it points to an inextricable need or desire to mold a character like Walker into a hero mold which ultimately can’t be done. Anyone capable of going through the trials he and many other video game protagonist’s endure cannot psychologically be rational functioning heroes. Hero protagonists if faced with the real world ramifications of mental health would all have thousand yard stares forever haunted by the countless lives they took. Either that or they were sociopaths to begin with.
While this doesn’t mean they are inherently evil or bad people, it does mean that such abuse will leave anyone broken. Thus Walker’s internal narrative and the one shown to us as players is twisted and rewritten to thrust him in a role that has him carrying out a heroic takedown of a villain that never existed. There was never any “big bad” or singular enemy in Dubai. Like the real world, conflicts hardly ever have clear and easily defined enemies. Largely to fit Walker into the hero trope and meet both genre and player expectations, a villain is fabricated. Konrad, while not a real threat, serves as an easy face to a problem that never had an easy solution.
The Line does offer four endings and while it’s not majorly significant, it is worth at least taking a quick look upon. The first split occurs when the player is ultimately faced with a decision to shoot at “Konrad” or shoot yourself. Konrad is knowingly dead at this point and shooting him most likely means re-repressing this knowledge and continuing the untrustworthy narrative. The first ending and possibly the best since it’s the only one that sees Walker pay for his own crimes is choosing to shoot yourself. The game then simply ends with you looking down at your own corpse next to Konrad’s while it fades to black then credits. Dubai is still in ruins with its remaining inhabitants doomed however this is probably true in any of the possible endings.
The other three endings are possible if you choose to shoot Konrad instead and largely depends on the outcome of a final confrontation between a now shell-shocked Walker and an Army convoy an unknown amount of time later. The three outcomes are leaving with the convoy, wiping out the convoy, or dying by their hands. If the player leaves with the convoy, he is immediately questioned about how he survived, to which Walker replies “Who said I did…?”
If Walker is killed, a flashback is played where Konrad in response to Walker states “Home? We can’t go home. There’s a line men like us have to cross. If we’re lucky, we do what’s necessary, and then we die.” Conversely if Walker is able to wipe out the whole convoy, he simply says “Gentlemen, welcome to Dubai” cycling back to the beginning of the game. Both the mention of the “line” by Konrad and Walker’s response into his survival indicate that war or violence in general is something that does have a breaking point. A point that if reached, people cannot come back from.
Ultimately none of these outcomes really provide the player with satisfying closure. Nothing is really added since Walker crosses that line long before the player ever reaches the end. Also, nothing of value was achieved by virtually any of the military forces Walker included. If anything the situation was made far worse by in-fighting and mounting tensions between the army and the native citizens. For example there was a point where Walker and others stole the remaining water but in the process lost all of it due to the truck overturning. Citizens can then be seen scrounging up what they can with buckets and empty gas cans. Walker walks past with these citizens verbally attacking him.
It’s an interesting scene since video games often put focus on allowing the player to play out these Hollywood action sequences with no regard to the actual toll they are taking around them. Many of the seemingly arbitrary firefights in Spec Ops: The Line often result in an accidental loss or damage to the innocents of Dubai. Early in the game, there is a huge firefight in a market. During this sequence, Walker runs into a side passageway to make ground on the hostiles and amidst the bullets whizzing through the air, a woman runs out to get away from the chaos. Ironically the game slows down considerably when this happens almost telling the player to not shoot and giving them the proper opportunity to do so. But admittedly I am so trigger-happy and stressed out at this point that I shoot her down anyways and only realize my mistake afterward.
Viscera Cleanup Detail a comedic game about a janitor who has to deal with the aftermath of these types of sequences opens up an interesting perspective on just how much damage is wrought. As a janitor, you are given gloves, a mop, and various other tools to clean up the blood, gore, and entrails that the protagonist of a game left in their path. It’s incredibly difficult and frustrating. The mop continuously gets too dirty in blood and needs to be rinsed out. Your feet leave bloody footprints behind you so are also frequently cleaning areas you have already mopped. Severed limbs and entrails splatter blood everywhere if not handled properly and must be picked up by hand and disposed off.
While seemingly nonsensical, it links up to Spec Ops: The Line quite nicely in that it’s a physical representation of the effects of gameplay that go ignored. Games often have dead bodies simply vanish or despawn not even allowing the player to have to look at their handiwork. With a game like The Line, you are constantly reminded of the violence and damage dealt by you as the player it’s never something to feel good about.
So in comparison to the available endings, Walt Williams on simply not playing the game does make a great deal of sense. Dubai while still in trouble would be in a much better state if Walker never stepped inside. The amount of collateral damage he leaves behind him such as the accidental shelling of innocents would never occur. The game provides a flipped lose and winstate where the winstate is actually far worse then simply losing or quitting. It’s an interesting mechanic in that previously games have always worked on the idea that players will and are always incentivized to reach a winstate regardless of the context. But Spec Ops: The Line seems to have an issue with this notion that can easily be irresponsibly used to instill certain behaviors and attitudes in players. As games are largely a procedural medium, players will naturally make mental connections between obtaining winstates and the processes involved in order to achieve this. With the abundance of violence in the medium, the issue is immediately obvious and a sense of responsibility seems to be needed when doing so.
This isn’t to say violence is directly a negative aspect of the medium, rather the way in which it is dealt with. Plenty of games such as Saints Row transcend Spec Ops in terms of depravity and violent content yet never enter an area of questionable motives or attitudes. The protagonist in Saints Row is always portrayed as a psychopath, one not to be emulated in the real world. Also, the tone of the game is very much tongue-in-cheek with violence serving more as a device for humorous spatial interactions, rather then violence itself. Thus acts like running over pedestrians or smacking people with a giant purple dildo never comes across as being problematic from a moral level. It’s also difficult to see Saints Row in a realistic context given its extremely cartoon-like nature.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game I did in fact play through completely. I even somehow sickeningly played through it a couple more times to get the all achievements for it but it also made me sick to my stomach. It’s a game I have both considered playing again to explore further, but also one I am hesitant to touch given the mental toll it already took. The last time I played it, I actually got nervous muscle twitches and ended up uninstalling it the same day. I couldn’t even stomach playing most other games for awhile after that since many only served as a reminder of it. Ultimately and contradictorily it’s both a game I find recommending to people but also telling them not to play. It definitely deserves praise and possibly a playthrough, but it might be safer to just open up Youtube and watch someone else play through it.