Spec Ops: The Line is a game that was as defining to videogames last year as The Walking Dead and Hotline Miami. This is a spoiler-free article – Iâ€™m not uncovering any major plot points – but if youâ€™re super sensitive to that sort of thing, do yourself a favor and play the game first. Itâ€™s only around eight hours.
You’re still a good person.
Spec Ops: The Line is an action game about war. You play as a member of Delta Force, sent into sandstorm-stricken modern Dubai to look for survivors after a failed evacuation attempt. It’s a squad-based, third-person cover shooter.
Unlike most shooters, you spend a lot of time looking at guys youâ€™ve just shot in this game. And generally, you also just come across bodies a lot. After a firefight thereâ€™s always a number of guys wounded, crying and screaming. The dead do not look like theyâ€™re at peace. They look like theyâ€™ve been shot and suffered before dying. At one time I die when a grenade falls nearby. The protagonistâ€™s, Walkerâ€™s, face passes close to the camera, mouth open in shock and horror, eyes bulging out of the head. I havenâ€™t seen anything that graphic being done to the hero in a war game before. It feels like the moments after a firefight are as important as the actual fighting.
Thereâ€™s a pivotal scene in the game in which you use your authority as the commanding officer and have your team commit something that results in an atrocity. Once the totality of what I had done was uncovered, I was horrified by my actions unlike ever before in a game. First the dying guy with the burned, blackened face accusing me (calmly and rightfully), then the piles of the dead, then my comrades losing their shit over what I did. What I had them commit.
I felt really sick aiming down my sights in the next scene. So much so that I actually had to stop playing for the night. I didnâ€™t want to go on. I didnâ€™t want to shoot another guy. In Brandon Keoghâ€™s â€œKilling Is Harmlessâ€, he notes that the first song in the game proper is Mogwaiâ€™s â€œR U Still In 2 It?â€, and if thatâ€™s what the game is asking me (it is), this is the point where I was no longer into it. I did not want to pull the trigger anymore.
When you come across another pile of bodies, you canâ€™t help but think if itâ€™s about the same amount youâ€™ve killed during your stay in Dubai.
Thereâ€™s always a choice.
Because itâ€™s a squad shooter, thereâ€™s always two guys following you around. Having them around has dramatic weight. Your squad mates are witnesses and a moral compass, you care about how they feel about things. When things start to heat up, itâ€™s your buddies who really give you an idea of how far youâ€™ve fallen. â€œWe must keep movingâ€, Walker says a number of times when the other hardened Delta operators are struck by the events and their role and need to take a break. They make convincing, natural comments on whatâ€™s happened and canâ€™t just take things in stride. They can’t forgive and forget.
Itâ€™s a good third person shooter, actually. I donâ€™t remember the reviews saying that. The enemy variety isnâ€™t on the level of a Gears, but itâ€™s really solid and smooth. I do enjoy playing it, thereâ€™s none of that Kane & Lynch issue of lack of quality and polish detracting from the gameâ€™s other virtues evident here.
Iâ€™m struck by how much color and ambience they get out of the setting, starting from the very first shots. They do wonderful things with light. The animation is really good and itâ€™s actually important in bringing across everybodyâ€™s humanity and the deteriorating control and composure of the protagonists. As the story progresses, the Delta operators become bleeding, ragged wildmen, half-burnt and disfigured. Their animation and expressions match this gradual change. You likely donâ€™t even realize itâ€™s happening until you have a flashback scene back to the beginning of the game, where the protagonists are all clean-shaven and confident. At the end theyâ€™re little more than animals.
Itâ€™s all your fault.
The Line is really well written, not just on the thematic level, but on the micro level. All the chatter and the small cutscenes between the fighting and the reveals flow along and thereâ€™s never a feeling of â€œjust let me play the gameâ€. Iâ€™m actually interested in what everybody is saying and doing and becoming, because none of it is inconsequential. Thereâ€™s weight to everything – everything is said and done for a reason. Itâ€™s amazing that a military shooter manages to carry tension with just the character drama. You are never worried about or anxious about the â€œmission parametersâ€, or actually even the enemy threat. Itâ€™s all about the insecurity of what youâ€™re doing.
There is no right or wrong here, save to not come into a situation you donâ€™t understand and try to make everyone do what you want at gunpoint. Everybody involved has committed atrocities and seeing how youâ€™ve done so yourself – out of necessity, or desperation, but surely with the best of intentions? – itâ€™s not hard at all to understand how it all came to pass. What possible good outcome could there be? The Line doesnâ€™t give out answers, but it does require you to ask the questions.
Because the game is so well written, you take it seriously, and you start to view parts of the whole differently. For instance, you have the option to use silencers. There isnâ€™t actually any point to it because every single encounter will result in a loud shoot-out. At most Iâ€™ve been able to take out two guys silently before it goes to hell. The only reason I still use silencers after I realized how pointless they are is because the violence makes me queasy and Iâ€™d rather not have my gun reporting loudly all the time. That and thereâ€™s the thought that maybe, just maybe in this instance weâ€™re actually able to avoid more bloodshed by playing it tidy. That never happens. In any other game I would say it has pointless and broken stealth mechanics, but here it feels deliberate.
Most games pretend they donâ€™t have all the incoherent videogame stuff going on, quietly asking you to shrug to yourself. â€œItâ€™s just a game.â€ Spec Ops: The Line acknowledges discord and when things are out of joint. Itâ€™s not accidental. Itâ€™s there on purpose. The contrast of the the game doing its best to make violence hard to stomach on a thematic level while making it as enjoyable as possible on a tactile, reactive level, is never accidental. The protagonists question the wisdom of the choices they make and try to make sense of a deteriorating situation, try to redeem themselves.
Killing for entertainment is harmless.
I am amazed that 2K agreed to publish the game as-is. For instance, thereâ€™s a couple of moments when the surrounding world is reacting to what youâ€™ve done. Theyâ€™re calling you a murderer, aghast and enraged, and with good cause. It feels really bad. Youâ€™re the monster. Youâ€™ve become the enemy. Theyâ€™re appalled by your actions, and how do you respond? By killing some more.
You descend into an emotional state thatâ€™s really removed from the way you feel in other shooters. The developer, a German studio called Yager, is smart enough to have everything descend with you – the actors start screaming obscenities, firing in anger, using excessive force as you become more desperate. Your buddies fall out with you and start not just questioning you but outright blaming you for what theyâ€™ve become. Itâ€™s a weird place to be.
The game is full of hallucinatory details you donâ€™t necessarily notice at all, even upon the introduction of overt hallucinatory sequences later in the game. Yager does a good job of playing its cards closely and leaving the details to be discovered. There are moments where I went â€œwait a minuteâ€ over something, but then chalked it up to â€œa videogameâ€ and shrugged. Case in point: the Hellish view of the dozens of hanged soldiers on the highway. Even if you donâ€™t see anything wrong about what youâ€™re perceiving, it all adds up in the back of your head.
There is an outstanding use of music throughout. Itâ€™s not your typical macho military score, either, rather distorted, echoing guitars and selected rock pieces to give emotional weight and depth to scenes. It further skews things into a questioning space. Itâ€™s rare that I want to listen to game soundtracks these days, but having completed the game, I had to revisit the important songs to review my emotions and thoughts.
There is not a man righteous.Â
The Line has been criticized for not truly allowing choice. Like this military shooter should have an option ofâ€¦ notâ€¦ shooting everyone in the face. Of course it doesnâ€™t, because itâ€™s a shooter. You know youâ€™re playing one. The choice you have is to not play the game. The Line knows this and reminds you of it all the time. It wants you to take responsibility in what youâ€™re doing, and think about what youâ€™re playing.
Walt Williams, the writer of The Line: â€œThatâ€™s what we were looking to do, particularly in [that one pivotal scene], is give direct proof that this is not a world that you are in control of, this world is directly in opposition to you as a game and a gamer.â€ (http://www.giantbomb.com/news/this-is-all-your-fault/4291/)
But actually the game is smarter than that. It does give you a number of important choices, although you may not even realize youâ€™re making them at the time. The overt binary choices, by contrast, feel like red herrings to satisfy your gamer instincts.
The way you get into the protagonistâ€™s – Walkerâ€™s – head is much more powerful than in most â€œroleplayingâ€ games. Itâ€™s a state you donâ€™t really want to be in, but itâ€™s effective nonetheless. Itâ€™s wrong, but you understand it. These may be â€œjustâ€ soldiers shooting people and doing horrible things on the battlefield, but for once, youâ€™re there with them and you live through it. Even with its intentionally fourth wall breaking moments, The Line never stops treating you as a player in the drama. You canâ€™t escape the blame.
Your perspective on the factions at play – the 33rd, the CIA, the insurgents, the refugees, your own squad, yourself as a player – changes all the time, rather deliberately. Now youâ€™re working to save the soldiers, now youâ€™re killing them, now theyâ€™re the good guys and youâ€™re the bad guys – but that canâ€™t be right? It not so much asks you to keep up but aims to confuse you, to have you shoved from conflict to conflict, spinning in your head, trying to do the right thing, ending up making things worse for everyone.
Do you feel like a hero yet?
Crucially, even with a number of big reveals and turnarounds, there is no â€œrightâ€ way to interpret The Line. Nothing quite seems to click with any one explanation. What parts were real? What were not? All that matters is the journey the player took.
Spec Ops: The Line was a financial failure and a mixed critical success. Itâ€™s disappointing and frustrating that a game so objectively good (in my subjective opinion, obviously) and so important canâ€™t find a market. How should a game like this be sold? Iâ€™m not sure, but you canâ€™t sell it as a Call Of Duty style title, because it isnâ€™t one.
The things I would hope many more games would take from The Line are giving player room to think and reflect, and actually asking them to do so. Obviously you also need content that is worthy of that contemplation. Any decent movie, action or otherwise, does this. There is no reason why a game shouldnâ€™t.
Rock Paper Shotgunâ€™s Alec Meer said it: â€œMost of all, Spec Opsâ€™ uncompromising gaze into the heart of darkness left me feeling abjectly awful, as though Iâ€™d been somewhere intrinsically rotten and done worse things in it. I almost canâ€™t believe this got made, let alone released by a major publisher. Thatâ€™s exactly why it impressed me so much.â€ (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/06/29/spec-ops-review-pc/)
Spec Ops: The Line is an important game. Even if you disagree with what itâ€™s doing, you canâ€™t deny that it has a message and it has meaning – so much meaning, in fact, that itâ€™s the game Iâ€™ve read the most aboutâ€¦ ever. I completed the game last Sunday, then read 50â€™000 words about it, and then proceeded to read a further dozen in-depth interviews and critiques of it, and then I had trouble going to sleep because I was thinking so hard about the fact that itâ€™s something I want to make.
Iâ€™ve said for some years now that I want to make games that matter, but Iâ€™ve had trouble showing an example of that. The Line is that game.
Brendan Keoghâ€™s book-length critical reading of the game, scene by scene, â€œKilling Is Harmlessâ€: http://stolenprojects.com/
Polygonâ€™s in-depth discussion of the narrative with the developer: http://www.polygon.com/2012/11/14/3590430/dont-be-a-hero-the-full-story-behind-spec-ops-the-line â€œDavis and Williams wanted to create a game that would challenge the player, and bother them a little. They didn’t want it to be necessarily fun. They wanted to say something.â€
Lots of insight from The Lineâ€™s writer, Walt Williams: http://www.giantbomb.com/news/this-is-all-your-fault/4291/
Tom Bissellâ€™s thoughts on The Line in the context of violent (military) videogames: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8157257/line-explores-reasons-why-play-shooter-games