Spec Ops: The Line (PC)

Critics have been hard on the game’s graphics, but I found it beautiful. And it’s all set in sand. I expected it would be boring visually.

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 – I’m not uncovering any major plot points – but if you’re super sensitive to that sort of thing, do yourself a favor and play the game first. It’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 you’ve just shot in this game. And generally, you also just come across bodies a lot. After a firefight there’s always a number of guys wounded, crying and screaming. The dead do not look like they’re at peace. They look like they’ve been shot and suffered before dying. At one time I die when a grenade falls nearby. The protagonist’s, Walker’s, face passes close to the camera, mouth open in shock and horror, eyes bulging out of the head. I haven’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.

There’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 didn’t want to go on. I didn’t want to shoot another guy. In Brandon Keogh’s “Killing Is Harmless”, he notes that the first song in the game proper is Mogwai’s “R U Still In 2 It?”, and if that’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 can’t help but think if it’s about the same amount you’ve killed during your stay in Dubai.

Not only do you deal with death, you deal with the dying. Frequently by your own hand.

There’s always a choice.

Because it’s a squad shooter, there’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, it’s your buddies who really give you an idea of how far you’ve fallen. “We must keep moving”, 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 what’s happened and can’t just take things in stride. They can’t forgive and forget.

It’s a good third person shooter, actually. I don’t remember the reviews saying that. The enemy variety isn’t on the level of a Gears, but it’s really solid and smooth. I do enjoy playing it, there’s none of that Kane & Lynch issue of lack of quality and polish detracting from the game’s other virtues evident here.

I’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 it’s actually important in bringing across everybody’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 don’t even realize it’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 they’re little more than animals.

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The transformation of the protagonists is thrown into stark contrast with the way they started out as towards the end of the game.

It’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 there’s never a feeling of “just let me play the game”. I’m actually interested in what everybody is saying and doing and becoming, because none of it is inconsequential. There’s weight to everything – everything is said and done for a reason. It’s amazing that a military shooter manages to carry tension with just the character drama. You are never worried about or anxious about the “mission parameters”, or actually even the enemy threat. It’s all about the insecurity of what you’re doing.

There is no right or wrong here, save to not come into a situation you don’t understand and try to make everyone do what you want at gunpoint. Everybody involved has committed atrocities and seeing how you’ve done so yourself – out of necessity, or desperation, but surely with the best of intentions? – it’s not hard at all to understand how it all came to pass. What possible good outcome could there be? The Line doesn’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 isn’t actually any point to it because every single encounter will result in a loud shoot-out. At most I’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 I’d rather not have my gun reporting loudly all the time. That and there’s the thought that maybe, just maybe in this instance we’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 don’t have all the incoherent videogame stuff going on, quietly asking you to shrug to yourself. “It’s just a game.” Spec Ops: The Line acknowledges discord and when things are out of joint. It’s not accidental. It’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.

Well, I’ll take any excuse for a shark shot.

Killing for entertainment is harmless.

I am amazed that 2K agreed to publish the game as-is. For instance, there’s a couple of moments when the surrounding world is reacting to what you’ve done. They’re calling you a murderer, aghast and enraged, and with good cause. It feels really bad. You’re the monster. You’ve become the enemy. They’re appalled by your actions, and how do you respond? By killing some more.

You descend into an emotional state that’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 they’ve become. It’s a weird place to be.

The game is full of hallucinatory details you don’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 “wait a minute” over something, but then chalked it up to “a videogame” and shrugged. Case in point: the Hellish view of the dozens of hanged soldiers on the highway. Even if you don’t see anything wrong about what you’re perceiving, it all adds up in the back of your head.

There is an outstanding use of music throughout. It’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. It’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.

As sun sets on Dubai, there's a strong feeling the darkness is descending on everybody involved.

As sun sets on Dubai, there’s a strong feeling the darkness is descending on everybody involved.

There is not a man righteous. 

The Line has been criticized for not truly allowing choice. Like this military shooter should have an option of… not… shooting everyone in the face. Of course it doesn’t, because it’s a shooter. You know you’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 you’re doing, and think about what you’re playing.

Walt Williams, the writer of The Line: “That’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.” (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 you’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 protagonist’s – Walker’s – head is much more powerful than in most “roleplaying” games. It’s a state you don’t really want to be in, but it’s effective nonetheless. It’s wrong, but you understand it. These may be “just” soldiers shooting people and doing horrible things on the battlefield, but for once, you’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 can’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 you’re working to save the soldiers, now you’re killing them, now they’re the good guys and you’re the bad guys – but that can’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.

The fights in sandstorms are intense.

The fights in sandstorms are intense.

Do you feel like a hero yet?

Crucially, even with a number of big reveals and turnarounds, there is no “right” 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. It’s disappointing and frustrating that a game so objectively good (in my subjective opinion, obviously) and so important can’t find a market. How should a game like this be sold? I’m not sure, but you can’t sell it as a Call Of Duty style title, because it isn’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 shouldn’t.

Rock Paper Shotgun’s Alec Meer said it: “Most of all, Spec Ops’ uncompromising gaze into the heart of darkness left me feeling abjectly awful, as though I’d been somewhere intrinsically rotten and done worse things in it. I almost can’t believe this got made, let alone released by a major publisher. That’s exactly why it impressed me so much.” (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 it’s doing, you can’t deny that it has a message and it has meaning – so much meaning, in fact, that it’s the game I’ve read the most about… ever. I completed the game last Sunday, then read 50’000 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 it’s something I want to make.

I’ve said for some years now that I want to make games that matter, but I’ve had trouble showing an example of that. The Line is that game.

Further reading:

Brendan Keogh’s book-length critical reading of the game, scene by scene, “Killing Is Harmless”: http://stolenprojects.com/

Polygon’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 “Davis 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.”

Lots of insight from The Line’s writer, Walt Williams: http://www.giantbomb.com/news/this-is-all-your-fault/4291/

Tom Bissell’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

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