Spec Ops- The Line


My friend Dan, who edits all of my Whitless Letters, told me that as payment for his next one I had to watch him play this game Spec Ops- The Line and then write a blog post about it. Now, I don’t normally play shooters. I certainly don’t play anything that resembles Call of Duty or Modern Warfare. Well, I’ve played with my dad on occasion but my inability to shoot straight in tense situations and duck has rendered me fairly useless.

Not to mention…they bore me. They honest to goodness bore me. Walking and shooting…not my thing as it turns out. The wartime games I’ve always found unsettling. Which I’ve never considered a bad thing.

And for the first two hours of gameplay? That’s exactly what Spec Ops seems like. You play a Delta Squad soldier named Walker who is tasked with rescuing civilians from the almost destroyed city of Dubai. There are sand storms, there are rebels, there are many things to shoot and many orders to give. Pretty typical.

And then something happens. And I’m going to warn you now, this is going to be a spoiler heavy post.


Ye be warned…

There’s a substance called white phosphorus which is used as a weapon in warfare. It burns both your insides and outsides terribly and is probably one of the worst ways to die. You’re introduced to it somewhat early in the game when you come across some corpses that have been affected by it, as well as seeing the smoke linger in the air.

Then just a little while later, you are suddenly confronted with a massive amount of armed forces standing between you and your only exit. They don’t know you’re there and there is a stash of white phosphorus waiting to be unleashed. Your squad is dubious of using such a substance, but the game clearly dictates that it’s either this or getting gunned down. So off you go.

You launch the phosphorus into the air, which is hooked up to a remote camera system. On the ground you see the soldiers outlined as small white figures. Naturally, you aim for every white figure you can see, watching them go down one by one as the phosphorus bomb hits them. I had actually played a mission like this in Call of Duty, so it was nothing new to me. Then you see a large clump of white figures in the back and without hesitating you unleash the last phosphorus on the mass of soldiers who would otherwise have killed you.

Except that large clump wasn’t soldiers. They were civilians. And those soldiers had been protecting them. As the smoke clears, you’re forced to walk through the still dying piles of soliders you have just murdered, some of whom are begging for help. Then you get to the back and the true horror of what you done is right there in front of you. Warning, the following image is incredibly graphic.

spec ops- white

And amazingly, you find yourself going through the same thought process as the character on your screen: it wasn’t your fault, there was no choice, you didn’t know. And just like the character, despite all the protests, despite all the defenses, you can’t escape the terrible feeling that because of you, innocent people died.

After that, it’s a very different game.

From that moment on, Spec Ops: The Line shifts from being a generic war shooter to being a commentary on PTSD and the entire genre of wartime shooter games. That’s right, a wartime shooter is criticizing its own genre.

I watched a video of a show called Extra Credits who reviewed and analyzed the game. I would highly recommend you watch that. They have some amazing insights into how the game was designed. One thing they mention right from the start though, and I can’t help but wonder this myself, is just how this game managed to get greenlit.

As the story progresses, Walker becomes more stressed and on edge. He starts swearing more, his voices loses that tone of disciplined military training and sounds more like a frustrated, angry yet guilt ridden man. He gets injured, covered in grime and blood and burns. He has black-outs and hallucinations that are equally unnerving to you as they are to him. Essentially he goes from looking like this:

spec ops- before

To looking like this:

Holy crap.

Holy crap.

His squad starts to bicker as the killing increases and they question their actions. In fact, the more decisions Walker makes, the more you start to question his status of “hero”.

The people and places around Walker don’t cut him any slack either. A “villain” simply known as the Radio Man continually taunts you over the radio, telling you who you have killed and details about their lives. You’ll overhear soldiers talking about their home lives right before you sneak up and execute them. Good and evil become impossible to determine.

In other words, the evil guy isn't like this.

In other words, the evil guy isn’t like this.

There are moral choices to make throughout the game that are ambiguous. Save the CIA agent who is vital to your mission or save two civilians being held hostage? Or do nothing at all? Sometimes it’s not even apparent there is a moral choice to make. Whatever you decide doesn’t affect the outcome of the game. It does affect you though, and it affects how much of an impact it has on Walker.

Then, just as you think you have a handle on what the game is trying to say, it throws you for a loop again in the end sequence. Walker realizes how far off the deep end he has gone, and is essentially listening to his hallucination (a colonel he respects and loves who we thought we had been talking to on the radio for half the game) point out that this is all his fault, that he could have stopped at any time, but he had to keep going, and because of that, many, many people are dead. He finishes it with one statement:

“You’re here because you wanted to be something you’re not: a hero.

And there is the message of the game, told to you like a punch to the gut. But he’s not really speaking to Walker. He’s speaking to you, the player. And it’s horrifyingly true. Sure, we felt like we didn’t have a choice. The game provided us little choice throughout the game. But that didn’t mean that we had to keep going.

At any point, you the player, could have simply turned off the game. You didn’t have to make Walker go through the hell that he did. You didn’t have to keep shooting countless people. But you did.

This is your fault.

This is your fault.

I have never seen a game do this. Criticize its own player for becoming desensitized to the violence and horror of a war game. It forces you to really look at what you’re doing. It makes you regret  your actions. It makes you watch a man slowly lose it before your eyes. It essentially makes the game not entertaining in the slightest. But it sure does impact you. And it does so very subtly.

Which is huge for a game of this sort. The creator actually said that if people turned off the game after the white phosphorus scene, then he has succeeded. He considers it a success if people DON’T finish the game. Think about that.

I’ve gone on far, FAR too long :D. I didn’t mean to make this so…paragraph-y. But if you don’t play the game, at least check out what people are saying about it. There is unlikely to be a game like it for some time.

Oh yeah…and the voice for Walker? Also does the voice of Nathan Drake. Imagine him going crazy.

I'll never look at him the same way again.

I’ll never look at him the same way again.


One more point. This is also another example of what games can do. Think about a war movie you go to see. Think about how it might affect you. It might make you feel bad, or sad at the despicable characters onscreen. Now imagine being a part of that decision making process, imagine becoming an accomplice to the despicable actions being performed. This is what a game can do, and it is this sort of realization that is putting them up into the high art form that things like theatre and film normally occupy. They’ve become much more than the simple Donkey Kong game of years past. They’re maturing and evolving. Not that a good game of Bejeweled hurts either :D.

Posted on April 15, 2013, in Gaming, ramblings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. It’s rare that I read something that is filled with spoilers, but I played a few minutes of the game myself and I didn’t very much like it. The gameplay felt very “been there done that” and overall it didn’t feel like a very fun game. But after reading this blog and reading about how incredibly different this story is, it makes me really think about myself as a gamer.

    I consider myself pretty hardcore and knowledgable as far as games are considered, but your blog really made me question myself. Have I become so spoiled by my favorite games that I forgot to remember that every game has a story that it is trying to convey and that if I can look beyond the gameplay and graphics that I might walk away a satisfied person, or better yet, a changed man?

    So I thank you for this read because this has hit me deeper than I would have thought possible. I’m going to go pick this game up and experience it for myself.

    • Aw, thanks. I’m really glad that you’re going to give it another chance. And yeah, to be fair, from what I’ve heard and seen, the mechanics are fairly basic and outdated. It’s very easy to think it’s another copy cat because for quite a while that’s what it is. Not even in their advertising did they even hint at what it was actually about. Glad you enjoyed the blog!

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