The Playstation Plus service is constantly churning out classics to download on the instant game collection and this time around I was tentatively excited to play Spec Ops: The Line, Yager’s Heart Of Darkness inspired shooter that plenty of articles promised was more than meets the eye. I had hopes that it would be a rare breed of military shooter, one that engaged on a narrative level without pandering to the spectrum of fans who just like digitized murder. Nothing prepared me for what happened next…
Massive spoilers ahead, if you like the idea of playing a game and having what it makes great ruined, by all means go ahead.
LAST WARNING. I’m still going to be here if you want to quickly rush off and finish it…
After the grind and pain of hours spent dragging my battered body to this very moment, I turned the gun on myself and without hesitation pulled the trigger. It was the only logical and emotional outcome for me, faced with the destruction I had wrought across hundreds – possibly thousands – who had stood in my way to get to this point only to be taunted by one final, heart-breaking sight that had spelt out the true depths of my monstrosity. The decomposing corpse of John Konrad. It mocked any ideas of humanity left inside of me, the visions I suffered through all obvious hints that my mind had gone long before my body.
It feels only fair to start at the end of Spec Ops: The Line, because it not only has huge repercussions on the hours leading up to it – something that not all games can say – but it also leaves the biggest impact. Like any good ending, it is a comma for the audience, not a full stop. It is open and ambiguous, should you look your inherent guilt in the eye and choose to reject it. I went back immediately after my first ending and chose to ignore my guilt, just to see what would happen. Neither ending – rejecting or accepting my sins – offered absolution. Just the feeling that no matter what I did and for what reasons, I fucked up.
Spec Ops: The Line works so brilliantly because of how open it is for the player to read it. There can be many ways to interpret the events of the game and ascribe your own meaning to them. Walt Williams – the game’s writer – said in a fantastic interview with IGN:
“”You can even interpret Konrad as being not necessarily a delusion inside his mind, but some kind of external projection of his guilt in this purgatory or hell or afterlife, or however you choose to view it.”
In my mind, Spec Ops: The Line is an examination of the power of guilt, the kind of guilt that consumes all. Throughout the story, we see how Dubai slowly corrodes and exposes the lack of soul in three US soldiers. We feel the guilt tear away at Captain Walker – cough, that would be who you are playing as – and his teammates Lugo and Adams, changing them in subtle ways which slowly ramp up until all three demand blood for no reason whatsoever. They have made mistakes and look for someone higher up to blame and as their personalities slowly change before our eyes, the game subtly asks why you revel in their misery. Good luck in finding an answer.
The pivotal moment in seeing where this guilt evolves from comes from the infamous white phosphorous scene, which Williams talks about to Gaming Bolt in great detail here, where you rain down chemicals on supposed enemies that end up melting 40 innocent civilians. It not only gets a reaction from the horror of the visuals – a mother clutching her daughter, flesh dripping down her face like cooling candle wax – but reminding you that you were aren’t just complicit in this, you were the instigator. As you take control of the mortars, looking through a black and white screen that will be familiar to anyone who has played the Call Of Duty Death From Above mission, the game subtly reflects Captain Walker’s face back at you. It’s impassive and calm, kind of like someone who might be staring at the screen in their home. This is your fault. You chose to do this.
So while the events of the game will stick to your mind like blue tack, on a simple level, there is a certain gratifying element to the gameplay. Cover shooters shift millions for a reason and that’s because they focuses on quick tactics and instant gratification and Spec Ops is no different. But even that comes with the caveat that it tends to push the more disturbing aspects of warfare. When taking headshots, you’ll notice that the head completely disappears. At first, it kind of looks a little silly, but then as the game goes on, it forces you to contemplate just how quickly you are ending someone’s life. One click and gone, another solider left to rot like everyone else in the Dubai desert. Suddenly that gratifying pop of a headshot is replaced by an uneasy reassurance that you need to save ammo. If you can’t tell already, Spec Ops: The Line is brutal and seeing it through to the end will not make you feel any better.
But as you’ve probably guessed already, Spec Ops isn’t about the gameplay. I’ve always preferred story over gameplay and that’s probably why Spec Ops appeals so much to my sensibilities. Even the Fight Club-esque twist that forces you to see the world for the first time for what it is (clue: a lot of it was in your head) manages to feel fresh within The Line’s context. Why? Because despite the fact Blacks Ops pulled a similar narrative trick, it did so for cheap thrills, a pull-the-rug moment designed to make you go “whoa, I did not see that coming”. It means nothing and doesn’t affect the same jingoistic American sentiment that felt almost insulting.
Spec Ops uses this device to underscore its own themes and make you question why you’ve done everything to get to the end. It forces you to see the game through a new lens and to either accept or reject this new reality, neither of which is particularly pleasant. Although there are plenty of moments where the game hints at this twist, it still feels like an earned and powerful conclusion, one which will haunt you the next time you jump back into shooting people for fun.
The greatest compliment I can pay to Spec Ops: The Line is that throughout I felt like what I experienced was too much. There were times when I sat there and stared at the screen and didn’t want to carry on playing. I wanted to go away and bask in something colourful and not filled with questionable slaughter. But I persisted and the game rightly asked me why. It asked me how many Americans I had killed today and at the time I merely grew incredulous because I was stuck on a bit. Looking back, the game just furthered highlighted the disconnect between what I thought I was doing for fun and what I was actually doing.
Spec Ops: The Line has a great narrative that ingeniously utilises the strengths of videogame interactivity to emotionally break the player, to force them to live through the hell they usually merely witnesses in other war games. And really, isn’t that what we’ve always wanted?