Spec Ops: The Line is harrowing. That’s not something I’ve said about a game before; I’ve been scared by games, sure, maybe even upset, but no game has ever made me feel like Spec Ops has.
Just to let you know, there’ll be spoilers, here. I can’t say what I want to say about this incredible title without, well, talking about what happens in it.
Another disclaimer, before I really get up to speed – Spec Ops: The Line isn’t a fantastic game. It’s a means of telling a story, but the actual game part of it, the bit where you hide behind cover and shoot men in the head with a variety of guns and wait for your health to regenerate while the screen goes red and fuzzy, is strictly by-the-numbers. It functions.
But that’s not a reason for you not to engage with the title. You might as well say that you’re not going to read a book if it’s printed on shoddy paper: the words are still legible. The plot still rattles on. The pages can still be turned.
It inverts the generic
When it begins – and in almost all of the marketing material – Spec Ops: The Line looks very generic. It’s a game where you play US soldiers wearing brown and grey clothes and you shoot brown and grey men in brown and grey environments on behalf of the US Government. It’s even got Nolan North doing the main character’s voice, for God’s sake, a man who’s voiced more video game characters than you’ve eaten hot dinners.
And, well, fair enough. Trying to fit the psychological torment of the game into a fifteen second ad-slot in-between episodes of The Simpsons is difficult, and it’s a hard sell. “Hey, you know all those war games where you’re a hero? Well, this is basically like that, except by the end of the title you’ll have the blood of more innocents on your hands than you can count and you’ll hate what you’ve become so much you’ll contemplate suicide! Buy it now, at HMV!”
So the trailer features crashing helicopters and tactical gunplay and running jumping shooting and military hoo-rah, and the opening chapters are made up of much the same. You’re on a mission. You have some wise-cracking buddies who come along with you and offer support and advice. You duck behind cover and shoot things with one of two guns.
But it’s a trick, see. It’s supposed to be generic. You’re supposed to feel comfortable with what you’re doing because it’s all fine and accepted until, weirdly, you’re not but you’re still doing it anyway. The latter half of the game, action-wise, remains fairly generic – you’re still a soldier, you’re still storming bunkers and shooting stuff and throwing grenades and so on, but the reasons for doing it are very different.
You undergo and witness a terrifying transformation
The plot, in a nutshell: Good Men go fight Bad Men for Good Reasons and then become Bad Men themselves along the way. Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, that sort of thing. The villain’s even called Konrad, if that means anything to you.
It’s not a story that’s been explored in games, much – Far Cry 3 is doing some really interesting things with it though – and Yager are being clever with how they tell you about it. Your character model changes throughout play, and you go from being fresh-faced blue-eyed Captain Walker of the Delta Force rescue mission to a filthy, bloodstained lunatic over the course of a few days. That’s a nice touch, but it’s not unheard of in games – Batman gets holes in his cape, after all, and Nathan Drake looks increasingly like he needs a shower as his narrative rolls on. The smart bit comes in with the vocal options.
The characters chat to each other, see – talking about the battlefield, saying when they’re hurt, letting you know when targets have been killed, and so on. At the start, Walker talks in crisp military terms – “Tango down!” or “Engaging!” or “Adams, flash that bunker and move in!” – all very Call of Duty, sanitising away the unpleasant elements of war with jargon. The fact that you’re killing people by shooting them until they die isn’t so much of a concern when you’re just compromising them to a permanent end, after all.
But as things go wrong, he changes. The desperation and stress of what he’s done is shown in his voice, and he gets angry at his men when he has to resort to telling them what to do – when, in other terms, you use the in-game targeting system to focus fire on a particular target.
And in the final scenes of the game, he’s a maniac. He’s screaming orders at men that barely care. When he eliminates a hostile, he shouts “He’s fuckin’ dead!” or “Fuckin’ STAY DOWN”, after a brutal execution. It’s scary; he’s gone wild, having lost the rigid structures of control that we place on the act of government-sanctioned killing to make it seem all right in a world where we can see footage of it taking place.
What does it mean, when that’s frightening? While the actions of Captain Walker don’t necessarily change all that much (you spend most of the game fighting the same regiment with the same weapons using the same controls) as you strip away the barriers that sanitise them, they go from being exciting to upsetting. The mission, the uniform, the jargon, the framing of military service as work: all of these fade away and you’re left with a man killing other men because that’s what he’s doing, now. Death is terrifying, and society – and games, too, perhaps even more – have done a lot to rationalise it away as a necessity, a cleansing act. And it’s not.
Captain Walker’s actions are pitched well; at no point, even though you’re acting without orders for much of the story, do they feel forced. He’s sent on a recon mission, which becomes a rescue effort, which becomes a quest for vengeance, which becomes firing a minigun mounted on an attack helicopter destroying the only building that might lead to rescue just to spite his enemies. At no point does any of this seem out of character, until you think about it after the fact.
After the fact, we have the benefit of hindsight: and, also, the benefit of a montage of your worst excesses played to you at the end of the game. Some of the actions that you take seem over-the-top, or ridiculous or, well, incorrect. But during play, they don’t. At no point whilst I was bombing it round the radio tower in the helicopter, tearing up generators and equipment with hundreds of rounds a second, did I think that it was the wrong thing to do. It was the right thing to do! I was angry, and frustrated, and people were looking to me for leadership and I had to do something. Everything you do, in-game, makes sense.
Your squad-mates change, too; your heavy gunner, who once acted as a voice of reason and survival, goes cold and distant and responds to your orders in clipped tones. At one point, he asks you if you feel like a hero yet. He hates you – you, the character, and you, the player.
And still, there’s more. The close combat – which works on a two-step system, where the first attack floors enemies and the second, if you’ve got time, kills ’em on the ground – changes too. At the start, you punch men out, or shoot them once through the head before taking cover and moving on.
At the end, you’re jamming your gun in their fucking mouths. You’re shooting them calmly in the knee and then again, in the face and chest, two or three times while they roll around in pain. You can’t really see their faces when you do it in the early stages of the game, but later on, you see how terrified the enemy are of you. The camera gets in close. Their eyes widen and cast around in panic, sweat beads on their foreheads, and then you kill them. Or maybe it just felt that way.
You find yourself controlling a character that’s actively scaring you, and you start feeling sorry for the Bad Men – who now don’t seem so bad all of a sudden – that you’re tearing your way through with fully-automatic weaponry. That’s impressive, right there, to make a player scared of the person they’re controlling. To have them upset at the very slaughter they themselves are continuing to wreak on unsuspecting men for reasons they can barely remember. To make the murder of thirty or forty men in one sitting somehow feel scarring and banal.
Games are a fascinating way of telling this story, and Yager have worked that out – using the dialogue, the setting, the story progression and even chillingly distant messages casually delivered on loading screens. (My favourite: “This is all your fault.”)
You’re not only watching someone go through this story – you are someone going through this story. You live in the character, and with the benefit of a third-person perspective, you can feel some empathy for them too. You can see them – yourself – getting shot, and hurt, and losing their grip on sanity. It carries with it a lot more emotional weight if it’s up to you to survive.
And there’s a third perspective, too, because you’re not Captain Walker. You’re someone sat at home in front of their Xbox, pushing buttons, doing this for fun. You’re pushing a man on a murderous rampage through madness and into some dark, unfathomable calm because nothing’s on TV. This is entertainment. Are you having fun, yet? Do you feel like a hero?
There’s a moral choice system, but all the choices are wrong
In a game about becoming a Bad Man, you’ll doubtlessly have some moral choices to make – usually these tend to revolve around either “Help this man paint his house” or “Drown this man in his own paint while rubbing yourself through your trousers,” and they can get a bit tiresome. InFamous, for example, would provide you with big chunky binary options and you could choose whether you wanted to be a goody or be a baddy depending on which high-level power set you felt like playing with.
Spec Ops doesn’t do that. It’s really good at not taking control away from the player during the choices, and not resorting to a scene in which you can push A to be nice or B to be a dick. In one scene, you’re given the option of opening fire on a group of civilians who’ve just beaten a member of your squad to death and hung him from a lamppost; an entirely justified action on their part, seeing as you just unintentionally lost the majority of Dubai’s water in a move that will see the entire city dying of thirst in four days.
They surround you. They push you, and punch you, and hurt your character, and your surviving team-mate is scared and saying how they’re closing in and asking repeatedly for permission to open fire. Your mission brief just reads “Get the Hell out of there” and you have a gun, and a reticule, pointed square at the crowd. They just killed your friend. There’s no other way out. The game is telling you to shoot them; they’re not innocent any more, after all.
But you don’t have to. You can nudge your right thumb stick, raise the reticule above the heads of the crowd, and fire over their heads to disperse them. You don’t get an in-game reward for doing it – no scruffy, big-eyed brown orphan runs out and gives you a special extended clip for your rifle – and, in fact, your squad mate asks why you’re suddenly interested in saving these people again, considering what you’ve just done to their water supply.
And it keeps happening. There aren’t any right choices to make. Shooting those people would have been justified by whatever your moral code has become warped into at that stage of play. Everything you do sees your character wind up a useless, shattered madman at the end of the game – and here’s the kicker, right, the only decent thing you can do is kill yourself. There are three options at the very end of the game and the happiest one, if you can strap a word like “happiest” onto this game, is the one where you put a bullet through your head and die alone.
That’s a powerful message, especially considering how keen publishers are to have player character suicide in their games (here’s a clue: not very, on average). The other two endings see you massacring the relief squad sent to pick you up and dying in a hail of bullets, or going calmly with them and making it very, very clear that you’re so broken now you might as well have died. You don’t get to save the world, or the Kingdom, or even your friends. You don’t make anything better. That’s a difficult thing for a game – a medium ostensibly about winning – to say.
Death of the Author? Death of the Combat Designer, maybe
In the closing section of the game, you get your hands on a fully-automatic shotgun. It’s the best weapon in the game, period. You point it in the vague direction of stuff and then stuff dies when you pull the trigger. Big, scary stuff too – the armour-wearing Heavies, who were before then a serious cause for concern, are easily destroyed by blind-firing this thing round a corner at them. It erases any chance of challenge in the final combat section. Is that a bad thing?
Perhaps, from a game design point of view. The difficulty is fair throughout, and there are only a couple of sections which’ll see you cursing in frustration, but the ending of a game is – traditionally, at least – harder than the rest of it, and forms a climax to the play experience. But if you think about that shotgun from a storytelling perspective, it makes perfect sense. You know I Am Legend? Well, You Are Legend, pal, with a fully-automatic shotgun in your bloodstained hand. To the men you’re fighting, you’re a terrible creature who’s barging into their homes and murdering them.
And once you view the gameplay through that lens, other things start making a sort of sense. That gun emplacement section went on for too long because it was supposed to go for too long. The enemies stupidly wander out from cover and die in droves because killing people is easy and fun. I don’t know whether these are just bad design, but they fit with the themes of the game if you squint.
Spec Ops: The Line tells a fantastic story because not only is what it saying culturally relevant, but it uses quirks of the medium to tell it. It’s chilling, and flawed, and brutal and beautiful, and it’s the way I want games to be in the future. Maybe it’s the way that they should be.