SPOILER ALERT: I will be talking about crucial plot points in Spec Ops: The Line. Be Oscar Mike if you haven’t played the game and you don’t want it spoiled for you. This article also contains some disturbing imagery. Viewer discretion advised.
Spec Ops: The Line is the most effective, most subversive game about military shooters ever made precisely because of how false and unplayable it is. It’s not a fun experience in the least. The moral grey zone, the violence, the boring slog, the utter insanity and unreality of it. Not because of its mechanics or graphics, but rather because of how it uses its shortcomings and limitations to show the player some uncomfortable truths about our vicarious enjoyment of digitized murder. You’re not a hero this time, you’re something else.
Pretty heavy shit, huh?
Last week, I wrote all fancy-pants about the mythology of war that modern video games promote: the sense that you, as the player, are a near-invincible representation of Western military might. That myth is single-handedly destroyed by Spec Ops: The Line. It’s not a perfect game, but that works to its benefit in what it’s trying to communicate to you: that your “heroic” deeds can quickly become twisted and perverted, and with one mistake, you find yourself a monstrous villain in your own story. The color of war is profoundly grey: muddled, murky water pouring out of a smashed 18-wheeler truck.
Walker – The Sandman
Captain Martin Walker is presented to us at the beginning of the game as a sparkling brand-new G.I. Joe: a Delta Force Operator with top tier training, a simple mission, and the trust of his two squadmates. Walker’s the Dad, Adams is the Mom, and Lugo is their precocious child: the nuclear military family. Forget the fact that fire teams are four-five people, the sniper Lugo needs a spotter, they’re not wearing flak jackets or body armor (60+ pounds of gear), have little to no radio contact with their base, never call for backup, never perform any actual recon other than looking in a room for 5 seconds, etc. The layers of unreality around Walker set him up as the ideal soldier: calm, collected, ruggedly handsome, confident. Even his first name, Martin, comes from the name of the Roman god of war: Mars. These men, these super-soldiers, are in Dubai to get the job done. Let’s do this.
In reality, Walker is a borderline psychopathic murderer on the precipice of madness, as heroic as Pol Pot, crippled by post traumatic stress disorder from his near death experience in Kabul. The same incident permanently linked him with Konrad: his savior, his messiah. That unholy terror of death broke Walker as a person, and we as the player, are forced by the game to make him suffer more and more. Make others suffer more and more. What does that say about the player? That we’re some sort of torturer? Maybe we’re putting Walker through exposure therapy (har har) by forcing him to relive these experiences all over again. Walker is a broken tin soldier, obviously suffering from PTSD. Let’s look at the man’s actions, and by extension, yours.
The symptoms of PTSD normally involve the following:
- Feeling of mistrust or betrayal (“The 33rd are traitors. They must pay.”)
- Intense morale certitude (“We’re here to save these people no matter what the cost.”)
- Unwillingness to revisit traumatic events (“What happened in Kabul?”)
- Emotional numbness (“We need to keep moving…”)
- Hallucinations (“Welcome to Hell, Walker.”)
He’s the only video game character in a modern military shooter that actually suffers any sort of consequences for what he does. His outlook darkens, his motives less morally clear. He becomes the walking dead: a shambling corpse with a gun. Your character model gets progressively more fucked up, more bloody and burnt from the set-pieces. You never sleep or eat or even drink water, indicating your character hasn’t done any of these in two days. Nolan North’s incredible vocal performance even changes. Later in the game, Walker’s orders become barking shouts, he curses violently when injured, and becomes disfigured to the point of being almost unrecognizable.
One of the things that bothers me about modern military shooters the most is that the faceless characters never feel any sort of aftereffects of the incredibly intense combat they engage in. There’s no cost. Even if you’re in the moral right, such as defending someone with lethal force, there are still emotional consequences to that. Civilized human beings simply aren’t built to murder, they have to be trained, conditioned, and prepared like action figures. Not Walker: he bears the weight of his choices, your choices.
Even in the end, if you choose to surrender and survive, Walker is still a shell-shocked husk of a man. What future is there for him? What have you really spared him from? His final lines, “Who said I did?” echo off his empty future. Or if this is Purgatory, what else will he have to endure?
After the initial opening firefight, the enemies you face in Spec Ops: The Line are almost exclusively fellow American soldiers from the 33rd Battalion. You, the American Hero, here to save the day from the big baddies, slaughter literally hundreds of American soldiers. In a triple-A video game. Made in America.
That big detail alone sets this game apart as something unique, powerful. There’s very few things more powerful in American that the glorification on our military personnel. They’re one of the few social groups almost completely above criticism. We forgive soldiers for potential American war crimes because they’re just following orders, as if putting on a uniform absolves a person of moral responsibility. The choice is always there, but the military conditions critical thinking in regards to authority completely out of recruits: break them down so they’ll obey without question. Technically, a military couldn’t operate effectively if every soldier started asking “Why the fuck are we shooting these human beings again?”
The opening firefight is a pretty masterful act of misdirection (this is also the demo, by the way. Think about that.). You think you’re going to be fighting those dirty Arab sandpeople. Nope. You don’t get to indulge any racist escapist fantasies in this fucker, you’re fighting your fellow Americans. For a very long time. If you’re like me, and you’re interpreting the game as a purgatory for Walker, who died in the initial helicopter crash, perhaps all these American soldiers you’re fighting are the men who have died, directly or indirectly, because of Walker’s actions, and you’re forced to repeat the cycle over and over again until Walker can atone for his sins. Like a repeating level checkpoint.
Walker continually tries to rationalize his command decisions, aka “You brought this on yourself”, yet the entire reason you’re forced to murder American soldiers if based on a simple miscommunication: the 33rd think Walker’s squad is CIA trying to cover up atrocities the 33rd committed keeping order in Dubai. That’s it. That’s the catalyst for the entire apocalypse. Someone made a mistake. Walker’s motives for continuing on become more and more convoluted, confused: a spiraling downpour of hubris, hatred, pride, and misplaced honor. Eventually, his motives devolve into simple, animalistic revenge.
The game offers you “executions”, even reminding you on the masterful loading screens that enemies won’t drop their weapons until killed. Enemies don’t always die when downed. Sometimes they wriggle and moan painfully, or crawl away slowly. Ammo is scarce in Spec Ops: The Line, and the game gives you a subtle choice: kill the enemy for his ammo in a gruesome way, or forgo that help. They’re helpless: at your mercy (or lack thereof). I chose neither. If I saw an enemy downed but not killed, I put them out of their misery with a single headshot. That was my choice, and I always disliked having to do it.
The game’s most infamous sequence is the white phosphorus (“Willy Pete”) attack on the 33rd Battalion encampment at the gate. Spec Ops: The Line very cynically puts the player in the position of one of those birds-eye view, infrared sequence so popularized by other, lesser military shooters. You get a cool piece of powerful military tech, while being personally completely safe from harm. You see white blotches running back and forth, which Adams shouts out targets. You fire. Stuff blows up. Gnarly.
Notice: it’s not Walker’s idea to us the white phosphorus mortar, it’s Adams’. And Lugo, acting as our moral conscience, rightfully objects. The player probably objects as well. They don’t have to do this, but like Walker’s sense of military hubris, the player is forced to rain down fire.
White phosphorus is one of industrial society’s most heinous weapons when used as an incendiary device. It burns incredibly hot, sucks oxygen out of the air, and sticks to what its ignites. It’s napalm on steroids. If you’re hit with it, besides being blinded and choking to death on phosphorus fumes, the 5,000* substance will burn a hole right through your body.
The sequence before the phosphorus has the player seeing the effects close up on a hostile target, with a fight between an EOD Heavy and some gunners. But those are the Bad Guys, so it’s okay. After the mortar attack that the player performs, when other games would have politely moved on from the carnage, Spec Ops: The Line makes you slowly, agonizingly cross the blasted hellscape of the battlefield. Soldiers, legless and charred, crawl towards you begging for help. There’s a particular horrifying moment where you pass a destroyed Humvee and you hear someone banging inside. Someone still alive.
See the entire sequence for yourself:
His cold, impassive face reflected on the computer as he rains down destruction. Kind of looks like a computer monitor, doesn’t it?. His face is the player’s face. Your face.
After your walk through hell, you come upon the trench filled with dead civilians, including the horror of what you’ve done. Of what the game made you do. Like how Walker passes off blame on what he’s done continuously to the easy out of “following orders”, the player has to make the same rationalization.
The game made me do it.
“I didn’t have a choice.”
The 4th Storm Wall
Spec Ops: The Line‘s greatest unintentional success is using its mediocre mechanics to convey the experience of unreality to the player. Enemies spawn from obviously telegraphed monster closets. Movement is clunky, with context sensitive buttons often misfiring. Shooting is kind of dull, with cheesy slow-mo moments when you snag a headshot. Weapons feel weak and unimpressive, like toys. Most of the levels feel like a grind. Graphically speaking, the game is no powerhouse. I feel like this lack of polish was a happy accident, that Yager Games realized they didn’t have the budget and time for a larger, more impressive game mechanics-wise. I honesty also don’t feel it was intentional on their part to use its gameplay as a metaphor, either. No one sits in a conference room and states to their dev team, “We’re going to make our game kind of boring and play worse to make an artistic point!”
The official term for this is “meta-fictional”, when the content of a medium is used to comment on itself. Whether or not Yager planned for its games to have circa-2006 style gameplay, the sneaky result of this is the player is put in the position of having to ask themselves, “Why am I playing this? Why do I play these games at all?” The slog ends up as a smart comment on grinding stop-and-pop mindless action, smashed against a powerhouse narrative about the ambiguous morality of modern warfare. It can’t help but call attention to itself.
While this is more ambiguous, under-the-surface style of telegraphing a meaning to us, the game has a much more visible, obvious way that it shows us that it’s just about more that grimy murder in the sand. There are very special moments in the game where it bends the fourth wall to the point of breaking. After Willy Pete, and the trauma it causes Walker, he finds a small radio where (he believes) he is talking directly to Konrad. His first words to you are about how everything is falling apart and you are the cause. He asks tough questions of Walker. Is he talking to Walker or to you the player? The first mission objective that populates is a cryptic, eerie, one word command: ”Obey.”
After Willy Pete, the game starts to turn inwards and cannibalize itself, turning on the player. Cynical strange messages start to appear on the loading screens:
Other small subversions start appearing, such as chatter from Radioman proudly stating that this is “family entertainment,” even going so far as to shout “Rated ‘E’ for everyone!” Konrad’s face actually appears on billboards and advertisements, indicating something is wrong. Maybe with us, definitely with Walker. All is not right, and visual details like this tell the player that mindlessly jumping on that turret, wasting American soldiers indiscriminately, should give us pause.
Finally, after all the bodies have fallen, spawn closets cleared, EOD Heavies downed, health regenerated, you finally shamble your ways towards Konrad’s Tower. The final boss level. Our perceptions of what we expect from an ending are once again subverted, denied the pleasure of putting Konrad down. We find him in a quiet, empty luxury suite, painting an image of horror.
In a devastating conversation with the Big Baddie, Colonel Konrad himself, the big twist is revealed. You were imagining Konrad the entire time, all of your hallucinations was Walker simply trying to falsely project his own guilt onto someone else, an intangible bad guy responsible for all the suffering in Dubai. We’re pretending to be Walker, who is pretending to be Konrad: an escapist fantasy in something pretending to be an escapist fantasy. Down the rabbit hole we go.
The entire artifice of the game is thrown right in our face like a frag grenade. Konrad berates Walker for pretending to be a hero, for enjoying his power, mocking his denial of guilt, exposing him for what he is: a monster. This is a very heavy-handed thing to lay on a player, almost accusatory. Should we feel bad for enjoying digital murder on a mass scale? Maybe, maybe not. Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t want you to stop playing military shooters. It wants you, using its mechanics, its narrative, to simply pause for a moment and think about what you’re doing. In a genre dedicated to constant, hyper-stimulated action, this is heresy.
In the end, you’re not a hero. You never were.
Next Week: In the final installment of War Games, I’ll talk about the ARMA series and its dedication to simulation.