I recently played a video game called Spec Ops: The Line. The game has been out for a while and I picked it up for twenty bucks at my local Gamestop. At first glance, the game appears to be yet another cover-based third-person shooter, the mechanics of which will be immediately familiar to anyone who played the extremely popular Gears of War series.
And indeed, the gameplay is solid, if unspectacular. But I hesitate to call the game “fun.” This sounds odd to me, since if a game is not fun, it must not be a very good game, right? In most cases, yes. But that is not the case with Spec Ops: The Line. The game’s storyline is one of the darkest of any game I have ever played, and it made me question my desire to play video games in which you mow down countless bad guys. It made me question the very morality of what I was doing, which to me was quite extraordinary.
The game takes place in Dubai, which has been ravaged by the worst sandstorms in recorded history. When the storms started getting really bad, Dubai’s politicians and wealthy citizens abandoned the city, leaving everyone else behind. A decorated but troubled military commander, Colonel John Konrad, volunteered his unit, the fictional Damned 33rd, to help the relief efforts, and then deserted when the 33rd was ordered to abandon the city.
Dubai became cut off from the world, and 6 months later a looped radio signal is broadcast, saying: “This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll: too many.” Hearing this, the US military covertly sends in a three-man team of Delta Force operators: Captain Martin Walker (the player-controlled character), Lieutenant Alphonse Adams, and Staff Sergeant John Lugo. Their mission is to confirm the statuses of Konrad and any other survivors, and radio for extraction.
What starts out as a simple recon mission soon turns into a soul-shattering descent into madness. Given the setup, you’d think that maybe the 33rd was taken captive by some sinister group, you, the player, would rescue them, save the city, and everything would be fine, right?
Very, very wrong.
It turns out that there’s a whole civil war going on in Dubai, being waged by various factions. Some of the 33rd is still loyal to Konrad, while some of them rebelled against him. There is also a group led by a handful of CIA agents, who don’t want the truth of what happened in Dubai to reach the rest of the world.
When you, the player, first encounter members of the 33rd, they think you’re with the CIA and attempt to kill you. This leads to the very unusual (for a video game) scenario of you having to fight and kill fellow American soldiers.
Wait, what? Aren’t you supposed to be killing the bad guys? The question the game asks is a familiar one, but relevant nonetheless: Who is the real bad guy? The answer, the game suggests, might surprise you.
As you progress through the game, you eventually come across an area heavily fortified by the 33rd. There’s a mortar nearby, and Walker decides to use it to clear the area with white phosphorus shells.
Now, white phosphorus is extremely nasty stuff. It causes deep second and third degree burns, and it sticks to the skin and can cause extensive damage to internal organs due to being absorbed by the body. If you really want to, you can go to Wikipedia for an image of the kinds of injuries it causes, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s an image I’m not going to post on my blog.
So, in the game, you use the white phosphorus mortar to clear the area of hostiles. As you move through the carnage afterward, you encounter a severely burned soldier, on the verge of death.
“Why?…” the soldier croaks.
“You brought this on yourself,” Walker replies.
“We were helping…” the injured soldier tries to say, but dies before he can finish.
“What?” Walker asks, confused. He looks around, and sees something. “Oh, no…” he says softly.
It turns out that the 33rd had been providing shelter for civilians, and you, the player, have burned them all to a crisp.
Here’s the scene on YouTube, if you can stomach it.
Walker is heavily traumatized by this turn of events, and Adams and Lugo begin to lose their faith in their commander. Walker vows revenge against the 33rd, blaming them for, as he sees it, forcing him to fire the white phosphorus.
A little later, you find a small radio through which Konrad begins communicating with Walker, and openly questioning the morality of Walker’s actions. Walker refuses to take any responsibility for what he has done, and blames Konrad for forcing his hand. Adams and Lugo grow more and more distrusting in their commanding officer, and begin to voice their distrust more openly.
Walker, Adams, and Lugo eventually team up with a CIA agent named Riggs, and help him hijack the tanker trucks carrying Dubai’s water supply. Riggs, however, intentionally crashes the trucks, intending to wipe out the entire remaining population of Dubai so that no one will know about the atrocities committed there. And so you, the player, are once again (at least partly) responsible for an atrocity: the inevitable death of Dubai’s entire remaining population.
This image is of Walker as the game progresses. The deterioration is pretty obvious.
Walker is beginning to hallucinate, and Konrad continues to question his judgment, as do Adams and Lugo. After a helicopter crash, Lugo is lynched by an angry mob, and the player is given the choice to either scare the crowd away by firing into the air, or gun them down in payback.
Let me reiterate this: you, the player, are given the option to fire into a crowd of civilians to pay them back for the death of your comrade. This is almost unprecedented. I almost can’t believe something like this made it into a widely-released video game.
Walker continues to hallucinate, and Adams clearly no longer trusts him. Walker informs Konrad that he is coming to kill him, and Walker and Adams make their way to the tower (which I think is supposed to be the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building) where Konrad is holed up.
After another fierce firefight, Walker barely makes it to the tower, while Adams goes down fighting the last of Konrad’s men. As Walker enters the tower, the last of the 33rd surrender to him and inform that Konrad is on the penthouse deck of the tower. Walker goes to confront him, and at first Konrad appears to be the man behind the atrocities, until Walker finds his decaying corpse.
Yep, Konrad committed suicide well before the game began, and Walker has been imagining everything Konrad said to him in an attempt to rationalize his actions, and to distance himself from his guilt over having caused the deaths of so many civilians and fellow American soldiers. Walker’s projection of Konrad tells him that he had many opportunities to leave Dubai, but didn’t and pushed recklessly ahead from a misplaced desire to be a hero, and only ended up causing more death and destruction in the process. The game ends with Walker’s projection of Konrad pointing a gun at him (which is of course Walker pointing a gun at himself) and beginning to count to five.
There are a couple of different endings to the game after this point, but I will again refer you to Wikipedia for the details since there are other things I want to discuss here.
Spec Ops: The Line is nightmarish in many ways. What starts as a recon mission becomes a massacre, with the player character starting the game looking like this…
And ending it looking more like this:
In this game, you objectively fail your mission. Not only do you fail, you fail spectacularly: you spend the majority of the game fighting and killing American soldiers, and are responsible for mass killings of civilians on more than one occasion. Your actions have helped lead to what will probably be the extinction of Dubai’s remaining population, which is pretty much the exact opposite of your mission going into the game.
For much of the game, Walker blames Konrad for what has happened. The twist that Konrad has been dead the whole time of course means that Walker himself was entirely responsible for everything that happened. Revenge against Konrad was just a smokescreen, and Walker’s attempted rationale for the atrocities he himself commits turns out to be meaningless.
All of this is very fourth-wall breaking. Walker’s actions throughout the game are also the player’s actions, and the player is therefore responsible for some truly horrific deeds.
In most games, when you die and the game reloads your last checkpoint, a hint appears on the loading screen to help you out. Spec Ops: The Line does this as well, until late in the game, when different sorts of messages begin to appear on the screen.
Messages like this:
Do you feel like a hero yet?
Can you even remember why you’re here?
The United States Military does not condone the killing of unarmed noncombatants. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?
Killing for yourself is murder. Killing for your government is heroic. Killing for entertainment is harmless.
And perhaps most devastatingly:
You’re still a good person.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that makes you question your desire to play violent video games, even as you are in the process of playing one. It makes you think about all those violent games you’ve played in the past, and how you were so proud of yourself for setting a new personal record for most kills in one round of Call of Duty. It makes you question all those achievements you’ve gotten for killing certain numbers of enemies with different weapons in game after game after game. It makes you question the choices you make. It makes you question why you are playing this particular game, even as you continue to play it, and why like Walker, you stick it out to the very bitter end. It’s a deconstruction of the entire shooter genre, and while it’s not exactly subtle, it deserves credit for the questions it raises.
The implications of these questions are ones I don’t really want to think about, but at the same time, I admire the creators of this game for having the stones to bring them up. I think I read somewhere that one of the main inspirations for the story was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the parallels to which are pretty clear in the game.
Also of note is the terrific vocal performance of the great voice actor Nolan North, who does a tremendous job of conveying the erosion of Walker’s sanity as the game progresses. At the beginning of the game, Walker sounds cool and composed, as you near the end, he sounds downright frantic. Even if the name Nolan North isn’t familiar to you, I can all but guarantee you’ve heard his voice if you’ve played just about any game over the past several years. Seriously, the guy’s IMDB page is about a mile long.
There’s not really any specific point I wanted to make with this post. I spent a good portion of this last weekend playing this game, and it affected me so much I just had to get my feelings out, since writing is such good therapy. I’m sorry this post was such a downer, if you read it to the end, thanks for hanging in there with me.
The next movie I’m going to write about will be The World’s End, the reunion of everyone’s favorite crazy British actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost with everyone’s favorite crazy British director Edgar Wright. I’m really looking forward to it.
But until then, I need to go lie down.