Spec Ops: The Line instills the strongest sense of futility and self loathing I have ever experienced in a game. It is a game I doubt any player would consider ‘fun’ but I am certain every player would consider “frighteningly engaging”. Since its release, there have been countless analyses of the game’s motifs, symbols, themes etc. The purpose of this piece is to answer the fundamental question that many have overlooked. What is Spec Ops: The Line trying to say and how is it saying it?
Beyond just being a video game, Spec Ops: The Line is ultimately a commentary on the game design and narrative conventions that modern shooter games employ and the players that play these games. The goal in which Yager is trying to accomplish over the course of Spec Ops is to illuminate the absurdity of conventional shooter design and to condemn the player for adhering to its formula. This is done primarily by frequently and shamelessly exposing the player to the game’s three major themes.
- Player agency in games
- Glorified game violence
- Moral contextualism vs. moral binarism in games
It is important to note that these three themes all relate specifically to video games. Unlike works that have heavily inspired Spec Ops: The Line like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and more recently Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, this piece exists within an interactive medium – a video game. This implies that the player has a degree of autonomy over their choices in the game and aren’t inhibited by the words an author wrote or a scene scripted by a director. However, playing with choice in games isn’t a new concept either. For a while, developers have refined the idea of a game’s narrative being shaped by the players actions. The most relevant example would be Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, a point and click adventure that provides players with multiple dialogue options in conversations and the ability to save certain characters while leaving others to die to hordes of zombies brought together in a 5-part narrative. However, you’ll find in the video below that these games aren’t necessarily as open-ended as they may seem. This links to the first of Spec Ops: The Line’s themes – player agency.
PLAYER AGENCY IN GAMES
There are many instances where Spec Ops: The Line provides the player with choices. The most evident example of which is when Walker is faced with two living Dubai residents strung up, suspended by rope and being aimed at by distant snipers. Walker hears from Konrad over the radio that one of the men has stolen water, a capital offence while the other inappropriately apprehended the man by killing five of his family members. It is up to the player to pass judgment onto one of these two men by shooting whoever deserves to die. The snipers then shoot the rope of the man the player did not select, setting him free.
In two senses of the word, there is no “right” answer to this scenario. From a game perspective, choosing to shoot the water thief provides the same outcome as shooting the murderer meaning the player isn’t rewarded by picking a certain option. From an ethical perspective, who the player chooses to shoot is a question neither the player nor Walker has the right or authority to answer. Most players of Spec Ops: The Line would interpret this situation with simply two options, shoot person A or shoot person B. However, few players try to either shoot the rope suspending the two men, freeing them or to shoot the snipers aiming at the men. Despite thinking outside the box, players who follow this route are met with enemy reinforcements that overwhelm the player and will likely kill them. To add insult to injury, the snipers kill both men before Walker’s squad mates can shoot them down. Even when the player outsmarts Spec Ops’ game rules by taking a third option, the game punishes them heavily. This simply goes to show that the idea of a choice is completely an illusion. Even after the player has made their choice to save either the water thief or murderer, the entire situation is rendered meaningless when the game’s ending reveals all of Konrad’s communication and scenarios like this were simply manifestations of Walker’s obsession with the idea of heroism.
It’s not surprising to see that the most emotional scene in Spec Ops, the infamous white phosphorus scene, also relates to the theme of illusional player agency. Walker, Lugo and Adams are met with a heavily fortified military camp they must advance through to save a group of Dubai civilians. They are heavily outnumbered and would likely face a swift death if they were to engage by conventional means. Adams notices a mortar that fires white phosphorus shells, which emit a white cloud that burns the victim’s skin and provides a very slow and painful death. Lugo refuses to use such means and states they should find a more ethical way of advancing by saying “There is always a choice”. Walker responds with “No, there’s really not”. Walker, the player’s character, even states the futility of trying to make sense of a choice. The player can choose to not use the white phosphorus shells but will then face an infinite number of enemies with no way of replenishing ammo – using this mortar is the only “choice”. The game attempts to make the player feel a sense of detachment from the action on the ground by having the point of view from a drone camera that the player controls. It marks any enemies by white dots and the player lines up their aim over their border then pulls the trigger. After all the targets have been neutralized Walker and his squad must walk through the damage they have done and uncover an unsettling truth. Take a look below:
Choice or not, the player has killed dozens of civilians and they are personally held responsible for the atrocity committed by the hands of the developer. In Spec Ops: The Line, there are no choices in the traditional narrative capacity. The only choice that the player is faced with is if they put down the controller and stop playing or not. Konrad even states this in the finale of the game by explicitly stating to Walker, but more so to the player, that “none of this would have happened if you just stopped”.
To put in this in context for the readers of Heart of Darkness, as Marlow journeys towards Kurtz and the inner station from his own morbid curiosity so to does he explore the reasoning for why Kurtz has devolved from a noble conqueror to a deranged slaver. In Spec Ops, as Walker proceeds to continue this increasingly futile mission to rescue survivors from Dubai, his manifestation of his own madness and obsession with the idea of heroism, John Konrad grows ever realized and all-consuming of his psyche. The only choice these two protagonists share is the choice to fall deeper down the rabbit hole of darkness/ trauma or to stop their adventure all together.
None of this would have ever happened if you just stopped. – Konrad
After the game’s launch, it was noted in several developer interviewers that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was Spec: Ops’ largest influence, so much as to name the antagonist Konrad. Personally I believe it suits the genre and the medium well. Emulating the severity of certain themes found in the novella in an interactive game format allows players to witness the narrative and character arcs play out by their own hands. For example, madness is a common theme behind both pieces but unlike Heart of Darkness, the player is responsible for the devolving of the characters’ mental integrity as they both figuratively and literally pull the trigger which end the lives of hundreds of Americans.
Contemporary shooters don’t have the same focus on choice as Spec Ops does. In other games, the player is assigned a mission and can not proceed until said mission is accomplished. In Spec Ops, Walker has a mission but the reason behind the mission becomes more skewed as the game progresses and as choices are made. Walker attributes the more contentious acts of violence to the basis that he “didn’t have a choice” just like the player. Every major character in Spec Ops, tells Walker to give up on rescuing survivors as the mission becomes progressively more futile. Being the player however, a third-party wanting to witness the conclusion, they will keep advancing only to find more emotionally demanding scenes that shame the player for their foolish desire to be the hero and save the day. This allows both the player and Walker to experience the same sense of cognitive dissonance throughout the game. The game is so aware of this feeling that Yager included the definition of the term in the loading screens. Cognitive dissonance works well to drag a player unwillingly through a series of ethically questionable acts that they are required to carry out and then face the game’s denouncement of their actions instilling a sense of guilt and anger which combine for a truly unsettling experience.
This is one of three major themes that Spec Ops: The Line explores in attempts to elucidate the foolish design and narrative choices that modern shooters make and the consequences of an obedient player not questioning them.
GLORIFIED GAME VIOLENCE
Modern shooters today are plagued with game mechanics from infinitely spawning enemies to spawn closets to regenerating health. It was important for Spec Ops: The Line to adhere to as many of these as possible if Yager was to tell their story correctly. In order to show the foolishness of modern shooter design, Spec Ops The Line includes the following generic shooter mechanics and tropes among many others:
- Military theme
- Turret sequences
- Infinitely respawning enemies
- Cover system
- Regenerating health
- Bloodied screen effect
- Squad with wise cracking sniper and LMG wielding African-American
- Two weapon inventory
- Multiple grenade types
- Synchronized stealth takedowns
- Melee executions
- Explosive red barrels
- Heavily Armored Enemy (Juggernaut)
- Squad call outs
- Generic weapon arsenal
- Tight and responsive aiming
- Infinite stamina
- Enemies withstand unrealistic amounts of bullets (upwards of 5-6)
Before Spec Ops: The Line can denounce the player for their ruthless acts of violence, the game eases the player into the game’s culture by beginning with a turret sequence in which Walker guns down enemy helicopters during a sandstorm. The set piece is large-scale, high stakes and wouldn’t be considered out of place in other shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield. Following that, Spec Ops introduces the mechanics and tropes listed above. By about the 90 minute mark, the player has experienced almost all of the gameplay features the game offers. This was a common criticism for the game as critics found the gameplay stale and generic for the game’s entirety. For any other game, I would agree. However, I believe the genericism of Spec Ops’ gameplay strengthens the message of trivializing its genre’s conventions. If the game was very unique and shared very few elements with common shooters, it wouldn’t say anything about the conventional shooter market, just itself. The most important trope that Spec Ops includes though is gratuitous violence.
From a game design perspective, it is wise to include gratuitous violence in video games. It engages the player in a visceral way that they otherwise would not be able to experience (hopefully) and provides them with a sense of empowerment (read my Metal Gear Rising review for more on empowerment). Combine this with the conventional system of moral binarism, which reinforces the notion in the player’s mind that they are a force for an objective good and can single-handedly defeat any force for an objective evil and the developers have some pretty happy players.
Spec Ops: The Line does not follow this convention in the slightest. Indeed the game includes Walker killing hundreds of American soldiers and dozens of civilians, but the game frames this system as a product of the player’s own agency and not the game’s intention. For example, despite Walker mercilessly mowing Americans down that the game spawned and programmed to shot at the player, the player is still met with condescending loading help tips like “Do you feel like a hero yet?” or “How many Americans have you killed today?” This point ties back to the first theme of illusionary player agency as the player has no choice over the degree of violence but will still be condemned by the same game that forced them to carry out such acts. Unlike other military shooters, Spec Ops’ isn’t proud of the player for defeating the enemy and trying to save Dubai, it is disgusted by them and shows no hesitancy when reminding them how much of a monster they really are.
Spec Ops: The Line also shows the transformation of both Walker and the player from a stoic, pragmatic individual to a blood-thirsty, justice hungry monster in subtler ways than the loading tips. In the opening hours of the game, Walker’s call outs to his squad mates are precise and efficient (“Tango down” or “Neutralize that target”). Near the end however, these lines are much more savage and cruel (“He’s fucking dead” or “I want him dead now!”). Conversely, enemies who are more aggressive and harassing in their language at the beginning of the game, become much more calm and even afraid of Walker. Squadmates are also more reluctant to Walker’s orders. Additionally, Walker’s melee executions become increasing more violent. The opening executions are quick and efficient often involving a quick bullet the head. However, these slowly turn into Walker snapping a man’s neck, choking him out or bashing his skull in with the butt of his rifle. These all combine to show the effects of gratuitous violence on Walker, his “victims” and his squadmates.
At the root of all this violence, Yager clearly understands why players enjoy this trope so much – a power fantasy. Many people would argue that they play video games to escape reality and explore new worlds. Others may argue that they play games to pass the time or occupy themselves. However, very few would be willing to admit that they play games to satisfy a craving for power they otherwise would not have in the real world. This is the backbone of almost every action game. It is what makes the player experience pride, control and ambition. Spec Ops is very aware of this innate desire and directly addresses the foolishness behind it. In the final scene with Konrad and Walker, Konrad states “You’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not – a hero”. It was the player’s craving for justice and empowerment alone that brought Dubai to its knees. So long as the player wants this form of empowerment from the game, they will continue the campaign through Walker’s eyes and bring devastation to all parties involved, including themselves. The game’s progress and ultimately the severity of the player’s shame is hinged on their willingness to continue playing the game. So long as they are firing bullets into heads of American soldiers and are enjoying it, they will continue playing.
You came here so you could feel like something you’re not. A hero. – Konrad
Ultimately, Yager included this glorified violence to clash with the guilt ridden narrative. The largest form of shame that the player feels comes from the actions like the white phosphorus scene, or firing on the Dubai civilians and then following these scenes up with watching American soldiers heads explode when they score a headshot. It instills an incredibly strong sense of cognitive dissonance that no other game has ever matched (to my knowledge).
MORAL CONTEXTUALISM vs. MORAL BINARISM IN GAMES
It is not uncommon to have game developers implement a morality system in their games as a means to shape the narrative to the player’s liking. However, unlike actual human morality, games often present moral choices in a binary fashion: good or evil. This binary morality system is obviously much more feasible to design then trying to emulate the incredibly complex processes involved in human morality, but creates one critical problem apart from being utterly unrealistic.
These binary moral systems reward the player for exclusively following one moral path (usually good and evil) by granting the player new gameplay and narrative features. This discourages players from approaching the game’s moral scenarios honestly. For example, in Sucker Punch’s “Infamous” franchise you play a superhero blessed with the powers of electricity and have to choice to save a city or destroy it. Performing acts of kindness grants players new combat abilities exclusive to that path. This forces the player to make choices like whether or not someone deserves to die through a lens that doesn’t accurately represent their own morality as all choices are governed by the player’s desire for new powers. The game developers in this instance subscribe to an egotistical morality system as opposed to an Aristotelian welfarism system which would better influence a player’s decision. In fact, in most games if the player chooses to approach situations honestly and weighing the effects of both choices equally, the player will likely not receive any new gameplay features as the good and evil choices balance out. Ultimately, taking a humanistic approach to conventional video game morality systems punishes players by withholding certain features that could only be obtained by exclusively following one moral option.
Spec Ops: The Line does not employ a morality system like this at all. When looked at closely, one could argue that Spec Ops doesn’t even have a morality system, but rather a series a choices that the player has no control over (see player agency section) that creates the illusion that their moral compass is misguided because the options lack the typical good/evil choice dichotomy.
That being said, Moral contextualism is still a theme in Spec Ops. Instead of including the conventional system of objective goods (e.g save an innocent man) and objective evils (e.g. murder an innocent man) found in most games, Spec Ops states how absurd this system is by placing players in scenarios where the lines are blurred and neither option is favorable over the other. All decisions regardless of their moral standing must be evaluated on their context. For example, after Riggs is pinned under a truck from blowing up the rest of the water supply in Dubai, effectively killing thousands of civilians of thirst over the coming days, the player is given the option to let him burn slowly or put him out of misery by executing him. On one hand, the man has condemned thousands to die because of a misguided political outlook and could deserve to die, but on the other hand, what would his execution solve and what would that say about Walker as a character and more importantly the player as a human being? Similar to the sniper scenario addressed in the player agency section, there is no “right” answer and both options have the same outcome. Spec Ops is essentially challenging a player who is comfortable having the right and wrong choice stated clearly by laying out 2 options that make all parties worse off. The game resents the player’s moral naiveté by truly testing them as a human being that has desires like revenge and not simply as a gamer who’s desire is an interesting cutscene or a new gun. This foray into normative ethics theory is largely unexplored in games and is understandably a large source of uneasiness in players during the game.
Another example where Spec Ops tests the player’s judgment and moral standing is the scene after Lugo’s death. After the Delta Force is separated following a helicopter crash, Walker and Adams hurry to find Lugo. Upon their arrival, they find Lugo’s body strung up and stoned by the Dubai citizens mistaking him for the 33rd Battalion (the game’s enemy forces who are also American soldiers). After releasing Lugo and discovering he is in fact dead, the player is faced with a “choice.”
This is one of many instances in Spec Ops where Yager utterly deconstructs the ethical school of thought that many game developers follow know as moral absolutism. It is obvious that shooting these civilians is ethically wrong from an objective perspective, however the fact that at this moment many players make their choices based on the context, which is largely indicative of a contextualist or even a consequentialist mentality, may suggest the opposite is true.
Similar to the snipers example, there appears to only be one option- shoot the civilians, fulfilling Walker’s thirst for revenge and scattering the hostiles away. However, the player may also shoot into the air and scatter them without any harm. The game never states this is an option. It simply begins by having Walker’s aiming reticle aimed at a citizen’s head, aiming down his sight with a full magazine of bullets and then hands control to the player. From that point on, any decisions are made entirely by the player, it merely suggests that you shoot these civilians. Once again there is no real choice as the outcome does not change. Lugo is dead and Adams blames Walker for not giving up on the mission. As mentioned prior, Walker’s progress hinges on the player’s willingness to keep playing Spec Ops. Following this logic, any attack at Walker for his irrational outlook on the mission is also an attack on the player’s desire to complete the game like any other modern shooter campaign.
This theme creates guilt in the player by eliminating the binary nature of most moral choices in games and posing questions with no right answers, only consequences for which the player is held accountable for.
In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola released the critically acclaimed film Apocalypse Now. It followed Captain Willard as he travelled up the Nung River in Vietnam to find and kill Colonel Kurtz. Similar to Heart of Darkness and Spec Ops, it focused on the degradation of man’s mental integrity as he becomes more desperate and isolated from civilization. Furthermore, both Willard and Walker try to juggle the same two ethical philosophies of state consequentialism and virtue ethics which creates potent cognitive dissonance both within the characters and the audience/player. This movie is worth noting because Spec Ops replicates the movie’s ending and takes it a step further.
Apocalypse Now concludes with Willard killing Kurtz with a machete, and leaving his tribal village with a fervent sense of PTSD. Conversely, in Spec Ops after Walker “kills” Konrad the player is put into an epilogue sequence after the credits roll. Walker sits on a street curb, weapon in hand wearing Konrad’s uniform. American soldiers arrive to take Walker home and ask him to lay down his weapon. Should the player open fire on the Americans and survive the onslaught from their reinforcements, Walker essentially takes the place of Konrad, ruling Dubai with nationalistic brutalism. The player can also surrender their weapon knowing their mission is complete and return home to America if they like, just like Apocalypse Now.
Apart from providing the player with a choice as to whether they want to stay in Dubai or leave, Spec Ops puts a twist on Apocalypse Now’s ending in a very unique way: transitions. It was stated in a developer interview that any screen transition that fades to white indicates that the scene was simply a hallucination in Walker’s mind, while any fade to black indicates that the scene really happened. If Walker kills the Americans in the epilogue and either dies or survives, the screen fades to black- the scene actually occurred. However, when Walker return homes after completing his mission like Colonel Willard, the screen fades to white- Walker never goes home.
This could indicate that Walker, unlike Willard, is incapable of escaping Dubai so long as he can not escape himself and his everlasting desire for heroism and the lingering effects of his PTSD. Both Willard and Walker have been truly scarred over their journey but at least Willard really gets to go home after all of it. This inability to escape is the final nail in the coffin that is the player’s sense of self-worth and an incredibly demoralizing way to finish the game. Once again the player is reminded that they are truly a monster that should rightfully be condemned to this death-plagued, sand-filled purgatory that makes the Nung look like a lazy river at a waterpark.
Gentlemen. Welcome to Dubai. – Walker
A video game inspired by Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness is simply genius. Spec Ops tackles all the right themes like agency, violence, and moral contextualism. It leaves the player a husk of what they once were similar to its protagonist Walker. Additionally, Spec Ops: The Line is a testament to the story-telling capabilities of the video game medium. This could not be a book nor a movie – it could only be a video game to accomplish what it wanted. I respect Yager and 2K for developing and publishing a truly unique game.
In summation, Spec Ops: The Line instills a sense of self-loathing in the player by exposing them to its 3 primary themes which simultaneously serve as a backbone for its commentary on the absurdity of modern shooter design elements and the docility that exists within their players’ minds. I love Spec Ops: The Line, but even after playing it multiple times, researching its production and writing this piece, I still don’t know if it is even a “good” game.