It’s been around nine months since we saw the release of the not particularly anticipated and fairly average appearing Spec Ops: The Line. Set in Dubai, after a ferocious sandstorm engulfed the entire city, players were tasked with locating a group of US soldiers who had disobeyed orders to abandon the evacuation effort and had become trapped by the storm.
First impressions were that the game was a fairly bog-standard, militaristic shooter type game in the same vein as the Call of Duty series, set in third-person, filled with more foreigner-massacring and patriotic yee-haws than you could shake a Star Spangled Banner at. But the mood of the game shifted alarmingly quickly, as the main characters witnessed soldiers from the regiment they’d been sent in to rescue gunning down civilians and were forced to shoot back, after which players spent the rest of the game killing Americans. Yager Development, the developers of Spec Ops: The Line, had apparently decided to try something different, getting rid of the dead horse that companies like Activision had been beating for a good part of the last decade. Probably by selling it to Tesco or something.
Now, games featuring soldiers fighting in a relatively contemporary setting more often than not have moments where the bad guys will do something horrifying, i.e. killing an innocent person in front of the character whilst showing no real emotion, which will give the player suitable motivation to hate said villain, and more often than not pursue them, before finally murdering them in a heroic manner at the end of the game. Modern Warfare 2, for example, has the infamous scene involving a massacre in an airport, with the sequel showing a biological attack on an American family, who for some reason decided that World War 3 would be the perfect time to go on holiday abroad. Spec Ops: The Line is no different, employing the same shock-and-awe tactics that Infinity Ward seem to enjoy using in their games more than the President of the United States on civilians in foreign countries. However, there is a slight difference in the way that Spec Ops handles it.
At one point during the game, you’re faced with a huge group of soldiers who are guarding a gate that you need to get through. You’re given no choice but to hijack their mortar and rain white phosphorus down on the camp to clear the way. White Phosphorus, as I’m sure you all know, is the same fiery, burn-y stuff Saddam Hussein used to quash the rebellions in Iraq in 1988. Bit of history for you there, as I’m sure you’re reading this article because you wanted to learn about Saddam, and not because it has Spec Ops: The Line in the title.
You’re treated to a short segment reminiscent of the scenes in Call of Duty 4 in which you take control of a gunship and rain death down on enemies in black and white heat-vision. Only this time you’re burning American soldiers to death with a mortar, and afterwards have to actually walk through the dust and take a good hard look at what you’ve done. Soldiers stumble around, burns across their faces and bodies, men being roasted alive inside half-melted humvees… It’s genuinely horrific. And then it turns out that what you thought was a tent housing the main concentration of soldiers was actually an enormous group of men, women and children who had been rounded up by the evacuation team. And you burnt them all to death. “Congratulations, you’re a fucking murderer,” says the game. “I hope you’re happy.”
Spec Ops: The Line’s shock and awe moment isn’t the actions of the main villain of the game – it’s what you’ve done. The titular line has been crossed. From that point on, there’s no going back. At least in the minds of the main characters, that is.
The story then continues to make you feel more and more shit about your actions, with the main characters becoming increasingly unhinged, displaying traits more commonly shared with comic book super villains than heroic American soldiers, and a couple of segments where you start to wonder just how much of what you’re seeing is real and how much is only going on in your character’s head.
Spec Ops deals with a number of different themes, such as the horrors of war, which have previously been explored in films such as Apocalypse Now and Sex and the City 2, but one that Spec Ops deals with that I can’t really remember any other game dealing with is the idea that the main character, Captain Martin Walker, voiced by Nolan North, the same person who played Nathan Drake in Uncharted, the corrupt robots in Portal 2, and according to the Wikipedia page practically every other videogame character ever made, could’ve just stopped, turned around and walked away whenever he wanted. The original mission was to go in and see what had happened to the American soldiers. He saw they’d turned rogue. But driven by the desire to be a hero, Walker kept going, and eventually became a villain.
But the game’s real message isn’t aimed at Walker – it’s aimed at the player. You did all this. You slaughtered those civilians. You killed countless numbers of American soldiers you were sent in to help. At any point you could’ve turned the console off and stopped, but you didn’t, did you? You could’ve just put the controller down, and never returned to that game that you spent thirty pounds on. Fuck you for wanting to get your money’s worth and slaughtering all those innocent artificial people, all because you didn’t want to give up and stop having fun. You prick.
The game culminates with a few scenes that only further the horror of your actions. From what I’ve heard, nearly everyone who’s played the game has had the same feelings of regret and self-hate after playing it that I did. Yep, I felt like absolute shit after playing Spec Ops: The Line. And you know what? That’s… kind of a good thing.
The fact that a game can inspire emotions other than “fuck yeah, kill dem enemies!” and “yay, I did the objective! Aren’t I a clever one?” really shows how far the medium has come in the past few decades. You can argue all you want about games being art or not, but there’s absolutely no argument when it comes to the question “are games capable of being as important or as emotionally engaging as films or novels or music?” Only an answer. And that answer, quite simply, is “yes”.