Spec Ops: The Line ditches faux-heroism for a harrowing look at how war makes villains of everyone
Spec Ops: The Line
Most games do everything they can to draw your attention to their moral choices. You’re told which choice is “good” or “light side,” and it’s clear which choice is “bad” or “dark side.” You have the choice of being a hero or a villain. There is rarely any subtlety to your actions or decisions. When Spec Ops asks you to make a choice, there are no trumpets and no UI indications to tell you what to do or how to think. You simply do what you feel is best, and wait for the consequences.
And boy are there consequences. Most war games sell the comforting lie that American soldiers are something close to gods, and everything they do is just and right. The Calls of Duty and Medals of Honor of the world tell us there is no higher calling than draping yourself in an American flag before going around the world to kill as many people as you can.
Spec Ops is a third-person shooter that tells a different story. You play as Walker, a soldier in charge of a three-man team that heads to Dubai to look for another group of soldiers who defied orders to pull out of the city in order to help the citizens evacuate. Dubai has been ravaged by a sandstorm, and what you find inside the city is a hellish look at what happens when there is no chain of command, no clear enemy, and no accountability. The first hour of the game plays distressingly like every other military shooter of the past five years, but the game quickly takes a detour into jet-black social commentary, and never looks away from the uncomfortable topics it tries to tackle.
Get, it? Konrad? Get it? It’s literary
To write an interesting villain, you must begin with someone who is absolutely convinced that he or she is doing the right thing. That’s the hard part of working out the morals of what happens during the course of Spec Ops, everyone in the game is absolutely sure they are acting in the best interests of the people, their country, or personal responsibility. They are all true believers in their own causes or self-importance, and this includes Walker.
The problem comes from the fact these men have access to both weapons and people willing to use them. You see civilians every now and again, and they seem like a desperate people trapped inside a conflict they have almost no control over. The game features multiple endings, or at least the endings seem to pull in the decisions you make throughout the game, but there is no needle that judges your actions in terms of good or evil. There is no final judgment, you are simply asked to do and witness terrible things because there is no other choice.
Much has been made of the game’s re-purposing of the basic story of Heart of Darkness, and in fact the game centers around a character named “Konrad” just in case this needs to be beaten into your skull, but the act of telling that sort of story inside a video game is both novel and moving. In most war games the soldiers you play are sure of their place in history, and seem to grow in power due to the courage of their convictions. Spec Ops presents you with soldiers who are acutely aware that they are operating far outside their mission parameters, and the things they see and do weigh heavily on their conscience. We see the men unravel both physically and psychologically, and there never seems to be much hope for a “happy” ending. The dialog frequently points to the idea that even if they survive, there’s no coming back from experiences such as these.
Walker is played by the ubiquitous video game voice actor Nolan North (Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, every other damn thing you’ve ever played) and he does a wonderful job of portraying Walker as a walking cliché who grows increasingly frenzied and desperate as the game moves on. All the voice actors in the game, including Kid from Kid ‘n Play, do a tremendous job, in fact. They curse the people they’re forced to kill, they fight with each other, and each emotional outburst feels earned. The writing, by Walt Williams, gives them material that’s worth the extra care and consideration of a real performance. The shooting itself is tight and satisfying, forcing you to make heavy use of cover. Spec Ops is a difficult game; don’t be scared to dump the difficulty down to easy if you’re having trouble with the fire fights.
While many games benefit from an unreliable narrator, Spec Ops transcends the trope by asking the player to actively engage with what’s going on and try to make sense of what’s happening in the final scenes. While the game’s last twenty minutes pull in the decisions you’ve made throughout the campaign, my play through felt like the only possible way things could have gone down, which is the mark of choice being used as a mechanic rather than a gimmick.
There are no heroes in this story, and no one comes out the other side of the story feeling stronger because of their struggles. This is war as a destroyer, not a crucible; when you put men in monstrous situations, monsters emerge.