“There is a line men like us have to cross. If we’re are lucky, we do what’s necessary and then die? No. All I really want, Captain, is peace.” (Conrad, Spec Ops: The Line)
Spec Ops: The Line, a third-person shooter game from 2K Games, is also a line that is mandatory for any ‘war’ gamer to cross. Granted, the overall gameplay and graphics are only adequate, and somewhat generic. However, the game’s storyline and plot twists, and its ‘after-effect’ are what really make it stand out from the herd. (A rather saturated herd at that.) The ambiguous story and multiple endings are the main reasons why the game is still discussed after so many years. The gameplay does a good job of facilitating that narrative between intense plot moments and encounters.
It all starts with a US military rescue mission in a disaster-struck Dubai that rapidly unravels in a downward spiral. Horrific things happen to ordinary people. It drastically shifts the game’s messianic hero into the mold of the ‘villain.’ The whole experience leaves you deeply shaken.
Spec Ops provides a moral message.
Human beings have breaking points and life is not a video game. You push real people into a real, devastating cyclone of power and peril – chances are they might actually start to see it all like a video game. That’s the breaking point, where nothing truly matters anymore – not even survival or sanity. It delves into how every human born into this world has the capacity for evil. Despite their best attempts, not everyone can suppress these violent tendencies under certain conditions.
Unlike most other violent games of its kind, Spec Ops attempts to make the violence meaningful. It raises questions about morality, mortality, and choices to make conscious decisions regarding your conscience. Decisions that ultimately determine the fate of soldiers and civilians. For instance, the player has to choose to save CIA agent Gould or save a couple of civilians near Gould’s position. It was also awarded and nominated for several end-of-the-year accolades, particularly for its story. It has garnered a respectable following in the years following its release.
Outstanding story (Spec Ops: The Line)
Spec Ops: The Line is partly influenced by Joseph Conrad‘s classic novella Heart of Darkness (1899), one of the most autopsied literary pieces in history. This is highlighted by naming one of the key characters in the game ‘Conrad,’ as a tribute to the author. Conrad here stands in for the infamous Mr. Kurtz from Heart of Darkness. (At least initially, until a plot twist pushes it even further.)
Like the novella and Francis Ford Coppola’s movie adaptation, Spec Ops traverses similar themes of moral decay and corrupted psyches in conflicts marked by misplaced parameters of ‘savages vs. savior,’ ‘good vs. bad.’ It also blurs the fragile interface between Marlow and Kurtz from the novella even more. Avid gamers buy Call of Duty or Battlefield for the multiplayer experience, not so much for the single-player campaigns or stories. Eventually, these games lead to cliched, jingoistic, or simplistic stories that do not really add up to a bigger picture. They are not really looking for thematic heft.
Spec Ops The Line challenged this standardized, glorified mediocrity to offer up a military shooter that excels at storytelling on both a visceral and visual level. It starts out with a run-of-the-mill helicopter/minigun shootout before you are tutored on how to take cover, throw grenades, and so on.
The player is forced to be the judge, jury, and executioner in certain instances. To kill either a civilian thief who stole life-saving water or a soldier who was meant to apprehend the thief but killed his family instead. There is no binary of good or bad. Just expedient or expendable. This adds a sense of inner questioning and personal reflection that one would not experience in most first-person war shooters. (Spec Ops allows for swapping between first-person or third-person view).
Spec Ops forces you to witness the mayhem that you have caused.
In a typical shooter, the “hero” is expected to shoot the hell out of the “bad guys.” Spec Ops opens your eyes to what these games have done for gaming discourse towards war and collateral damage. For eg, the aftermath of the ‘white phosphorus’ bombing is especially ghastly
The player doesn’t play a “war hero.” A theme further supplemented by quotes that flash up as the game progresses. Sardonic quotes like “How many Americans have you killed today?” Or, “Do you feel like a hero yet?”.
Spec Ops: The Line is a masterclass in storytelling and plot twists that touches upon those grey areas of war that often get lost in “heroic” narratives. In terms of gameplay and graphics, this game is not the most memorable or groundbreaking thing out there. It still holds its own well enough to complement the story the developers were going for. It presents a number of moral dilemmas and leaves those up to the player to decide. In this way, the moral message becomes more personal and hits home much harder. The thief committed a capital offense, but he was just trying to help his family. The soldier was reckless, but he was still following orders. Their lives are in your hands, your decision will seal their fate.
Unlike other games, there is no reward or benefit you reap for the decisions you make. One may think that they have made a “morally right” decision, but there is no such thing as a “good decision” in this exhausting game. It always leaves you with a troubled feeling that the decision could have been better. In retrospect, Spec Ops: The Line is one of the fewer games that focuses on subtle nuances of an unequal war. Instead of just blatantly stating, “War is hell,” you see the staggering human cost in terms of life and sanity. In the darkest ending, you actually get cheerful insanity as the last words: “Welcome to Dubai.“