And it’s against this backdrop we get to see such morally ambiguous (false) choices. There are numerous points throughout the game where players must make a difficult decision with only bad outcomes from which to choose. For example, in one scene, you must choose between saving your contact or some civilians. Does the life of one outweigh the lives of many? Do you consider combatants versus non-combatants? Which offers better odds for your own survival? Another of these dilemmas sees you having to choose which man to kill: a civilian who stole water (remember, the normal ration is only 0.3L/day!) or the soldier sent to apprehend him who killed 5 members of his family while doing so? Or, when faced with an ally trapped beneath a burning truck, what would you do? He’s pinned down, his legs are broken, and the flames are rapidly approaching. You have only a single bullet left. Do you spare him the extreme pain of immolation or put him down yourself quickly, using the last of your own resources? Perhaps most jarring is when a crowd of “civilians” kills Sergeant Lugo and impedes your progress, how to do disperse it? There’s certainly nothing “civil” about them lynching your combat buddy, so do you exact revenge? You can, but would you? Or perhaps the hardest choice of all: when you confront yourself with all the devastation you’ve caused, when given the choice to end your own life, would you do that?
Don’t get me wrong. I’d do it all over again. That’s how much I love you guys, especially those most generous readers, such as Harrison Young, who donate through Patreon (hey, capitalistic greed is another American stereotype, after all!). He wants to see Spec Ops: The Line. As an American, I am one of the most generous (and humble) people on Earth, so I’ll be happy to cover it for you! But give me a little time to get over my Shell Shock first.
Instead, I prefer to view this game as a story of one man’s altruistic intentions plus the law of unintended consequences leading to his rapid decline in sanity. In this regard, it’s amazingly well done! I already mentioned how your squadmates’ conversations degrade over the course of the game. This is only one of many indicators of what’s going on in this game. In a similar fashion, Walker starts the game off looking like your cliché military hero. He’s clean, handsome, and charismatic. As you progress through the game, though, the visuals show us how Walkers sins stain his very soul. His countenance becomes dirty, damaged, and dysfunctional the farther you get in the game.
Which one do you choose, Walker?
Even the achievements reinforce this game's narrative.
Even the way you traverse the landscape reflects this! Whether you view it as Walker’s descent into madness or Hell, the point stands. You’re almost always progressing downward as you play. Really pay attention and you’ll be surprised how often you’re prompted to drop, rappel, or zipline. The optics really do the job well here, as not only are you physically moving to a lower position, but the game makes you press a button to acknowledge that you’re doing so. Is it really a stretch to say it’s not only a physical movement, but also an emotional or mental one? Of course not. Strangely, even when the narrative tells you that you’re climbing, it almost never feels that way. You could argue that this is simply a gameplay mechanic and it’s nothing more than a means to preventing you from backtracking too far, but I posit that it’s more than that. And even on the rare instances where your objective is to ascend, in addition to not feeling like the position is actually elevating, Walker and co. always end up having to come back down anyway. This is the gameplay fitting the narrative. More than you may realize, actually…
And make no mistake, this game is incredibly violent! Which brings me to my next criticism. This game literally calls out its own players for engaging in the violent behavior. Indeed, your name is the last one in the opening credits (fantastic idea, by the way). We already know that killing is wrong. You’re the ones who actually make it so appealing in these games (there’s that operant conditioning again!). If it’s too violent, isn’t that actually your own doing? Let’s try a similar example. Rape is wrong (yep, I’m going there). If somebody makes a video game that points out, in grotesquely graphic detail WHY rape is wrong, then chastises players of that very game, who’s really the one in the wrong here? Obviously, it’s the developer, who even thought to present this in the first place. This game is no different. If you really want to prove the violent nature of games and gamers, a better premise would be to create a game where a player is presented a gun, then turned loose in an open world to do anything.
Remember how I introduced this article with that early discussion of PTSD? Yeah, Walker clearly has something going on. To call him an unreliable narrator is a gross understatement! This is another excellent example of the gameplay fitting the narrative. It comes across a bit like a milder version of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. For example, there’s a part where you zipline (descending again!) into an enemy. He visibly looks like Lieutenant Adams and even questions why you’re attacking him. Only not! It’s purely a hallucination. If you believe that you’ve wrongly attacked “Adams,” and allow him to recover, he shoots you in the head and you die. Yeap! I fell for that one my first time through! And if you proceed with killing him, your humanity and sanity are nearly depleted by this point in the game, so Walker’s method of dispatching this guy is particularly brutal.
Taking the zipline down to another building.
You did this, Walker.
It’s also rich to take a game decrying violent video games (especially military style shooters) and make it so violent. If video game violence is half as bad as this game wants us to believe, what does that say about 2K games for profiteering so blatantly on this very violence? The slow motion effect when you land a headshot lingers just long enough to enjoy your handiwork. While you could argue that this is to show how desensitized we’ve become to violence like this, it’s still over-the-top itself, often more so than the very games it’s trying to criticize.
Thankfully, the developers did leave us a big clue that can help sort through some of the madness. Any time the screen cuts to black for a scene change, that signifies reality. Whenever you witness a scene change that cuts to white, it’s all in Walker’s mind. Some of these white scene moments do eventually get revealed for exactly what they are, but many of them don’t. And this opens up all kinds of doors when you consider the “strobe” scene involving all the mannequins. Is each of those white flashes a separate delusion? The open-ended nature to this game’s story will make an impact on you.
Oh, I don’t mean those folks in the olive drab fatigues. Well, OK, you really should thank them, too. But I mean those of us who fought for YOUR freedom. The military may fight to preserve the freedom of all Americans, but those of us who were in the trenches in the 80s and 90s paved with way, with our blood, sweat, and tears, for you to be an “outed” nerd. Hell, today, it’s downright trendy!
This guy is impeding your progress. How do you convince him to move?
As this is the last piece of content I can run before the nice, long, relaxing Memorial Day weekend, please allow me to wish all of my dear readers, on behalf of The Culture Cache, a Happy Memorial Day! And as you wolf down copious amount of barbeque (after all, what better way to celebrate being an American than by joining the ever growing obese population! [pun fully intended]), enjoy the parades, watch Patton for the 27th time, and cloak everything you own in a red, white, and blue facsimile of The Shroud of Turin, remember to thank a veteran.
"Making money off of violence is wrong." - 2K Games
I wasn’t being totally honest when I said the action starts “innocuously enough.” I guess this game had more of an effect on me than I realized… It actually starts in the middle of a helicopter battle. You’re manning a mini-gun as you fly through Dubai. On a side note, those things are freaking huge! Shouldn’t they be called maxi-guns? Anyway, this on rails sequence doesn’t end as you’d expect, as you come crashing down. In any other game, you’d be able to just accept what happened and move on, but…
The action starts innocuously enough. You control Captain Martin Walker, who, in turn, commands Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo. These men function, both, as narrative and gameplay devices. For example, you can issue commands to them and they will follow your orders. If either get wounded, you must issue immediate medical assistance, or face a game over. Additionally, the banter the three share is believable and authentic.
You should especially thank this awesome guy!
And this is one of the best elements of this game. Because we experience this game from Walker’s dubious perspective, we may never truly know everything that happened in this game’s story. This is a blessing, as it lends itself to countless interpretations, with evidence in game to back up many of them! Your first time through, you simply can’t notice everything going on in this game. This is, perhaps, why the game offers you those false choices I mentioned and tied them to achievements. The dev team WANTS you to go back and play the game again (or do they, if they don’t want you to play the game at all?) to notice all the understated clues that were right in front of you.
Even then, there are sometimes other, “hidden” choices you can make. These less obvious ones (which won’t be popular with achievement whores) remind us of one of the positive traits gamers have. We are naturally curious! You can’t tell me you’ve never done something in a game “just to see if you can.” It’s part of what makes us, us. Though the game is very linear, it does seem to allow a little wiggle room for the outside the box thinking like that.
It certainly made an impact on me. I jest, but I don’t claim to even begin to know what actual combat-hardened war vets have been through. If this game offers even a glimpse into the real life trauma that far too many of our volunteer soldiers face, it infuriates me to know how quickly they are cast aside when they return home. The state of our crumbling Veterans’ Affairs office is embarrassing. These people put their lives on The Line for us. The least we can do is actually give them what we offered them when they enlisted. Our armed forces are composed of actual human beings, not political props we trot out every Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, and July 4th…
It's so much easier to accept when it looks like this.
Furthermore, if this game is to be considered an indictment on violent games and how they desensitize players, doesn’t an over-the-top violent game like this, even though it inverts the model by making you kill your fellow countrymen and innocent people, still do exactly that? Worse still, doesn’t it, if you accept the argument, slowly condition you to the idea of killing your fellow countrymen and innocents as acceptable?
It’s not long before we find many competing interests in what’s left of Dubai. The Damned 33rd is the self-appointed military government (and there are two factions within it as well). The CIA wants to “clean up” the situation by killing everyone involved. And then there are the civilians caught in the mess (to say nothing of the politicians who knowingly allow the situation to devolve in the first place…).
I’m sure you’ve at least heard of one or more of the following: Call of Duty, Modern Warfare, Medal of Honor, Battlefield, Counterstrike, Unreal, and Tom Clancy. Just in case there’s still somebody who’s not on board: Halo. There. Now we’re all in the club! Or maybe I should have said company, since these are all first or third person shooters. As it turns out, Spec Ops: The Line is also a third person shooter.
Save your contact or save the civvies?
Well, do you?
Walker’s mission is basically just reconnaissance. But shit hits the fan pretty quickly and it becomes more than that. It’s here that you have an early clue as to what’s going on. Walker encounters his target, so he should report in and be done with his mission, but that’s not what happens at all. Bullets fly, people die, and Walker takes is upon himself to alter his mission on the fly.
The game even reinforces Walker’s departure from humanity through his animation. Early on, everything is done professionally. In a war setting, killing is commonplace, but there are still rules of engagement in play. Walker’s early kills are “clean.” This is pretty subtle, as he doesn’t just become a full on monster immediately, but if you really pay attention to how he kills the other combatants, you’ll notice that, over time, he employs increasingly brutal methods… And he seems to enjoy it.
Go ahead and drop yourself down, Walker.
This game really stands out from the pack, though, because it focuses much more on the single player campaign than the practically requisite multiplayer mode. For good reason! The presentation of the game is a perfect example of a video game as a work of art, like another military themed game I thoroughly enjoy… Everything about the game is designed to believably put you right into the action.
Ok, in all honesty, I don’t mean to make light of real soldiers and the PTSD far too many of them must deal with, especially this close to Memorial Day. The problems are real, and the odds are good you’ve either experienced it firsthand (in a military setting or otherwise) or you know someone who has. But believe it or not, it’s relevant to this game.
I realize just how much of an asshole I look like for covering a game like this before Memorial Day. In all honesty, I didn’t know anything about it when the request came in. As you are hopefully already aware, donors get to choose what content we cover, and this game was a donor request. As per the rules of this very website, I didn’t have a choice. I had to cover this game in the timely manner in which the donation came in. Like Walker, I didn’t have a choice. Or did I…?
Yeah… I don’t usually like to talk about it, but since I’ve got a few drinks in me, why the Hell not? It was a different time back then, you know? Bob… Every day… 8 AM… He got a swirly… Like clockwork. I tell you one thing, though. I came to almost enjoy it. I love the smell of Scrubbing Bubbles in the morning! And George… He got it even worse. They gave him a wedgie around lunch time. It was never at the same time, you know, to keep him guessing. Sometimes, the anticipation was the worst part. You almost wanted them to come and just get it overwith. And when he wised up and started wearing the used, cheap, secondhand tighty-whities so they break easily? They MADE HIM bring in a spare pair just so they could get him again at the end of the day. It was brutal. And I’m not even gonna tell you what they did to Sam. It started with a pink belly, then they amped it up to the most brutal titty twister you’ve ever seen, and then… *sobs* … No, man. I can’t… I should have done something, but I couldn’t. I was paralyzed. You’d think after seeing it so many times, you’d get desensitized, but it never leaves you, especially when you go to sleep. I can’t keep doing this. Let’s talk about the game!
Don't look now, but I think this graffiti is trying to tell you something.
Walker's face is an indicator of roughly how far along in the game you are.
Yep. This is exactly what so many of our vets face...
A screenshot does not do this moment justice. Seriously. And, yes, those are mannequins.
I imagine this is pretty close to real life.
This is where I do have at least a few gripes with this idea. Is it ethical to charge somebody 60 bucks for a game, then actively try to get them to stop playing it? About 2/3s of the way through the game, it begins actively berating you on the loading screens by asking questions like, “Do you even remember why you’re here?” or “How many Americans have you killed today?” I appreciate the artistic point, and it’s super-effective, but for a game that comes at players from an ethical high ground, this is deceptive and inherently unethical.
And believe me when I say that their dialogue is supremely important to the story! Early on, they exude confidence and enthusiasm. Over the course of the game’s 15 chapters, we get to witness this change to fear, to panic, to hostility, and to outright chaos. This is only one of many clues what this game is really all about…
Remember those morals we were talking about? Look out world, because here they come. This is a game where you can realistically argue that pretty much any named (or even unnamed) character can be both a hero and a villain. Konrad, the leader of the Damned 33rd, is attempting to maintain order despite the calamity in the area and the rapidly dwindling resources. He is tyrannical in his pursuit of this noble goal, but his willingness to exert such force to maintain order crosses The Line. Some of his own unit breaks away in order to depose him, restoring the unit to its former, scrupulous glory. This sows confusion among all parties involved, as now, they don’t know which splinter group of the 33rd any individual member belongs to. The CIA knowingly crosses The Line by, first, stirring up the locals to fight against the 33rd, and, later, by destroying the reserves of what little water remains in the city. It may sound hard to justify such actions, but if the deaths of the people still in Dubai prevent a much larger scale war in the future, is the CIA wrong? And the insurgents are following through on the provided orders (and weapons) of that very CIA to oppose the Damned 33rd, who are stripping them of their human dignity through the iron-fisted martial law they’ve imposed. To revisit the Metal Gear well once more, “It’s easy to forget what a sin is on the battlefield.”
"There's no one I'd rather have in a foxhole than you."
But even these are often false choices. For example, when confronted with the choice between killing the water thief, whose actions lead to indirect death, or the soldier, whose actions directly killed 5 people, we later learn that they were both dead already. The game puts you into an impossible situation, toys with your emotions, then confronts you with the realization that it actually meant nothing anyway.
Oh wait… Those games exist, too! This is pretty close to what happens in every Grand Theft Auto game. Apparently, it is true that, when given instruments of destruction in a consequence-free environment, many gamers DO opt to indiscriminately massacre innocent people. But who makes GTA again? Rockstar Games, a wholly owned subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive. And who made Spec Ops: The Line? 2K Games, another wholly owned subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive. Take-Two, you’re literally the purveyor of the very violence (sometimes even sexualized) you so claim to detest. Don’t you lecture me, as a player, for my own supposed violent proclivities!
What if it's really 2K Games holding the knife and the player is the poor bastard in need of a new jugular...?
I wonder if Walker will run in to Dante. Either of them.
"Making money off of violence is wrong." - Take-Two Interactive
Notice how you hold the high ground and are aiming down.
There are some massive spoilers coming up, consider this your fair warning! If you haven’t played this game yet, don’t deprive yourself of this amazing experience. Seriously, don’t even look up the achievements for it! The game was a financial flop, but, in a way, that’s a good thing, as you’re not likely to have anything spoiled for you. Thankfully, I knew nothing about it going in, myself.
Every time something goes awry in the game, Walker manages to find some way to rationalize his actions. More on that a little later… Even as Walker manages to get the rest of his squad killed, he always finds some way to justify the results of his actions as belonging to someone else. This presents, perhaps, the most interesting moral choice we, as players, have to make. Just as Walker continues to blame others for the destruction he leaves in his wake, so, too, do we blame Walker. Had Walker simply followed orders, the game would’ve been over in half an hour, but he didn’t. He continued to press forward. This is a game that forces players to do some truly grotesque things, including dropping white phosphorous onto civilians, utterly incinerating them. Then if forces you to walk through and view the charred remains of their corpses. But did it force you? Instead of crossing The Line and char-broiling non-combatants, what if you instead refused to keep playing? Perhaps that, too, was an intended “hidden” choice all along. It wouldn’t be the first game to do this. Even Animal Crossing: City Folk doesn’t want to be played, as your presence in that game kills off the grass, leading to a dreary and brown city.
Or did you notice how if you die and reload, that sometimes you have a slightly different amount of ammo? I didn’t even notice until I was reviewing some of my recorded footage. This is a subtle way of reinforcing that Walker is out of his freaking gourd! And it’s gameplay fitting the narrative! Similarly, near the end of the game, enemies frequently use the same lines of dialogue as your characters. This is particularly unnerving. I once got killed and heard the enemy exclaim the exact line Captain Walker often does when the player kills an enemy. Eerie. For that matter, is it even correct to use the word “enemy” in this situation?