What Makes Spec-Ops: The Line So Revolutionary

[Warning: The following analysis contains some mild spoilers. While you can still safely read this analysis without having played the game and still be surprised by its main twists and turns when you do decide to play it, there are still some things that I give away, most notably its message. So while it’s not required that you play Spec-Ops: The Line before delving into this analysis, it’s still recommended that you play through it first. Not just so you could read this post, but because it’s an incredible, underrated game that should be experienced by anyone that thinks of the medium as an art form.]
2012 was a very interesting year for video games. Between fanboys complaining about Mass Effect 3’s ending, games like The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 redefining the MMORPG, and tons of the usual independent works continuing to dominate Steam and XBLA/PSN and introduce stunning new visions, there’s been a lot of incredibly fascinating stuff throughout this year to compensate for the boredom of waiting for the big games to come out, and the disappointment of many delays. 
There was so much interesting things, in fact, that I found there to be three games that I felt really did incredibly revolutionary things to the medium. Two of them, you most definitely heard of. One is a mainstream blockbuster and the end of a beloved trilogy, the other an astoundingly experimental indie game that was formed from a mod. Both have received tons of acclaim. However, there is a third game that I feel hasn’t gotten enough attention from the gaming populace, which is especially undeserving because it is most likely to go down as one of the defining games of the medium 20 years from now.
I’ve decided to spotlight these three games and describe how each one offers something revolutionary and ground-breaking within this budding medium, starting with one of the most profoundly underrated games of this generation so far: Spec-Ops: The Line.
“This is all your fault.” ~Loading screen text
There’s a clear, discernible reason why Spec-Ops didn’t really catch with the general gaming public. At first glance, it looked like yet another military shooter in which numerous foreigners are murdered in all sorts of dehumanizing ways, where chest-high walls permeate the landscape like condoms in a crack-house, and with pretensions toward having a moral gray scale despite being insanely jingoistic. Been there, done that, Call of Battle, Dutyfield, derpy derpy doo. 
And if that were the case, then that would mean that the game bombed almost deservedly, like Medal of Honor, Operation Flashpoint, and the rest of that ilk. It wasn’t until I actually gave it a shot after numerous cries of “You gotta play this!” from friends and critics I trust that I realized that Spec-Ops: The Line wasn’t anything like those games I listed above, at all. In fact, one could argue that it’s a searing indictment of all those games.
But let’s back up for a second and give some context. Spec-Ops: The Line is inspired by Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now. This becomes especially apparent when you’re introduced to the character Colonel John Konrad, a reference to Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness. Col. Konrad was supposed to evacuate all the remaining survivors of Dubai after a series of freak sandstorms hit the city and left it in a near-apocalyptic ruin. Instead, however, he and his entire squad (called the 33rd Battalion) ends up disappearing from the face of the earth for unexplained reasons. Dubai is considered a no-man’s land at that point, and all communications to the area are barred by both a freak storm-wall and government interference.
Two weeks before the game begins, Konrad appears again when a looped radio signal begins to play. In it, he states that the evacuation has completely failed and the death toll was beyond high. Realizing that things could get from worse to worst if he and the 33rd don’t return safely, the US military sends a three-man team consisting of John Lugo, Alphanso Adams, and Captain Martin Walker (the player) to bring them back home. However, anybody who’s read Heart of Darkness or seen Apocalypse Now knows that something is bound to be wrong.
While many of the reviews I’ve seen of Spec-Ops: The Line have praised the narrative, just as many criticized the gameplay. I personally belong to the philosophy that a game with great narrative and mediocre-to-terrible gameplay is infinitely better than a game with great gameplay and mediocre-to-terrible narrative. See for example Silent Hill 2, Deadly Premonition, etc. However, while Spec-Ops’s gameplay certainly doesn’t have the same polish that games like Gears of War do, it should be noted that this is one of those games like Silent Hill 2 where the limitations of the gameplay are actually there to serve a purpose to the narrative and the atmosphere.
But before I truly delve into defending Spec-Ops’s core gameplay, let me get to the main thing that Spec-Ops unanimously gets right, and one of the many things that genuinely “revolutionize” the medium. You see, many recent games have had a penchant for incorporating more player choice into the gaming experience by way of “moral choice systems” in which you can choose dialogue options which could have a deepening impact on the game world. The prime examples are the games of Bioware, and more specifically, Mass Effect. As much as I love that series to the death, there’s no denying that there’s a certain separation between the choices and the world. Essentially, you’re making your decisions through a menu, and not through the actual mechanics. 
What Spec-Ops does is something no other game has ever done before: It incorporates the mechanics into your choices. To give a spoiler-free example without context, there’s a point in the game where you have to decide whether one man should live while the other should die and vice versa. If you don’t decide, a group of snipers will take care of both of them for you. This decision isn’t conveyed through a dialogue tree, but through the same mechanics of point and shoot that you normally execute throughout the video game.
But that’s not the best part. The best part is that the developers have acknowledged the gray scale, knowing that picking either one or the other isn’t the only way to approach the situation. Rather than shooting one of the two men, you could attempt to shoot the snipers on the sides and try to save both, or you could attempt to shoot the ropes which they’re hanging from to allow them a chance to escape. 
This is the other thing that separates Spec-Ops’s vision of choice from other video games. While most games see things as Black and White, Good and Evil, Order and Chaos, Paragon and Renegade, Blue Lightning and Red Lightning, etc., Spec-Ops truly embraces the in between. It knows that there is no such thing as a right choice and a wrong choice, and acknowledges every single factor that can go into every situation. And best of all: The game doesn’t judge you with Karma meters or anything of that sort. What’s right and what’s wrong all depends on your perception. And that line can easily blur and even change at the drop of a hat when new plot details reveal themselves in diabolical ways.
It’s also interesting to note how Spec-Ops actually involves the player in the execution of these choices and dilemmas. With most games that involve player choice, the developers decide to go for a first-person “narrative” perspective, in which the player isn’t just in control of the protagonist, but is the protagonist. Again, the Mass Effect games are a prime example of this, to the point that many people see the fact that Commander Shepard is a blank state as a criticism while refusing to acknowledge the player is even there in order to increase that “immersion”. Spec-Ops, on the other hand, goes in an entirely different direction.
Unlike most games that incorporate character choice, Captain Walker is a fully defined character, and while the player is in control of his actions, they aren’t in control of his thought-process, dialogue, back-story, etc. Yet we’re still able to immerse ourselves into the narrative and the choices that both you and the character make. Why is that? Well, because the game actually acknowledges the player’s existence and role in this story. They don’t just say “Hey, Walker, come over here and do this thing,” and are referring to the character while the player is supposed to see themselves in that character. Instead, the player is treated as both a separate entity from Walker, and an active participant in the story.
There are two ways that the game manages to execute this expertly. For one thing, there was something that really caught my attention when the game started. When the opening credits start to fade in and out of the screen, we see the roles of the technical directors of the game, the sound designers, the voice actors, the usual stuff. But then… something weird happens, and this is something I haven’t seen a lot of write-ups on the game address. The game’s opening credits end with “Special Guest: [Insert Player’s Gamertag Here]”. Why is that? Why is it important that the player be treated as a “special guest” to the action, rather than truly assuming the role of the “hero” of the game? And how is it still able to remain so immersive and engaging?
At first, I thought that the “Special Guest” credit was a cute little nod. It wasn’t until further analysis that I realized that it is the key to understanding the player’s role in the experience. All gamers want to “be” the hero, but what does the player represent in this story? Think about it, while we’re in control of Walker’s actions, we aren’t in control of who he is or was as a person. While the character isn’t a surrogate for us, we still impact his story. How?
What the player ends up taking the role of in Spec-Ops: The Line isn’t the character. Rather, the player takes up the role of the character’s consciousness. What we do isn’t execute our own actions, rather we influence Walker’s actions through our own play. We tell Walker what’s right and what’s wrong through our actions, and through those actions, he ends up changing as a character. What we do isn’t taking control of Walker. What we do is influence Walker. And the most heartbreaking thing about this realization is that as the game progresses, our influence over his actions ends up becoming weaker and weaker as he spirals downward into the heart of darkness.
I could elaborate more, but critic Yahtzee Croshaw said it best in his review of the game so I might as well give a direct quote from him: “Are we really in control of Captain Walker or do we merely represent the last vestige of self-awareness in his increasingly damaged mind as he railroads us into committing atrocities, and our distrust and fear of him grows in parallel to that of the men in his command as he weakly tries to rationalize to both them and us until we feel as disconnected from him as the rest of reality and…*Sigh*. Do you remember when shooters were about killing demons from hell? Those were good days.”
Okay, so now we know why exactly the player is meant to be disconnected from the character in some sort of way. But why is that so important? Why is it so important that we are disassociated from the main character of our game when the main thing that video game stories have over other mediums is immersion? Because this is that rare case where disconnectivity is actually part of what the developers are trying to convey.
This is the part where I defend the game’s gameplay. The cover system is adequate at best but can get sticky in very hairy situations, the shooting isn’t incredibly tight, and the aim assist isn’t fully reliable. Why is that? Considering that Spec-Ops: The Line is the only game that really wants to make players feel the “horrors of war”, with emphasis on the “horrors”, wouldn’t it be hypocritical to make a game that highlights how awful war is while also making it fun? It’s meant to be uncomfortable because war is supposed to be uncomfortable. And a game highlighting how war could break a man down should make the player feel as uncomfortable as humanly possible. 
But what’s perhaps even more interesting is that the gameplay conventions utilized in Spec-Ops are incredibly dated. Not only are there exploding red barrels, machine gun turrets with infinite ammo, and some obvious spawn points, but the enemies wave the player in an almost suicidal fashion. To give a briefer description, everything feels a little too…”gamey”. 
Why? This is yet another aspect of the disassociation. Right off the bat, there’s a heightened disconnect between the incredibly serious and realistic storyline of Spec-Ops and the arcadey gameplay that supplements it. Whereas games like Call of Duty and Battlefield have pretensions of having a serious storyline despite its gamey elements, Spec-Ops: The Line reveals the disconnect of storyline and gameplay through heightened juxtaposition. 
Okay, that’s one reason why disassociation is important, but it’s not the main reason. In fact, this juxtaposition actually serves a larger purpose to the narrative. We’re meant to feel this juxtaposition as part of the gradual realization that something about the world we’re playing feels “off” in some way. Why is that? Well, I don’t wanna give the main surprises away, but it’s safe to say that there’s something “off” about the world because there’s something incredibly “off” about Walker. We see everything through his perspective, and slowly but surely we learn that Walker could be suffering from some sort of severe psychosis. 
Alright, so we see everything through Walker’s perspective, thus explaining the juxtaposition. So if this is all through his perspective, and the video gamey elements are meant to convey that his perspective is jacked up, does this mean that he’s seeing all of these atrocities through the lens of a video game? And if so, what’s the thematic purpose of that?
It is at this point that we realize that there is something darker lurking beneath the surface of Spec-Ops: The Line. We know that the game is highlighting the horrors of war by making the game uncomfortable. But why couldn’t the game be uncomfortable just through content and realism? Why is the game making an effort to emphasize video game elements in order to create juxtaposition?
All of these questions are explained in one quote in the final moments of the game. I’m not going to give away the context of this quote or who says it because you should all be playing this vastly underappreciated game and discover its surprises for yourself. But without revealing how this happens and what happens after, it is in the final moments of the game that we realize what has driven Walker’s psychosis and his decisions. A character tells him, “The truth is, you’re here because you wanted to feel like something something you’re not…a hero.”
What’s so incredible about this statement is not just the fact that it reveals what drives Walker’s mental instability, because it isn’t just directed at him. The other main reason why the player is disassociated from the protagonist is because this statement is also directed at you: The person behind the controller. 
Think about that. The game is emphasizing the fact that it is a video game not just through the design and mechanics, but also through meta-commentary. It is at this point that Spec-Ops: The Line reveals itself not just as a game that is truly about the horrors of war; it also becomes a searing indictment not only on the exploitation of using the horrors of war as a means of entertainment, it’s mainly an indictment of the players that exploit the horrors of war as a means of self-gratification, i.e. feeling like something they’re not. 
This is what Spec-Ops: The Line is truly about. It uses meta-commentary in order to force us to re-examine and re-evaluate the very genre we’re playing: The shooter. And not just that, it also critiques the gaming populace in general. If you think about it, it isn’t just shooters that are designed around the philosophy of empowering the player and making them feel like a hero; practically all video games are designed around this philosophy.
But what happens when these video game philosophies are forced to confront the true, horrifying reality of war? What if you really do have to consider the lives of all the people you’re killing? What if simply just destroying every enemy in sight didn’t lead to a positive outcome? What if it actually makes things worse? And what if, even though you knew what you were doing was absolutely wrong, you still did it anyway because that was the goal the game assigned to you? Do you not question what the game is making you do? At that point, being the hero is not enough. And yet we do it anyway. Over and over again as each installment of Call of Duty sells millions of copies. We are the ones to blame.
Again, without giving too much away, we learn that Walker’s “main goal” was just a self-inflicted sham: A device that was merely used to justify all the awful, horrific things that Walker has performed throughout the game. Does this remind you of anything? Well it should: It’s every military shooter ever. The player will murder every human enemy on the screen just because a.) it’s just a video game, b.) the game told you to, and c.) to achieve the goal and become the “hero”. The goal is just a scapegoat in which you could point to and say, “Well of course I shot all those civilians in the No Russian mission. The game wouldn’t have progressed if I didn’t.” And the funniest, most ironic part of that particular example: It was entirely possible to not shoot anything in that segment of Modern Warfare 2.
It is in this regard that Spec-Ops: The Line reminded me of this year’s The Cabin in the Woods, a film that also used meta-commentary in order to both comment on the horror genre and the demanding audience that requires formula storytelling in order to be pacified. This game operates in that same way, only much more subtlely and seriously. Spec-Ops sees the pursuit of virtual heroism through senseless violence as an ultimately pathetic means to a pathetic goal. Instead of allowing the player to ascend in their pursuit towards self-gratification, the game both physically and metaphorically makes the player descend lower and lower into heart of darkness, forced to confront the true nature of the shooter and what makes it so bleak. This is a game that not only looks at the faults of video games, but also at a dark truth about human nature–something very few video games are capable of doing
What Spec-Ops: The Line does is force you to truly rethink not just shooters, but the notion of heroism that pervades almost all of the video game medium. There’s always the notion that the player has to feel empowered by defeating every enemy because they’re the only ones that can do it, but when it’s juxtaposed with something real, like a military shooter that attempts to be fun while also going through the tragedies of war, that philosophy starts to desensitize the player’s soul. This isn’t just a game about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; this is a game that instills Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder into the player.
And all the while, the most the player could do with Walker is influence his actions rather than truly control them and their outcome, and it isn’t until the end of the game that you can choose to either free Walker of your influence, or keep on going because you still believe you have to achieve that goal. 
Because after all…it’s just a video game. Right?
Stay tuned for two more follow-ups to this post. Next time, I discuss the brilliance of Dear Esther.
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a nice long shower while softly sobbing to myself. This game got to me. Bye…

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