I’m quite the fan of story-driven games, so I will happily step out of my preferred genres of adventure and role-playing games at the promise of a good tale. So when I heard that Spec Ops: The Line, a military shooter, had a storyline that was innovative and thought-provoking, I picked up a copy and added it to my must-play pile.
Well, I finally got around to it, somehow managing to stay spoiler free for the past four years, deciding I wanted to take my time with this game. After all, experiencing the full story of an RPG is quite a time investment, so in my naivety I figured a shooter with a good story would employ the same principles. When I opened the game, I immediately appreciated the upside-down American flag on the menu screen, signaling a need for help — a nice attention to detail. And as the game progressed, I liked that the menu screen changed, reflecting the events of the story. But then there was the game itself.
This isn’t going to be a review of the game; plenty exist online, and I’ve read many in my quest to understand what I was obviously missing from this gaming experience. Instead, let’s hang upside down and look at this game from a few different angles.
Oh, The Horror: Spec Ops And Its Line
One of the draws of Spec Ops: The Line is that it challenges the player for doing what gamers tend to do: Playing games without considering the in-game consequences of their actions. I personally don’t think the game delivered on this objective. It could be because the game focused on the punch, rather than the windup. However, Spec Ops: The Line employs various elements of the horror genre, and I think if this were emphasized, the overall effect (i.e., the punch) would have been much more potent.
Three kinds of horror are generally employed in media. The first kind of horror is the fear of "the other." Any kind of "us vs. them" game or movie is an example of this: aliens are invading, zombies are attacking, etc.
The second kind of horror is a portrayal of "the uncanny." The uncanny refers to something that is almost human in nature, but it doesn’t seem quite right. When done well, the characteristics that don’t completely gel are presented in a way that the audience isn’t consciously aware of what it is, but knows that something is off. This can also be portrayed in the environment.
If you played Gone Home, this is a great example. Nothing particularly frightening occurs, but there is something unnerving about the environment. The lights flicker in the empty house, everything is in disarray or packed in boxes as if everyone left in a hurry, and there is red liquid all over the tub. While it’s not a conventional horror game, I recommend checking out at least a Let’s Play if you have the chance.
The final, and perhaps most disturbing kind of horror is the story that uses the idea of "self as monster," when the protagonist winds up being the monster of the story. An example of this would be in Silent Hill 2, in which the town of Silent Hill is representative of James Sunderland’s psyche and guilt. He is his own monster. This kind of horror is the type that sticks with us, because it makes us question the darkness that might reside in each of us, just waiting to be unleashed.
It is this third kind of horror that is presented in Spec Ops: The Line. Jungian psychology describes an aspect of the psyche called the shadow which, according to psychiatrist Carl Jung, is composed of the unknown, dark aspects of our personalities. Usually, these characteristics are comprised of our base instincts and negative impulses, such as lust, vanity, selfishness, greed and anger.
In a horror genre, this translates to a character completing a story to find out that s/he has been the monster all along — that is, has been acting on one of these dark impulses. In Silent Hill 2, we examine James’s lust and guilt, and in Spec Ops: The Line we watch as Captain Walker’s vanity and hero complex slowly and delicately push him toward his eventual insanity and realization that he isn’t a hero after all.
This great horror story was unfortunately eclipsed by the game’s flaws and mishandling of its other and equally important component: The idea of choice and consequences.
'Our Beloved Monsters — Enjoy Yourselves'
To be fair, the idea of challenging gamers for following orders and only playing the game because they, the real person, wanted to feel like a hero was a fantastic twist of an idea. Unfortunately, I think the concept was a little mishandled. There were some great moments, like when you had to choose which hanging prisoner to free, or what to do with the attacking mob at the end, and I was pleasantly surprised when my approach that hadn't been offered within the dialogue — shoot down both men and then kill the snipers and shoot into the air, respectively — were recognized by the gameplay mechanics.
So far, so good. But let’s discuss the choice that got so many players talking: The white phosphorus mission.
The point of this section, it seemed, was to drive home the shock and horror of the player committing an unspeakable act that resulted in the death of innocent people, because they had chosen to use the white phosphorus instead of almost-certain death. And you're a bad person — because you had a choice, and you chose to kill.
Except, the player was not given a choice here. The player was not offered a moral dilemma, an illusion of choice, or a viable second option to dropping the chemicals. Not using the white phosphorus would have resulted in the player either turning off the game and never playing again, or Walker getting gunned down. If the player wanted to finish the game, s/he had to fire white phosphorus onto noncombatants.
- Data, Desires, and Decisions: Choices in Video Games, Part 1
- Playing with Morals: The Hard Choices in Video Games
- Illusions and Agency (Part 2) - Do Our Choices in Video Games Matter?
If you've read my other posts on choices in games, you know I talk about choices, which involve morals, and decisions, which are calculations to determine the best course of action. The white phosphorus bit was a decision, not a moral choice; the consequence of not completing the game was not enough to outweigh the consequence of continuing with a somewhat unsavory action in-game.
So I shrugged my shoulders, wanting to know the story, and then was berated by the game for deciding to continue the story along the very linear path the game had laid out. Except the game called my actions a choice and started talking about morals to me. It was here that my disillusionment set in. The game was punishing the player for wanting to play it, and for playing it the way the developers had designed it. I had more choice over what to do with the mob, which the game practically dismissed, than within this pivotal moment in Walker's story and mental state.
Whatever statement a game is trying to make, it should not reprimand a player for engaging with and experiencing the virtual world, especially if the players are not given viable space to really influence the events. This is like getting to the end of, say, the fourth Harry Potter book and J.K. Rowling getting mad at you, saying Cedric Diggory would still be alive if you hadn’t gone and read the entire book! That's not what people do with stories.
Whether a person experiences a story or not does not change that story’s outcome, as if the ending is part of a perverse type of Schrödinger's cat-esque storytelling technique. So don’t punish someone for wanting to know how the story ends under the erroneous claim that the player had to make a morally intense decision.
All That Glitters
Another aspect of the game that is often discussed is the idea of hallucinations versus reality. Within the game, when a cutscene fades to black, it’s the game’s shorthand for saying that the scene was reality, and when the cutscene fades to white, the scene was a hallucination.
This was actually a really neat mechanic. It was subtle and took a while to figure out the pattern of why some scenes faded to black and others to white. The ending was particularly fascinating, as the endings that show Walker surviving the conflict all fade to white, whereas the ending where Walker commits suicide fades to black. Particularly eerie is if Walker surrenders to the rescue patrol (fade to white), and then comments, when asked how he survived, “Who said I did?” (Fade to black). There are many aspects of the story that are open to interpretation, and if this story had been presented with better gameplay mechanics, it would have been quite powerful.
I also appreciated how the opening helicopter sequence was almost exactly replicated at the end, and Walker noticed it, too. Was Walker experiencing flashbacks? Is he in the hospital, having a nightmare? Did he die in the original helicopter crash, and now he’s forever experiencing his time in Dubai in purgatory? Well done, 2K Games.
Additionally, I played through the endings a few times, wanting to experience all the possibilities, and noticed something interesting about the trophies.
Walker’s death by suicide/Konrad shooting him both result in bronze trophies. Keep in mind these are the “fade to black” realities. Walker’s death seems, for all intents and purposes, canon. However, his survival and/or return home (fade to white) results in a silver trophy. These endings represent (it would seem) Walker continuing to live in his delusion/nightmare/personal hell. So what has the game done?
Rewarded you for staying in the fantasy world.
I see what you did there, game. Very clever. But was it too clever? Or too little, too late?
Reception And Troubleshooting
In spite of the shining moments that this game undoubtedly has, it’s not without some glaring issues that detracted from the overall experience of playing. Although Spec Ops: The Line has an overall Metacritic score of 77 and generally garners favorable reviews from players for its daring storyline, it was considered a commercial failure, with much of the criticism being directed at poor multiplayer and bland, stereotypical gameplay.
Snarky comments aside, the game had two major issues that profoundly detracted from the experience, the story, and ultimately, the very real and relevant point it was trying to make.
Controls: Some reviewers have commented that the bad controls were used to emphasize the edgy point the game was cleverly trying to make — the player’s lack of control, or perhaps to satirize the shooter genre in some way. If this was the case, the game was too meta for its own good, because I never translated the unresponsiveness of the X button to the psychological well-being of my character. Maybe if the game employed a Sanity meter like in Eternal Darkness, or a Psyche meter like in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, the lack of responsiveness would have made more sense and the point would have been much clearer. As it was, the controls came across as poor, not as edgy and part of the story.
Do you feel like a hero yet? I think the point the game was trying to make would have been more powerful if Walker had shown more overt signs of his hallucinations/PTSD earlier on and that the player had been dragged along for the ride (like his companions were). Perhaps we could have overheard some of his companions’ disbelieving comments when Walker was showcasing his obsession with the hanging bodies. Maybe they could have challenged him on what Konrad said when Walker talked into a radio that was broken. After all, Walker’s team was comprised of highly trained military personnel. Why were they following him if he was so obviously struggling with reality?
The player could have been put in the position of thinking that Walker was insane, but was playing along because "it’s just a game," therefore having to either rationalize their actions or throw up their hands in defeat and say something to the effect of: "Screw it, let’s just do <insert action here>."
Cue public service announcement on doing things you didn’t want to do because it’s only a game.
Alternatively, the players could have been put in the position of trying to transform the slightly unstable Walker into an undeniable hero, instead of him being seen as an unstable mess.
Cue comments on the gamer only playing in order to feel like a hero.
These are by no means perfect solutions, but it would have brought the main themes to the forefront of the game in such a way that the final reveal didn’t completely come from left field. As it was, it seemed the game was trying to be too clever, smugly telling me of all the "choices" I supposedly made that brought me to this point, even though as a gamer I simply want to play the games I buy to their ends.
For comparison, this idea (that is, following orders in a game just because the game tells you to, and not because you want to) was handled much more effectively in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. In this game, the Colonel/A.I. starts challenging Raiden to put the game down and telling him he has no choice when it comes to killing. But this story was built subtly, and the punch was delicately readied before smashing into the player’s face. I felt trapped in that end fight with Solidus; I didn’t want to kill him because of story reasons, but I had no option. The game knew I wanted to finish it, and consciously used that against me, announcing all the while that it was using my own desires against me. It worked, and it was powerful.
All in all, Spec Ops: The Line is not a game I would play again. It has interesting and clever ideas, but ultimately the gameplay itself was not worth the story payout I received. In all honesty, the positive aspects of the game were not immediately apparent, so focused was I on the controls, long load times, and glaringly obvious shams masquerading as major game-changing choices. So while I appreciated the token silver trophy for continuing to exist in a "made-up" world, it was not enough to counterbalance the scolding I received for playing the game proper.
What do you think? Does Spec Ops have any redeeming qualities? Does it deserve a place in the horror genre? Is Captain Walker a protagonist or monster? Let me know in the comments!