TL;DR – Why do we play First Person Shooters?, Why do we want to be a hero?, Can we understand?
Spec Ops: The Line was billed as a middle of the road shooter, which was released in 2012 to not much fanfare by its publisher. It wasn’t technically impressive, the only really new thing was sand physics, which were, well something a bit new. The controls were clunky, and even for its time the presentation felt old, enemies appearing from monster closets (or in this case monster shipping containers), the guns and action felt not as refined as its contemporaries, the level design had some issues ‘look a bunch of chest high walls, looks like we are going to have to fight now’ and it does not hold up as well on a second play through (which I did to put together this retrospective). Yet this semester when I have been teaching Media and War at University I have had many long conversations about this game and the profound impact it had on me and the impact it had (or should have had) on the genre.
In this retrospective I am going to explain how this dissidence exists, why I both love and hate a game that is in many ways mechanically dull. But to do this, we are going full spoilers, I am only doing this because to talk about this game in any way shape or form is a spoiler, also let’s be honest, this game came out in 2012 so we are well past the one-year statute of limitations on spoilers. However, even though we will be talking about the game with full spoilers on, can I please ask if you have not played the game stop reading now and go play it if you have been at all interested it what I have said so far. You can pick it up on Steam, and it comes on sale quite regularly, if you can’t find it you can also just watch a play through online, (though it is something that is best played by yourself) and if you are not good with shooters, there is an option that assists you, almost like a story mode. I cannot guarantee that you will like it, in fact, you may indeed despise the game but you will be affected by it. Also, this is a mature game and deals with mature themes, you need to be prepared for that and frankly if you have problems with the concept of taking lives or looking at gore this is not the game for you. If you have played it fell free to continue on.
From the very opening of the game, it feels different, I can still remember the first time I loaded it up and in the opening credits I saw ‘Special Guest – Brian”, what a really nice move, most games don’t even bother to acknowledge the player. I would soon come to find that this was not the warm welcome that I thought it was, it was a way of forcing me to live with the actions that I made in the game because I could not escape into a fantasy of it being someone else, or a character, it was me, and the game had called me on that before I took a single step.
The first thing we find out about in Spec Ops is the fall of Dubai (coincidently I understand that this game is still banned in the UAE). Six months ago sand storms reclaimed Dubai for the desert, the wealthy left in secret knowing what was coming, leaving everyone else behind to perish. When the first storms struck Colonel John Konrad (Bruce Boxleitner) and his (damned) 33rd Army Brigade, who were on their way home from Afghanistan at the time, offered to help when no one else would, and when they were told to abandon the city they refused. Two weeks before the events of the game a radio message was able to pierce the storm wall surrounding Dubai “This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll: too many.” Six months after the fall of Dubai and two weeks after the message a small Delta Force Team was sent in to recon the situation. Captain Martin Walker (Nolan North), Lieutenant Alphanso Adams (Christopher Reid), and Staff Sergeant John Lugo (Omid Abtahi) were told to confirm if there were survivors and then call for an extraction or reinforcements.
“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless”
There are so many themes running through this game that to keep this retrospective a reasonable length (ok we are long past reasonable but still) we simply can’t talk about them all, I will instead list them here for you to think about. There are undercurrents of class, the rich told everyone it was all fine so they could evacuate safely and unhindered in secret, sacrificing everyone who was left behind. Dubai is the very definition of a man-made city, it only exists because of the money used to keep the desert at bay, but you never really can keep nature at bay. The CIA ‘the Company’ coming in the clean up the mess and how it always instead ends up messes things up. Throughout the game there is this constant dissidence between the opulence of the city and the fact that it is now mostly abandoned, it is very post-apocalyptic in nature. The role of embedded media and their relationship with the military. Also from the ‘in medias res’ introduction, is this game just all a depiction of purgatory or hell? These are all very important issues but they are not what I want to talk about today, what I want to talk to is about the issues of consequences, why good people do horrible things and what does this game say about playing war for fun.
Look if you have read my work it will come to no surprise that I can get emotional when watching a/the movie/TV/Internet, reading a Book or indeed playing a video game. But even though video games are meant to be the most interactive of the media we consume today, I tend to find that I rarely get moved to tears in the same way as everything else. There are of course exceptions to this, Homeworld, Mass Effect 3 (shush, yes I know the ending sucked), Bastion & Spec Ops: The Line, but when they do move me to tears or elicit that emotional response it tends to be more profound. The most interesting thing I found is while the first three were emotional responses for me grieving for someone else, in Spec Ops, it was, in fact, me grieving for myself or at least part of myself (something that at this point I would be saying was a unique reaction if I had not just recently played The Beginners Guide). So why did it have this reaction in me, well if you have played the game (which you should have if you are reading this ) you may already know why, or indeed you may be rolling your eyes at this point, which is both fine.
“Can you even remember why you came here?”
One of the things this game does so very well is question why it is that we play war games, more specifically why is it do we play first person shooters? War games and indeed first person shooters are the bread and butter of the video games industry, just this week we saw Call of Duty launch with over a million pre-orders in the USA alone (and those figures were latest I could get and they were one month old and only for the XBOne and PS4). But why do we play them? Well the simple answer is that they are fun, yes, but it is more than that, there is the skill factor, learning how to use the controls and to master them and take out other players, yes, but it is more than that, ‘cause there are cool explosions and other “associated badassery” (Johan 2015), yes, but it is more than that, it’s because they make us into heroes and who doesn’t want to be a hero? So what is the easiest shorthand for being a hero? well, historically it has usually been becoming an American soldier or a ‘proxy for America’ soldier (this is most likely due to the US being the largest market for video games, though this is changing, indeed for a time America’s Army, made by (in part) the American Army was one of the more popular FPS). Through the Battlefield, Call of Duty, Medal of Honour, Halo, and Wolfenstein etc. franchises and the myriads of attempts to replicate them you get to play as hyper-masculine (you rarely get the option of playing as a women, though once again this is changing) killing machines that are out to do good, or to rectify a wrong. The question then is, is there something wrong with this?, honestly no, it is just a bit of fun, if it was not fun then it would not be as successful as it is. But the one things it is not, is realistic and I don’t mean in the literal sense of just because you can snipe an enemy from across the map with a Lee–Enfield doesn’t mean you could hit a broad side of a barn if you were handed a real weapon (or indeed even get out of the situation with a unbruised shoulder), no I mean first person shooters are unrealistic because there is always (well usually) a clear good guy and a clear bad guy. Life is rarely so convenient like that, in fact this is probably the reason for WW2 being one of the more popular settings for first-person shooters because it was one of the few times where there was a clear bad guy, but even in the fields of France and Russia life on the ground was rarely as clear cut as we would believe through playing computer games.
In real life people are trying to act for good but end up doing bad, people can make horrific mistakes with incorrect information, people can get caught up in the moment and act irrationally, people can live in a constant state of stress and this can affect the way they see the world, and some people create fictions to live in reality. This is why Spec Ops: The Line is such an important game because at the end of it I cannot tell you who were the good guys and who were the bad guys and given that two of the possible four endings involve Captain Walker (you) choosing to die rather than face what you have done, and you (the player) actual considering if that is the right option (within the confines of the game), shows you the power of this narrative. Of course, it is no surprise that one of the main inspirations for Spec Ops is Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, the soundtrack of Vietnam War classics played over the radio by the Radioman (Jake Busey) should give you that hint. This is an important link because the Vietnam War was a living embodiment of that old phrase ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. This is really important because at every point you completely understand Walker’s motivations, (even though by all rights he should have turned around at the first contact to radio for backup). Every step that takes Walker and the Delta Force Squad from the outskirts of the city to the top of the Burj Khalifa all makes sense, as individual steps, but when you look at the whole picture it is horrifying how far they (and you) have fallen (the game literally reinforces this by having you constantly descending throughout the story, to the point where it is almost ridiculous if you think about it outside the setting).
“If you were a better person, you wouldn’t be here.”
It is this incremental fall into oblivion that is one of the game’s strengths because simply, you go along with it. At the start of the game, the Delta Squad is the epitome of everything you have to come to expect of the US military, well trained, good looking, making wisecracks yet respecting the chain of command “A local airborne insurgency has infiltrated a US zone designated as my pants! Sir!”. However, as the situation becomes more and more unclear, as the objectives for the mission become more undefined, as the Delta Squad have to start killing refugees and other American Soldiers just to survive, things start to deteriorate. Instead of the professional conduct during combat, slowly the tone of the language shifts, how they treat the other combatants becomes more hostile and inhuman, and the desire to write this wrong becomes the core driver of the squad, which was not the reason they were there in the first place, this is operation creep at its worse.
All of this leads to that turning point about halfway through the game. After being forced to choose between whether to save a CIA Operative with key information or some civilians you don’t know (a situation which either option has ethical dilemmas, this is not the first nor the last time this will happen and there is no paragon or renegade cop out) and after which the team starting to literally brawl amongst themselves, the Squad reaches their objective The Gate. To complete their “mission” they need the information found inside but The Gate it is too heavily guarded, but all is not lost as they stumble across a white phosphorus mortar. They (you) have already seen the damage white phosphorus does to the human body but they (you) have also waded through the bodies of the dead civilians and other soldiers the 33rd had brutally murdered. So with all this information Walker (you) fires a camera into the air that can see thermal signatures on the ground and you start firing away, you crush Humvee’s, smite wave after wave of troops until you see the final mass of soldiers waiting behind The Gate and with one foul swoop you take out the entire army. You own this decision but it is one that comes with a cost. While Spec Ops is not the only game where you use a mortar, or airstrike etc to take out waves of enemies, it is one of the few games that force you to deal with the consequences of your actions. As you walk through the ground you scorched in front of The Gate (which looks like it was once a playground) you are confronted with these consequences. Firstly, the “battle” field echoes with the screams of the dying soldiers lingering in pain. Usually, in games everyone is just dead, a bullet to exploding barrel equals big boom, and move on to next room, you don’t generally get to or have to listen to people’s last agonising moments before death takes them. Then there is the accusation from one of the dying, simply “why”, and the only response you can give “You brought this on yourself”, but then the phrase that will ever haunt the Delta Squad “We…we’re…helping…”. In one moment everything changes as you are confronted with one of the most disturbing images that I have ever seen in a video game, a mother trying and being unsuccessful in her attempts to protect her daughter from the inferno. Why is it horrific (other than it just being a very visually gruesome image), because I had caused it. Just before deploying the mortar there is this exchange – LT Adams: “Might not have a choice, Lugo.”, SSG Lugo: “There’s always a choice.”, CPT Walker: “No, there’s really not.” But there was a choice, I could have chosen to turn off the game, but I didn’t. All of a sudden all of that incremental creep catches up with Walker (you) for now he has become just as bad as all those around him. In Spec Ops, you don’t just get to finish a level, jump to the title screen, and start the next mission, you have to experience the consequences of your actions (hell even the title screens are no respite in this game).
“How many Americans have you killed today?”
It is this notion of how consequences matter that is at the heart of why this game is so powerful because you don’t even realise that some of the consequences exist at all until the very end of the game. From the moment you find out at the top of the Burj Khalifa that Konrad is dead, and in fact has been dead for a very long time, everything that happened after the phosphorus attack gets called into question (maybe even everything before that). The entire drive for the second half of the game is to find Konrad and make him pay for making you kill those civilians, to make it right, to atone for what you did, but there was no one for you to kill, for they were already dead. But if Konrad has been dead, who have I been talking too, it is that ‘Sixth Sense’ moment where you then start to put together everything that had just happened with a new light, with that sudden realization that everything is not as it seemed (look that move is 16-year-old, if I spoiled it for you now, you were not going to go see it). It was easier to make up a villain than accept that you had become one yourself. At the end even if you chose to go home, you can’t escape your actions – Falcon 1: “You know, captain, we drove through this whole city to find you. We…we saw things. If you don’t mind me asking, what was it like? How did you survive all this?” CPT Walker: “Who said I did?”. There are consequences in this game, and it something more games should engage with more and other game should engage with better.
Is war fun?, no (generally speaking), in fact, it can be quite boring at times and other times it can be horrifying. So why do we escape to war as a pass time? For some, it is the integration of The Military-Industrial- Media-Entertainment Network (MIME-Net) which likes to push this particular hero narrative because it promotes positive engagement with the armed forces (for example there was a surge of recruits following the release of Top Gun). Personally I am not sold on that particular line of enquiry (yet), for me why do we escape to war, because it is at the heart of that old adage ‘give the people what they want’ we want to feel powerful, feel like a hero, fighting for good, vanquishing evil, this is why there are so few game where you only play as a bad guy (Evil Genius, Pay Day, & Shadows of the Colossus being notable exceptions). The problem is that unlike fighting orcs, or engaging with the Borg, war is not fiction, war is a reality, and very few games show it.
“This is Captain Martin Walker, requesting immediate evacuation of Dubai. Survivors… one too many.”
In the end, I am sitting here in my chair in the safety of a prosperous country, I have no real life experience in war, I have an understanding but that understanding is just academic. So I can sympathise, but I will never truly understand what it is like to be shot at (I hope). So can we, can I, really draw any conclusions from a game that is trying to shine a light on the greyness of war when I and probably most of you have not personally experienced it?, do I even have that right? Yes, because even a modicum of understanding is better than none, as long as we understand it is only a modicum of understanding. This is what Spec Ops: The Line is, it is a game about war that questions why we play games about war, and that is a question we should really ask ourselves even if the answer is just because they are a bit of fun, especially if our answer is just that they are just a little fun.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
Have you played Spec-Ops?, let us know what you thought in the comments below, feel free to share this review on any of the social medias and you can follow us Here. Check out all our past reviews and articles Here, and have a happy day.
Lead Designers – Cory Davis & François Coulon
Lead Producers – Tarl Raney
Written By – Walt Williams & Richard Pearsey
Voice Actors – Nolan North, Christopher Reid, Omid Abtahi, Jake Busey & Bruce Boxleitner
Developer – Yager Development
Publisher – 2K Games
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: M; Ireland: 18; NZ:R18; UK: 18; USA: M