Fair Warning – There will be spoilers detailing the story of Spec Ops: The Line in the post, after the jump.
There’s very unsettling moment about half way through 2010’s Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days. Having surrendered to the chief antagonist of the game, Kane, Lynch and Lynch’s girlfriend, Xui are subjected to an awful amount of off-screen torture. You regain control of Lynch – who, having been assumed dead – wakes up in a dumpster, naked and bleeding from dozens of deep lacerations all over his body. It’s grimy stuff. Proceeding back into bathroom where the torture took place, you stumble upon Xui’s body, the full extent of her torture obscured via pixelisation, a great use of the games found-footage visual style, all red and brown and black and blue leaving just enough to the imagination to suggest a deplorable level of sadism, but one that is still hidden, protecting the player..
No such veil is left covering any hideous part of Spec Ops: The Line.
Here is a game where absolutely horrific and horrible things happen, often as a direct reaction to player action. More than one of these moments genuinely left me speechless and so uncomfortable that I had to turn off the console and walk outside for a few minutes. None of these atrocities are left implied or suggested, all are placed front and centre for the player to deal with, weary in the knowledge that they made them happen.
The Line is essentially the videogame equivalent of Apocalypse Now, itself based on John Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A series of sandstorms have isolated Dubai from the rest of the world, along with a battalion of US soldiers. A three man Delta Force team – headed by the player-character, Martin Walker – is sent into the desert to find the battalion commander and any survivors, only to find that the isolated soliders, known as the Damned 33rd, have gone rogue, operating as a violent, oppressive force over the remaining residents of Dubai, and as Walker and his team explore the city, they also explore the depths of just what kinds of evil people are capable of inflicting on others.
One problem I’m sure I’m not alone in having with shooter games, particularly the mili-tainment bracket of CoDs, Battlefields and their various clones, is that the actions performed in those games hold little to no consequence. Through the course of a 6 or so hour game, your character will rack up a body count often in triple figures, which is often never even mentioned, and if it is, is then brushed off with a healthy dose of “Ooh-Rah” jingoism, and your character pushes on, unaffected by the deaths he is responsible for, into the next shooting gallery. I get that its a game, and I’m not asking for my shooter games to avoid the shooting (although that would be interesting…), but the lack of acknowledgement about your actions in many games is a worry. For a lot of time in The Line, I had a similar worry. So far, it was just another – albeit utterly brutal (we’re talking bodies hanged from lampposts, stacks of decaying, burnt bodies lining corridors) – military shooter. The body count was already approaching massacre levels and although a bit worn out and tired, the characters weren’t all that different from those that started the game.
Then. (Spoilers abound….)
Fresh some seeing civilians tortured and their only lead about what might actually be going on in Dubai killed, the team reach breaking point. Tensions are frayed, and Walker’s right and left hand men butt heads over having spent the last few hours killing their American brethren. They approach a valley filled with more of the 33rd, that happens to separate them from their objective. They happen upon a mortar filled with white phosphorus, which if you don’t know, is horrible stuff capable of burning through pretty much anything. So, desperate to press on, Walker, you, launch the mortar and totally obliterate the valley and everything in it. Job done, right? Well, you make your way through the valley when a dying, disfigured soldier crawls to you and utters, “Why did you do this? We were only trying to help.”
At the end of the valley, the full extent of what you’ve actually done dawns on you. A camp full of civilians, whom the 33rd were trying to protect from the oncoming firefight with your team, had been hit with a WP mortar. There are no cuts away from the atrocity, no pixelisation or any other obscuring measure. The charred faces of a mother and child stare you down. You, through your actions, killed 47 innocent people. 47 people who were being protected from you. And you’re meant to be the good guy.
I had to stop and leave the room. Too much. Probably one of the most unsettling, sickening moments I’ve ever encountered in a game.
This is, clearly, where the game changed for me. From then on, I was constantly aware of what I was doing. No more was it just mindless shooting. I knew that every solider I killed would probably come back to haunt me, one way or another. I was doing bad things. But I was sure I was doing them for good reasons. I was forced into a corner when I unknowingly killed those people. I had no choice. I will avenge those people. By killing more. That’s the right thing to do, right?
Cut to about an 45 minutes from the end of the game. Walker and Adams, one of his partners, are separated from Lugo, his other. Approaching him, fighting through more and more of the 33rd, you here over the radio that he isn’t in a good way. Broken arm, surrounded by locals. Upon finding him, Lugo has been lynched by this mob of locals, angered by what your team have done to their lives and land over the last 48 hours. Not the 33rd. Not the occupying force. Your Delta team. Your band of rescuers. These locals have hanged your friend for what YOU did.
Walker now has a choice. You have a choice. And I was shocked not only by the conditions of the choice, but the choice that I made. I had issues taking any part in the “No Russian” level in CoD: Modern Warfare 2. I could not bring myself to open fire on any of those virtual civilians. I can’t even bring myself to make the negative choices in any RPGs. But here, now, after being put through the ringer in this game, I have choice.
Shoot into the air to scare away the locals. Hold the Line. Or, shoot into the crowd. Cross the Line.
I crossed the line. I was shocked. But it made sense. All Walker and I had been doing throughout the game was for the best. We came to rescue survivors and did what was necessary, but our hands had been forced. And these people, these locals, didn’t understand. They just killed Lugo in cold blood, and we wanted retribution. Here I am, an earnest, peace loving person. I’ve just pointed a virtual gun at a virtual innocent and pulled the virtual trigger. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t impact the real world in any way, but I still made that decision. Am I now a bad person?
One of the best things about the game where, oddly enough, the loading screens. Whereas CoD games plaster pro-military historical quotes in their death screens, The Line takes a different approach.
“You are still a good person.”
“The US Military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants, but this isn’t real so does it even matter?”
“Do you feel like a hero yet?”
They were odd little moments of reflection that I would’ve missed were it not for the impossible difficulty spikes toward the end of the game. They looked at the games in The Line’s category, and asked why we play them.
This is what happens when people try and be heroes. Had Walker and his team stayed out of Dubai, 47 innocents would still be alive, hundreds of soldiers would still be alive, your partners would still be alive. But Walker – you – wanted to be a hero, and carried on through hell and high water, and look what happens.
Spec Ops: The Line was not a game I enjoyed. I didn’t particularly like playing it. The gameplay mechanics aren’t industry best. The graphics are OK, but not stellar. But through what it made me feel and think about, and what it asked me about why I play games, and how uncomfortable and unsettled it made me, I loved it. I will never play it again. But I am so glad I did.