For maybe the first time in my life, a video game has truly affected me.
Sure, video games have had an effect on me before. Portal 2, which I wrote about last week, briefly left me considering non-Euclidian paths through any room I entered. But I don’t think a game has ever truly shaken me like House of Leaves or Incendies or Essex County have. While many games have engaging stories and characters—BioShock and the Mass Effect games chief among them—the video game medium makes it difficult for those elements to transcend the far more immediate mechanical aspects of the game: sure, your favourite teammate might heroically sacrifice himself, but only after you’ve somewhat tediously cut your way through dozens of nameless, identical enemies. The impact is lessened a little, is what I’m saying.
But one game, which I first heard about less than a month ago and played over the course of two days last week, has managed to break the mould. Spec Ops: The Line is a gruelling, unsentimental military shooter that not only forces you to experience the horrors of war, but makes you culpable for them as well. It’s a damning deconstruction of the modern war game genre that’s become incredibly popular in the last half decade and possibly the only video game I would consider a genuine work of art. And I can’t get it out of my head.
The Line is technically a reboot of the long-dormant Spec Ops series of tactical shooters that had its heyday in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but it draws heavily on the gameplay mechanics of more contemporary third person shooters and takes thematic cues from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its pseudo-adaptation Apocalypse Now. And it’s quite sneaky in how it implements these two halves, initially leading you to think it’s your standard war simulator and then oh so gradually transforming into a genuine work of psychological horror.
Set in the present, Spec Ops: The Line puts you in the shoes of Captain Martin Walker, leader of a three-man Delta Force recon squad also consisting of Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo. Half a year prior to the events of the game, the “Damned” 33rd Battalion of the US Army, led by Colonel John Conrad, ventured into Dubai to assist in its evacuation as the city was ravaged by sandstorms, only for the division to virtually disappear. Walker and his comrades have been ordered to venture into the city on foot, assess the situation and then radio for support. The Dubai they encounter on the other side of the storm wall is a mixture of ghost town and war zone: the 33rd, presumably under the command of Conrad (this game’s aptly named stand-in for the Kurtz of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now), has instated brutal martial law, and are met with resistance by the division’s dissenting officers and CIA-led Emirati refugees.
Right off the bat, one can see how Spec Ops: The Line differs from similar military shooters as well as most action games. Not only is there an aura of mystery that you simply wouldn’t experience in one of the Modern Warfare games or Battlefield 3’s single player campaign, but there aren’t any clear cut allies or villains: in spite the brutality of their actions, the 33rd is sincerely dedicated to the long-term survival of Dubai’s citizens; the CIA’s meddling seems only to exacerbate the situation; lastly, the refugees who you’ve come in part to check up on have an understandable amount of ill will toward any American wielding a gun. It’s a far cry from the ultranationalist Russians or fundamentalist Middle-Eastern theocracy in the Modern Warfare games, who were indisputably the bad guys no matter how you looked at it.
At this point, let’s consider everything I say going forward a spoiler in some regard. I’ve given you the basic info and, hopefully, piqued your curiosity, so if you want to play through the game on your own terms I suggest you don’t read any further.
I already said The Line draws heavily on the mechanics of current third person shooters, but I really have to impress how true this is: take away the story, the setting and the aesthetic and it plays almost exactly the same as Gears of War. You can take aim, roadie run, take cover and slide to other points of shelter. There is absolutely nothing special or innovative about its gameplay—which is, in fact, not a negative criticism but crucial to experiencing the story and its themes. With no real complexity or learning curve—except for “keep your head down;” enemy combatants in this game can shred you in just a few seconds—the mechanics become second nature and the player is more likely to focus on their environment, other characters, and dialogue. Weapon loadout and the game’s very limited squad-based tactics play second fiddle to the story.
As well, the gameplay gives you a false sense of security and leads you to think this is just another run-of-the-mill military sim. And for the first hour or so, it is: you’re part of an elite US Army squad venturing into a war-torn Middle-Eastern city, taking cover behind conveniently placed waist-high walls and gunning down indigenous forces that wear headscarves and shout at you in Farsi. That’s as cliché as the genre gets. The game gradually acclimatizes you to this rhythm so that when the situation becomes more complex—say, when you’re forced to fire back at the suspicious and trigger-happy 33rd—it feels like something unseen, only felt, is shifting gears without a clutch. It’s not so much jarring as it is uncanny.
Everything about the game is shifting in some way. Your enemies go from armed looters to CIA operatives to soldiers of the 33rd. Sandstorms radically alter the landscape of Dubai. Your teammates start off calm and cracking jokes, become stoic once the shooting starts, and get more on edge as the game progresses. The loading screens go from giving you helpful tips, such as how to move between cover, to flat out chastising you (“This is all your fault.”). And you, well, you change perhaps most of all. Or maybe you, the player, do not. What’s for certain is that Martin Walker isn’t leaving Dubai as the same man who arrived there. Depending on your actions, you might not even leave at all.
Walker is one of my favourite player characters in all of gaming, not because he’s cool (he isn’t) or special (“badass special forces soldier” stopped being special in video games more than a decade ago) but because he’s the only one whose flaws not only give him depth but massively shape how the game proceeds. He so, so wants to be the hero, to bring everyone home, but ultimately this desire is the most disastrous motivation in the game. Everyone likes to think they’re the good guy—half of the wars in the history of the world wouldn’t have been waged if one side or the other saw themselves as in the wrong—and Walker is no exception. As his actions become more and more extreme, the delusions he subconsciously uses to rationalize them intensify. And boy oh boy, do they get extreme.
Before The Line, I rarely encountered unarmed civilians in a military game. The genre simply didn’t acknowledge them most of the time. Here, they’re all over the place, and usually too scared to vacate the premises. About an hour and fifteen minutes in, during my first violent encounter with the 33rd, someone popped out of cover in front of me and dashed in my general direction. Acting almost reflexively, I leveled my rifle and fired. A second too late, I realized this person hadn’t been a member of the 33rd but an innocent refugee. But the game didn’t end, or make me restart from the last checkpoint, or admonish me in any way, shape or form. And that’s one of the terrible realities of military combat: shit happens. Good guys get mistaken for bad, bombs get dropped on the wrong target, and I accidentally put a 5.56mm round through the chest of a—virtual, mind you—Emirati woman. To date, this is the only game that has recognized this reality in any way, shape or form.
And that idea comes to the fore at the game’s halfway point, when Walker—and by extension the player—is forced to cross “the line” of the title. Faced with an insurmountable platoon of 33rd forces, Walker orders his men to use a mortar loaded with white phosphorous to take out key targets. White phosphorous, if you don’t already know, is an incendiary weapon comparable to napalm that has been used in various Middle-Eastern conflicts. Its effects, it goes without saying, are horrifying. You see it in the scorched encampment, in the horribly mutilated soldiers left in your wake, begging for you to kill them… and in the charred corpses of the 47 innocent men, women and children you didn’t know were camped nearby.
It’s an absolutely horrifying moment and “the line” not only for your character but for you as well: do you continue playing a game that has you carry out such an act, regardless of your knowledge, or do you stop? You might protest that the game didn’t give you any choice but, when you get right down to it, the player always has a choice: to keep playing, or not to keep playing.
The Line’s core thesis is that you can’t use actual, simulated war, with real locations and true-to-life factions and nations, as a playground for an escapist power fantasy. You just can’t. Not only do the people designing those types of games have to simplify the Hell out of your enemy in order to make gunning them down more palatable, but they have to almost completely gloss over the civilian deaths that result from such conflicts. Moreover, the games that do do this want you to have fun, and the bloody truth is that war isn’t fun, and should never be fun. Spec Ops hits this last bit right on the head; it isn’t “enjoyable” in the traditional sense of the word. Engaging? Yes. Fascinating? Of course. The most important game I’ve played? Most definitely. But it’s not by any means fun. It’s the equivalent of playing Polytechnique: The Game.
Two hours after finishing the single player campaign, I walked to the Microplay on Bank Street and traded in a few games. While most were ones I had lost interest in playing, I also brought the first two Modern Warfare games. I had gone through each campaign several times, and had on those occasions been thrilled and exhilarated, but after seeing Spec Ops: The Line through to its stomach-turning end I simply couldn’t abide them being on my shelf anymore, let alone play them.
This isn’t some self-righteous rallying cry: if you like the Modern Warfare series and other contemporary military shooters feel free to play them to your heart’s content. I won’t judge. But I can’t any more. I’ll shoot waves of invading aliens, and hold my own against a horde of zombies, and Lord knows I’ll be stomping on Koopas until the day I die, but my days fighting in virtual, “realistic” wars are over. Some things shouldn’t be fun.