I’ve played video games my whole life. I mean, I literally played that home version of Pong when I was three years old. Somewhere along the lines, classic arcade games moved over for all kinds of interesting strategy and first-person shooter games, until we were hit with such a deluge of copycat games, it became hard to tell one from another, save the occasional brilliant twist in game mechanics.
On even rarer occasion, a storyline would blow me away. In the last several years, this is happening more and more often. I partly attribute this to the accessibility of game-making tools and the influx of indie developers. But I think there is more to it than that: as video games become more prolific, more mainstream, there arises a challenge to make them unique. To bring them to the level of books and film – to make them art.
Some games are obvious art. Dear Esther comes to mind as one that challenges the notion of even being a game. There are many others that push that same boundary, but I recently discovered one that I had not expected. Not even close.
I’m writing this now somewhat behind the times. Spec Ops: The Line was released in 2012, three years ago. So why should I bother reviewing it now? Well, I guess because I just discovered it, I feel compelled to spread the word in what little way I can. Maybe you’ve already played it. If that’s the case, I hope you’re reading this and want to talk more about it. Because I’m fucking obsessed with it right now.
I’d heard of the game in name only until a couple of weeks ago. I was talking to a friend about the awesomeness that is Dishonored, especially the way the gameplay affects the outcome of the story. He mentioned Spec Ops: The Line and I admitted I’d dismissed it based on the overdone military shooter categorization. All he needed to do was mention the influence of Heart of Darkness / Apocalypse Now and my interest skyrocketed. A quick lookup on Steam revealed I’d already owned the game – the result of picking up a 2K bundle at some point, no doubt.
A Shooter with a Story?
Right off the bat, the visuals blew me away. The setting is Dubai, after a massive sandstorm has half-buried the metropolis, forming walls of sand along the edges of the towering skyscrapers. The city was in peril and the 33rd, a unit of the U.S. Army, disobeyed orders in returning from Afghanistan and attempted an evacuation. Lead by the famous Colonel Konrad (the Kurtz of Heart of Darkness / Apocalypse Now), the 33rd have lost contact with the world, until a single transmission was picked up. A Delta squad of three soldiers – Captain Walker (the player), a sniper named Lugo and a heavy weapons specialist named Adams – are sent in to find Konrad.
The game begins much like a typical military shooter. You can issue orders to your squad, but mostly they operate on their own AI. Your team is on recon and runs into an abrupt gunfight. It seems that the city has fallen into a state of chaos, and you immediately begin searching for answers. This is where the images start to affect me already: the contrast of the plush skyscrapers with the chaos of destruction, disturbing graffiti popping up on the walls.
The emotion on these walls immediately told me I wasn’t dealing with some generic shooter. Whenever the narrative kicks in – whether in the form of cutscenes, dialog between characters, or in the “intel” you pick up (more on that in a sec) – I’m engaged. I’m actually paying attention. I’m not tempted to hit the button to “skip”. At first I thought the “intel” was an actual gameplay mechanic – that it was something critical to pick these up, or at least that it would lead to a bonus of some kind. And there is a bonus, but it has nothing to do with gameplay. It’s more story. More atmosphere. More character development.
How Can a Game no be Fun and Still be Compelling?
This game – this story – is about war. It’s about guilt, about how hard it is to escape it. And it’s about those terrible things that happen that we have no control over, like when Mother Nature decides to clobber you with an apocalyptic sandstorm.
War in games is usually some form of entertainment. You get to blow shit up, and it’s okay because it’s all fantasy. Even when the pixels are red, they’re still pixels. But in Spec Ops: The Line, war is terror. This is one of those rare games where you don’t want to win battles – you just want to fucking survive. You’ll learn how to fire blind from behind cover, and you’ll learn how to run. You’ll learn how to fight dirty. You’ll do it because bullets are hailing down around you and you just want it to stop.
And then you’ll do something bad. You’ll do it because your character, Captain Walker, thinks he’s doing the right thing. But he fucks up. You fuck up. You share his guilt. You might not share his coping mechanism – all-out revenge – but you’ll play through it. In these moments, you might feel more like his squadmates: soldiers following his orders because he is so goddamn driven you have no choice.
Sure, it’s still a video game. I still get my little jolt of dopamine whenever I pop out of cover and headshot the enemy that has my squadmate pinned down. Or manage to blow apart three enemies with a single grenade. And the gameplay is well-done, with only occasional control difficulties. There are definitely some sequences I had to try a few times to get past (another dopamine shot when I finally overcame those challenges).
But ultimately, it’s the story that keeps me engaged. As terrible a story it is, I still want to know how it plays out. I still want to know what I’ll find when I finally get to Colonel Konrad. And I’ve read Heart of Darkness and seen Apocalypse Now, so I know it ain’t gonna be a happy ending, but I can’t stop plowing through the shitstorm. Because this game – this story – has got me. It’s got me emotionally. The characters are slowing coming apart. Their in-game orders and quips dissolve from the shouts of disciplined soldiers to panic, and ultimately to rasping rage and bloodlust. Their faces and bodies – the actual models and textures – become bloodied and scorched. Even the goddamn loading screen turns from helpful tips to guilt-riddled taunts. And I can’t deny their slide, because the downward momentum is so incredibly gripping.
The “line” in the title of the game is of course metaphorical. It’s the line that Captain Walker is trying desperately not to cross: the line between protecting people and hurting people. And that same line, he crosses because of the mistakes he’s made. And it’s the line that he crosses because of those mistakes, which, at the risk of spoiling, is the line between sanity and dementia.
As my obsession with Spec Ops took root, it stuck around long after I finished the game. I scoured for articles on the game’s development and the writers involved. Brendan Keogh is a game critic that was so fascinated with the game, he wrote a long-form essay around it, Killing is Harmless. Admittedly, I haven’t yet read this book, but that’s mainly because I need to get my own thoughts of the game out there before I dive too far into Keogh’s perspective.
Keogh had a chance to catch up with lead writer, Walt Williams at GDC and recorded their lengthy conversation. It’s a great read if you want more insights into the development of Spec Ops, but I want to share one quote from Williams in particular:
I think there is a line that you cross where you pour a bit of your own heart out in your work and you realize you have more than you want to say.
What Williams is getting at here is the crossover he’s made from game-maker as a job to treating a game as a medium, which makes him an artist. And it’s this line, the one where games become art, that I’m most thankful has been crossed.
- Don’t be a Hero – The Full Story behind Spec Ops: The Line: [Polygon]
- Killing is Harmless, game critic Brendan Keogh’s long-form essay/ebook: [Stolen Projects]
- Talking is Harmful (conversation between Keogh and lead writer Walt Williams): [Unwinnable]
- A great article that goes into depth on the artistic visuals of Spec Ops: [Twenty-Sided Tale]
- And, just for kicks, there’s this beautiful reprint of Heart of Darkness from Tin House that has an illustration on the back of every page. I own it and I am just ga-ga for it. [Tin House Books]