Spec Ops: The Line Made Me A Bad Person
Patrick Lindsey isn’t the only person who doesn’t like shooters around here.
It’s been a long time since I was able to call myself a fan of the genre, having seen it become a stagnant pool of mediocrity and clichés. I’ve gotten pretty tired of filling the shoes of all these archetypes. These alpha males with their crew cuts and harsh demeanours. These tabula rasas. At this point, it’s always genuinely a little bit exciting when something like Bulletstorm can come along and at least try to do something different – even if that particular game couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be funny or deeply sombre.
So when Mr. Lindsey suggested last week that Spec Ops: The Line is just a shooter, you’d think I would struggle to disagree with that. And he is right, to a certain degree. Its genre is pretty much an out-and-out shooter, a fantastically generic one at that. Run from point A to point B, shoot X amount of soldiers/insurgents on the way, pause here to recover your health. It’s all very Gears of War. To even attempt to argue the point that The Line pushes the genre forwards mechanically is fruitless because it is and always will be simply untrue. If violence is the only meaningful action you can make in a shooter, then the consequences of that are unlikely to be anything other than more violence.
And don’t think for a second that The Line presents any other choice. Violence genuinely is your only meaningful action in Spec Ops: The Line and, yes, it only ever begets more violence. To perceive of the game from only that perspective, however, is short-sighted at best. In Spec Ops: The Line, the actions you make frame the story and not the other way around. It is purely a context to convey a message. That message? As a gamer, you are a Terrible Person.
(Fair warning, kids – spoilers are coming.)
It’s not until quite late in the game that the loading screens weigh in with their messages rather than tips. “You are still a good person,” they tell you. “You cannot understand, nor do you want to.” “This is all your fault.” If it feels like mockery, even for a brief moment, that’s because it is. A taunt. The point of these messages, however, is to highlight what this game is about.
Not Walker, our hopelessly well-intentioned protagonist. Not his chums, getting dragged along every step of the way. You. You’re what’s important here. Like Bioshock before it, Spec Ops: The Line is pointing out the well worn path of so many games before it. It’s all about the player, not the protagonist. It’s about conventions and then the subversion of those conventions. It’s Yager relying on our conditioning from so many other games to want to be the hero of our stories. To save the day. For The Line, that’s not an option.
How it achieves this is relatively subtle. Unlike the Mass Effects and Fables of this world, the choices you make ultimately have to be performed by you. You don’t select an option from a menu. The choices are presented and you enact one of them. It’s a simple process but that one is remarkably impactful.
The white phosphorous scene, for example. Mere minutes after its torturous deadliness is portrayed to us, the game puts you in a situation where you have to use it to proceed. If, like Walker, you’re in for the long haul, you do not have a choice. However, the game doesn’t allow this action to take place in a cut-scene. Agency is forced upon you, without you realising what it is you are about to do. Only after the event are you able to register the enormity of what you’ve done, even if placed just in the relatively consequence free sphere of video games. Lugo, bless his heart, screams out, “He turned us into fuckin’ killers!” Really though, he didn’t. It had nothing to do with Walker.
But you are still a good person, and so you push on.
A man lies crushed under the weight of a crushed truck that he has stolen, filled with all that remains of the water for the people of Dubai, now leaking, wasted. The people are doomed. You helped enact this. You manipulated Walker into committing these actions. And now you can choose to let this man – this villain – die, or to murder him. Merciful Death or Apathetic Death. Those are your options.
But you are still a good person, so you can push on.
Konrad lies dead by his own hand, decayed beyond recognition. Walker finally realises the depths he has sunk to. The voice that he hears in his head as Konrad, his conscience, has been telling him to turn back. That he can’t save the day. He is not a hero. He always had a choice to not act. What are the consequences for him now? He is broken beyond repair, both physically and mentally. Suicide. Death by soldier. Murdering sociopath. These are the only paths left to him.
But you are still a good person.
“Do you feel like a hero yet?,” the game asks. It’s more a derisive barb than an actual question, but its still one worth asking. Everything you do in-game makes things worse. Violence begets violence but much like Walker, the player always had the choice to not act whether they believe they do or not. Sometimes the heroic thing isn’t necessarily to push on. It’s to accept your limitations, do what you can, and then move on. What that means for The Line…well, that’s up to the player. If there is a right decision to be made, it’s not obvious. Yager made sure of that.
And maybe that’s exactly what they thought was the point. As a shooter, it does embrace the conventions of the genre and then reinforces our preconceptions of it. However, by creating a war story that’s actually focused on a person’s experience of war rather than explosions/dictators/dogmatic propaganda/whatever, The Line is a game that should be celebrated everywhere. Plus it ultimately serves the function of being a morality lesson. A lesson that sometimes, just maybe, you’ll feel better if you turn off the game.