Five Years Later, 'Spec Ops: The Line' Still Hates Military Bullshit
'Spec Ops: The Line' pulled no punches in its biting commentary.
All images courtesy of 2K Games
It's difficult to pick a specific moment in Spec Ops: The Line where I first realized it wasn't just another bog-standard, jingoistic military shooter about killing a bunch of Middle-Eastern enemies. Or, rather, it's difficult to pick when I first realized that The Line knew it was another bog-standard, jingoistic military shooter about killing a bunch of Middle-Eastern enemies. The game knew what it was, and it hated itself for it. More than that: it directly questioned the player for daring to enjoy such a game. Late in the game, a loading screen tip sarcastically asks: Do you feel like a hero yet?
Sure, there's the infamous white phosphorous scene where the player, staring through the reflection of playable character Captain Martin Walker, launches white phosphorous shells at former US troops. The deed is performed on a black and white screen, in a homage to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's "Death From Above" level. But before the dust settles, the player is forced to walk through the devastation they caused; the game rubs your face in it. Of course, beyond the burnt husks of the dead Americans are the equally charred bodied of the exact refugees that Walker thought his violent act would save. The game says to the player, "What? You thought bombing people was really going to resolve things neatly?"
This is the game's turning point. The moment from which there is no turning back for Walker and his team. But it's clear long before this point that something is different about this game. It's in the upside-down American flag and eerie, stretched-out Jimi Hedrix rendition of Star-Spangled Banner on the menu screen. It's in the wounds on Walker's body, obtained in cut-scenes, that persist and multiply throughout the course of the game. It's in the slow-motion headshots that don't feel like celebratory gore so much as being forced to look at what you have done.
Released five years ago, The Line was immediate divisive: a messy, janky, violent game that wears its Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness influences on its sleeve. For some it was a revelation; for others it was just another insincere blockbuster with a thin thematic veneer. At the start of the game, Captain Walker and his two subordinates are on their way to the ruins of Dubai on a reconnaissance mission. Six months earlier, an entire US Battalion went AWOL after the city was destroyed by a sandstorm—and Walker's team has been sent in to investigate a new radio transmission.
Inevitably, it doesn't take long before the shooting starts. At this point, Walker's team is meant to withdraw and call for backup, but instead they go a bit further to see what is happening. Then they go a bit further to rescue a captive (they fail). They go a bit further to check on something else. Eventually, they've gone too far and 47 refugees are dead at their hands. The squad sees things and, worse, does things that irrevocably changes them. By the end of the game, Walkers's squadmates are dead and he is an utterly broken man. The 'line' that the characters cross isn't a single moral choice but the constant, stubborn refusal to just stop killing people.
The majesty of The Line is in its character development, something completely absent from the majority of videogame stories. We are used to thinking of videogame characters as blank canvases, as mere vehicles for the player's intentions to travel from the start of a game to the end. Over the course of The Line, however, Walker is constantly changing, both mentally and physically. Every decision—especially the decisions he is unaware he is making—has a lasting effect on him. In the face of the horrors he witnesses and enacts, he slowly breaks down. At the start of the game, he is all military precision and calm, telling his squad to 'acquire targets.' By the end of the game, he is bloodied and torn, shouting at his squad to 'kill that fucker.' Voiced by videogame everyman Nolan North, Walker is a character study of the average videogame protagonist coming to terms with the messed up things we players make them do.
One critique levelled at The Line is that it is exactly the type of game it critiques. It preaches that this sort of game is messed up, while putting in no effort to not be this sort of game. To be certain, if you wanted to play a powerfully anti-war videogame, you would be better off playing Unmanned or September 12 or even This War of Mine . To say The Line is trying to be anti-war is to miss the point of what The Line is actually expressing. Not a clear moral message but a nihilistic frustration at its own existence within the blockbuster publisher-studio model. This is a game that hates itself.
By most accounts, the process of making the game was fraught. Publisher 2K wanted to relaunch the obscure PlayStation franchise, throwing German studio Yager at it and, frustrated with the game's progression years later, sent the game's writer Walt Williams over to work on-site full-time. From conversations I've had with different parties, it was a pretty tense relationship between publisher and studio. You can see hints of it in public statements from senior Yager staff that left the studio shortly after completion, such as Corey Davis who bluntly called 2K's insistence of a multiplayer component "a cancerous growth" on the side of the game.
Talking to me for an interview with Unwinnable, Walt Williams explained how they didn't originally set out to make The Line in this cynical, nihilistic manner, but it came from a point of frustration at the genre they were tasked to work with—how military shooters have long depicted warfare as 'fun:'
There was this point where the pain of the product began to show itself within the project. It reached this point where it was like, "Oh, you want to play this kind of game for fun? Fuck you, I'll show you what's fun about this." And it just started to turn. But once we started to analyze that emotion in that sense we were like, well, actually, there is something here. There is something to this that is very real and which should be said.
To call The Line a hypocritical game is thus not incorrect. It is the generic military shooter that 2K wanted (one that, perhaps inevitably, did not sell as well as 2K hoped) whose development was tasked to people deeply critical of just what the military shooter had become. The Line is angry at itself for existing, and angry at the players who want these games to exist. It's a deep-seated conflict that gives the game a sense of personality—of imperfect, conflicted humanity—that so few large commercial video games are allowed to possess.
Ultimately, as Dan Golding put it at the time of the game's release, " The Line is an attack on those of us who uncritically enjoy military shooters." The Line asks us to consider just how messed up these violent actions we regularly, uncritically demand of our playable characters actually are. It doesn't make a clear or simple moral judgement but instead forces us to contemplate just what sort of complex experiences we've commodified for our own entertainment.