Spec Ops: The Line (2012, PC)

By Cygnus / April 1, 2017

About halfway through Yager's third-person-shooter Spec Ops: The Line, in one of the game's most controversial moments, I found myself disgusted and infuriated. Not at the scene I'd just witnessed, or at the game's statement as a whole, but rather that it even needs to be said at all. Two of the ten bestselling videogames of all time are Grand Theft Auto V and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The "military shooter" is one of the most successful genres of the last ten years, and the objective of these games is to kill people. Lots of people. We eat it up non-stop, and always, always ask for sequels seconds. In order to keep the profit margins wide, we are encouraged to never think about it, to never stop and look at ourselves with a critical, compassionate, clear eye. Of course, it's not only Hollywood that benefits from the blinders we've all put on, since only the desperate and crazy would fight our wars for us if it weren't for the glorification of war peddled by the governments of this strange, sad world upon which we find ourselves spinning through the abyss.

   In an ideal world, these things wouldn't need to be said and all of this would be a moot point. Games like The Line would be seen as a gratuitous miserywank, and people would rightly ask, "Why do we need something like this?" But we don't live in an ideal world, and as gamers, we inhabit a very flashy and seductive yet still a very small and confined space where, ever since John Carmack created Wolfenstein 3D and Doom and ushered in the era of the ultraviolent shooter genre, there is an elephant in the room covered in blood and gore. As such, The Line is a game that needed to be made, its message one that we need to listen to.
   The plot, involving a small group of elite U.S. soldiers sent to Dubai on a rescue mission in the midst of a freak sandstorm that all but destroys the city, is adapted from the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which also inspired the movie Apocalypse Now. The themes of both are intact here — the horrors of war, the darkness that lives in the soul, and the lengths to which the human mind will go to rationalize its own nature — but I would argue that they are made much more effective by the vicarious immediacy of the videogame medium, and because so much of gaming involves visiting death on whole populations of pixelated AI effigies. Here, the formula is largely unchanged; indeed, you mow down an impressive number of folks with a variety of well-represented handguns, rifles and heavy weapons, but unlike your regular military shooter, The Line invites and occasionally straight-up forces you to think about the enemy soldiers: who they are, what their motivations are, and of course, how they die. The writers at Yager accomplish this in several ways, some with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, but others which surprised the sheer hell out of me with their deft use of the medium's voyeuristic and user-participation elements. Spoiler: There's one such moment available in the demo after you use a zipline to reach a building where you sneak up on a pair of soldiers overlooking the ruined city. Their quiet, wistful conversation together is human, poignant, and, because you have no choice but to kill them to proceed with the mission, painfully affecting.
   A lot has been written about this game and I doubt I'm saying anything new. It is well-deserving of its praise. It's mature and uncompromising. The characters are believable, sometimes heart-breakingly so. At one point I questioned Yager's decision to use the third-person perspective instead of first-person; it seemed to me that the latter would have been much more powerful. But when you stop to wheel the camera around and look at your character, you don't see your typical hardcore BAMF with the obligatory, almost muscular, furrowed brow, the thin, tight, all-business lips, the hard eyes, etc. You see a soldier scared for his life, scared for his soul. His eyes dart everywhere like a cornered animal, he breathes unsteadily, he looks like he feels: horrified, nauseated and on the edge of tears.
   The devs say that the story is open to interpretation, but for me, the game is at its heart an honest illustration of post-traumatic stress disorder, or as George Carlin would say, "shell shock" [ > ].
   If George were still around and had been a gamer, he probably would've approved of Spec Ops: The Line. He was first and foremost an observer of life, a philosopher who just happened to be funny as hell. This is not a funny game. One of the characters starts off as the typical comic relief character that all shooters seem to require, but like Pvt. Joker in Full Metal Jacket, he sobers up fast and his wisecracks dry up completely during the events of the game. It's almost a shame the cover-based shooting mechanics are so well done, because I find myself torn between wanting to do another playthrough and not wanting to feel the way this game makes me feel. Because this is where The Line lives: the duality of our chosen brand of entertainment, where we "play" at the deadly game of simulated mortal conflict, and never stop to ask ourselves: what does my kill/death ratio mean for my soul? Does blood still stain if it only exists in my head? Should I even care?
   Spec Ops: The Line is a game that needed to be made. It is a game that, in my opinion, needs to be (I hesitate to use the word "played") experienced. It is a powerful milestone in the ongoing evolution and maturation of gaming, and it asks hard questions that deserve to be heard. It's up to you whether or not to listen. To paraphrase Kenneth Jarecke, a Gulf War photojournalist whose photograph of a dead Iraqi soldier was pulled from the U.S. media outlets because it was deemed too shocking for the public: if you're big enough to fight a war, you should be big enough to look at it.

Spec Ops: The Line is runner-up to Insomnia's 2012 Game of the Year.