I didn’t like Spec Ops: The Line until it ended.
That’s a feeling I’ve had about many video games; the almost palpable relief when the closing credits begin to roll and I know that another bad experience is over. Sometimes, in moments like that, I light up a cigarette and just watch the names scroll by through the haze of the smoke, silently curious about why these people thought to create the game they did, and secure in the knowledge that I’ll never have to touch it again.
It wasn’t quite like that with The Line. This time, as the assorted names of the Yager Development team rolled upwards and disappeared off the top of my television, I sat in a stunned, almost comatose silence and thought about everything that had led me to that point. I thought about life and death, about war and peace, about right and wrong. I thought about a lot of things, sat there in that chair. Then, when the names had all but disappeared and the final chords of Jimi Hendrix’s “A Merman I Should Be” rang out with an almost beautiful finality, I realized it wasn’t quite over yet.
Spec Ops: The Line is a shooter, a functional if uninspiring medley of cover-based gunplay and incredibly limited squad commanding. It would be unfair to suggest it doesn’t work, but unreasonable to pretend that mechanically it’s anything more than that. I play a lot of shooters and this is no better than the majority of average examples I can think of, and significantly worse than several of the best ones.
The Line is also a loose interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (itself the source material for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) transplanted into the sun-bleached ruins of a near-future Dubai. It’s a story about men who go to war, but who don’t always come home; men who carry the horrors of conflict in the tatters of their minds where only a bullet can shake them loose. It’s layered in simulacra and is the same blood-soaked road we have travelled many times before.
The Line is also something a little more than what we’re used to, though we have to first brush aside the sands of familiarity to find the point of it all squatting hidden beneath the grains.
# # #
Dubai is opulence and hedonism personified in glass and steel. Now, it lies in ruins.
The city has been ravaged by dust storms of an unprecedented ferocity; the politically and financially powerful have long since covertly evacuated; and the remaining Emiratis and foreign migrants have all but eradicated each other through looting and rioting among the skeletons of the skyscrapers. Among those engulfed within the storm wall are the remnants of the U.S. Army’s 33rd Infantry Battalion, the “Damned 33rd”, led by decorated veteran Lieutenant-Colonel John Konrad, who may or may not have lost his mind.
Captain Martin Walker (the player-character) is the leader of a three-man Delta Force team, covertly despatched to the carcass of Dubai in response to a looped radio broadcast from Konrad which penetrated the storm wall two weeks prior to his team’s insertion. His mission is to reconnoitre the city, report the status of Konrad and his team (who have now been publicly disavowed for treason after their refusal to abandon the refugees), and leave.
There is much more to this story, but discussing it openly will result in spoilers for minor and major developments which you should really experience for yourself. So, this is your warning: if you’re concerned by such things, now is the time to stop reading.
One thing that Spec Ops: The Line does which very few other military shooters do is limiting the number of foreigners you are forced to murder. While the game’s opening is populated with Emiratis loosely defined as “insurgents”, whom Walker and his team gun down with relative impunity, the majority of the opposition are a wholly unusual force: other American soldiers.
At the start of the game, Dubai has been a no-man’s-land for the last six months, the storm wall having closed it off from all surveillance, travel and communication. Walker’s team enter the city on foot, with no real knowledge of how events have preceded in the half a year since it, along with Konrad’s 33rd, dropped off the map. The evidence they uncover early in the story allows them – and, by extension, the player – to piece together the unsettling reality of that lost time, and it is this reality which shapes all of the events which follow.
Konrad’s radio broadcast pertained to a caravan of refugees whom the 33rd were attempting to lead out of the city to safety. The evacuation was a failure, and as a result the 33rd returned to Dubai as an occupying force, attempting to control the remaining populace through martial law which rapidly escalated into acts of atrocity. Elements of the unit staged a coup d’etat against Konrad in protest, and the 33rd splintered into two opposing factions: the “exiles”, and the loyalists who stayed with Konrad during the occupation.
Captain Walker’s team is sandwiched between these forces, as well as the Emirati insurgents who are being organized by the CIA to attack both the exiles and the loyalists for some arbitrarily defined reason. It’s a depressing commentary on the state of the modern video game industry that we should consider the murder of these people more shocking and unreasonable that the Arabs or Russians who typify the enemy ranks of the genre, but it is nonetheless an encouraging step in the right direction to force us to question these pre-conceived ideas about who the heroes and villains really are.
This slow trickle of uncomfortable truths is the trail of breadcrumbs which leads Walker through the remnants of a fallen city to the game’s defining moment; an act of desperation so horrifying, and the consequences of which so catastrophic, that it will eventually uproot the foundations of the man and send his sanity spiralling into the same sand-swept abyss from which he is attempting to claw his way free.
The Gate – a location indicated by the now-deceased CIA agent Gould to contain vital information about the disaster – is the objective, a heavily-fortified location which is guarded en masse by the 33rd. Walker elects to use a nearby mortar loaded with white phosphorus (despite the protestations of his teammate, Lugo) to shell the enemy ranks from a nearby hill. To not do so would be suicide, so the attack goes forward despite any moral objections, and the player controls it all through an overhead thermal camera, marking clusters of pulsing targets and watching the entire area boil over with burning white smoke.
Then the smoke clears, and takes with it whatever scraps of humanity Walker had left as it dissipates to reveal the corpses of 47 men, women and children, Emirati refugees, who the 33rd were sheltering from the impending battle. They lie scorched, many embracing one another, and with finality the camera settles on a mother clutching her child to her chest, stripped of life and flesh and salvation all in one moment.
I’ve been playing video games for approaching two decades, and this is possibly the most unsettling act I’ve ever actively carried out within one. From the detached mechanical method of its deployment to the graphic severity of its effects, raining white phosphorus on those people, those bundles of pixels and ones and zeroes, will likely remain with me for a long time.
Its testament to the power of the medium that my participation in this, however slight, multiplied its effectiveness by an almost incalculable figure. Many would posit that The Line’s rigid adherence to genre conventions ultimately prevents it from truly telling the story it wishes to tell, but I would argue that its desire to draw focus away from the glory and heroism of combat and into the murky horror at its core is in itself a bold, powerful move. I disliked almost everything about the act of playing Spec Ops: The Line, but as I look back on the game with the knowledge of where it will ultimately take me, I see a bizarre logic in its lengthy shooting galleries and almost endurance-like waves of carnage. I’m not entirely sure The Line wants me to be having any fun at all, and I think that might be the point.
# # #
John Konrad’s former command squad are seated in a line, hands bound behind their backs, coldly executed in sequence. An American flag is draped across the wall, the stars and stripes an ironic reminder that patriotism died here long before these men did.
Spec Ops: The Line progresses like most games that revolve around shooting things do – the enemies swarm in greater numbers, they fire upon you with more ruthless efficiency, and each encounter feels a little more of an achievement than the last. This room, the faux-tomb of what were once a man’s most trusted friends, is the signifier that we have reached the point of no return. From here the difficulty shall increase, and as it does so Martin Walker’s descent into madness will hasten with every bullet that he fires.
In the room with these dead men there is a radio, and through it Konrad begins communicating with Walker. They discuss morality.
The Line is ostensibly a game about shooting lots of people, but in reality it’s a game about choice, each one bound with that fluid, wartime morality which is often less about life and death and more about death alone, with notions of right and wrong measured only in the volume of it. Through Konrad, and through Dubai itself, we are presented with choice, and with death. We are powerless to prevent either.
Two men – one a civilian who stole water from the 33rd, the other a soldier who, in bringing the thief to justice, murdered his entire family – are suspended from a bridge. We must choose who lives, and who dies. Later, as we steal the only remaining water supply from the Underwater Aquatic Coliseum, careening through the buried streets in giant tankers filled to bursting with the lifeblood of an already shattered community, we must choose again. The tankers crash, the water spills from the wreckage in fountains, and as the men and women scramble to salvage fractions of it in buckets and tins, we must judge the man who is responsible for its loss. We shoot him, or we let him burn within the mangled remains of the vehicles. The option to let him live doesn’t exist. Why would it?
Walker’s gradual slide into lunacy is a wicked concoction of physical, social and mental deterioration: visual and auditory hallucinations, severe burns and physical trauma, growing doubt among his contemporaries regarding his leadership qualities. His squad commands, previously stern and authoritative, become angry roars; his kill confirmations become psychotic, almost gleeful; and his physical executions of enemies abandon cold efficiency in favour of brutal, manic violence.
It could be argued that Lugo and Adams, Walker’s teammates, are inexorably drawn down this path with him. When we must decide which of the hanging men to execute – which is the first of the decisions forced upon the player by Konrad himself – they both loudly express their concerns for Walker’s actions, regardless of who he picks. Towards the end of the game, while still openly distrustful of Walker’s leadership (and blameful of him for their predicament) the bounds of their morality are ever-changing, amorphous tethers that now barely hold anything together.
Lugo executes the Radioman – a former journalist who was once embedded with the 33rd in Afghanistan and who now communicates on their behalf through a homemade, city-wide speaker system – despite the fact that he presented no threat and actually aided the Delta Force soldiers in their mission. Later, when the team become separated and Lugo is subsequently lynched by a mob of civilians, Walker and Adams stand among the crowd with their weapons raised. As the player, you can fire into the air to disperse the crowd, though if you open fire on the masses Adams will slaughter them all without hesitation.
Ultimately, it is this uncontrollable aggression which gets Adams killed. Surrounded outside the Burj Khalifa – Konrad’s base of operations and the tallest man-made structure in the world – he refuses to surrender to the 33rd, instead electing to fight to the death so Walker can make it inside. Heroic self-sacrifice perhaps, but more likely the only real escape from the horrors that have been witnessed and committed in Dubai.
# # #
The player controls Walker through the final chapter, as he staggers through the Burj Khalifa, beyond the surrendered remains of the Damned 33rd (who salute him as he passes), and into Konrad’s penthouse.
Lieutenant-Colonel John Konrad is a schizophrenic miasma of intelligence, confidence and charisma, much like Marlon Brando’s interpretation of Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. He has also been dead for a long time, having killed himself on the deck of the penthouse before Walker even arrived in Dubai.
A mental projection of Konrad appears to Walker and explains to him how, after the white phosphorus strike, Walker distorted many of the subsequent events in his mind to vilify Konrad and cling to the last remaining vestiges of his sanity. In flashbacks we see fragments of the reality glimpsed by Adams and Lugo (the two men hanging from the bridge long since dead, the portable radio through which Walker and Konrad have been communicating visibly broken) and with these revelations see the disparate aspects of the story we have just been told fit neatly into place.
Martin Walker is suffering from a dissociative disorder born of the acts he has witnessed and carried out in the game, and his communication with Konrad has been nothing more than a trauma-induced hallucination existing only in his own mind.
We have a final choice to make. As ‘Konrad’ points a gun at Walker and begins counting to five, we must choose to either shoot the projection of Konrad, or allow Walker to shoot himself.
It wasn’t quite over yet.
The credits roll away to reveal Captain Martin Walker, dressed in Konrad’s uniform, brandishing an AA-12 automatic shotgun as he sits on the steps of the Burj Khalifa. The mirror through which he saw ‘Konrad’ lies shattered on the floor of the penthouse, the bullet having left the projection of the Colonel in fragments.
The Army have arrived to extract the shellshocked Walker from Dubai. As the rescue Humvees draw to a halt and the hesitant soldiers exit the vehicles, weapons drawn, they call out to Walker to drop his weapon and surrender. The game gives you a button prompt – a simple press of the A button – which allows you to comply with their demands and see Walker finally escape from the hell he has been through.
I slaughtered them all.
I don’t know why. At first I think I wanted Walker to go out in a blaze of glory, without having to suffer through the illusion of normality that civilian life would bring. I didn’t think, after what he had seen and done, he would be able to deal with that.
When the first man went down, I couldn’t bring myself to just let Walker die like that. I slid into cover behind a nearby wall, an instinct nurtured throughout the entire game, and I killed them all. And it felt surprising. It felt pretty good.
As the last man coughed blood on the sand, Walker picked up his radio.
“Gentleman, welcome to Dubai.”