“Spec Ops: The Line” is a thoughtful, fascinating examination of the psychology behind typical shooter games, masquerading as a typical shooter game. I’m stunned that this game got developed and released in such an uncompromised form. It’s a moody, reflective satire of the genre it’s very much a part of. Far from a perfect game, but I think it’s fantastic a game like this managed to get made at all, and I applaud the developers and publishers for following through on the game’s unique vision.
[Note: This review contains spoilers.]
From the opening credits of the game, that list off the player’s own name or gamertag as a “Guest Star”, the game starts toying with the idea of complicity, the idea that a player of a video game isn’t a passive viewer, but an actively engaging participant. The first half or the so of the game is a fairly typical hypermasculine shooter, complete with gruff yet dull voice acting and dialogue, washed-out desaturated visuals, and the enemies the player shoots all being easy to other and dehumanise (apparent Arab soldiers cloaked in turbans, speaking Farsi). Things eventually start to slowly change. The new enemies are Americans, humanised through their banter dialogue, the visuals start to get stranger and more colourful, and while the voice acting and dialogue remains gruff and cliche-ridden, it starts to feel like intentional parody, self-aware critique, rather than earnest camp.
What the game morphs into is a critique of not exactly shooter games, but rather what motivates players of them. In such games (hell, in the majority of big-budget video games), the primary way of interacting with the game’s world, the primary gameplay mechanic, the primary action of actually “playing” the game, is combat. Killing. However, most games also position the player character as noble, moral, relatable. They act as power fantasies for the player. The way the player, through their player character, solves the problems of their game’s world, the way they act as a hero, is to kill. What does it say about the developers of such video games, the players of such video games, and the culture such video games are a part of, that these types of video games are so enormously popular and normalised?
I don’t subscribe to any limp view that the game is “just asking questions”, my reading is that the game quite clearly condemns the paradoxical mindset of “saving through killing” pushed through so many video games as a negative thing, if not in terms of psychological impact upon the player then at least in terms of what it implies. In perhaps the game’s most memorable sequence, when the player launches white phosphorous onto a group of soldiers and civilians, the player character’s face is reflected on the screen they are operating the launch from. point.
The implication seems clear – this isn’t something the player character (and by extension, the player) can dissociate from, can wave away as not their responsibility, can claim to not be complicit for. All throughout the game, the phrases “you brought this on yourself” and “we had no choice” are repeated, to similar effect, more hollow every time. Similarly, the player is not forced to perform any action. The game itself offers binary gameplay choices often (though subverted near the end of the game, where the only available option seems to be shooting civilians – players thinking outside-of-the-box can shoot up in the air, a technique the game pointedly never teaches, to disperse them peacefully), but the act of playing the game in the first place is a choice. Consuming a specific piece of media is a choice. Nobody forces people to play endless shooter games. Nobody forces anyone to play this game. The act of playing a video game indicates a level of complicity between the player and the game. This is such a fascinating observation rarely explored, whether in the medium itself or in external critiques of it, and it’s perhaps the game’s strongest.
In terms of plot, the game centres around finding one “Colonel Konrad”, the enigmatic apparent former hero leading a group of rogue American soldiers in Dubai during a freak series of sandstorms too dangerous for anyone to stay in the city to weather. At first I figured the naming of “Konrad” (and the title of “Colonel”) was just flirting with Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, respectively, as the game does indeed share some of their themes and iconography. The game sets up Colonel Konrad as a hero-turned-villain, the figure causing all the trouble in Dubai, the protagonist’s ultimate enemy, the cause of the situations that put the player in the situation of shooting seemingly endless waves of combatants. The twist of the game reveals that Colonel Konrad was dead the whole time and the player character was simply projecting their own sins onto him, hallucinating conversations with the man so as to justify their own actions.
The “Konrad” reference snaps into place with sudden clarity, as it becomes not a reference to “Heart of Darkness” through Kurtz, but rather a reference to the author, Joseph Conrad, himself. The player character is the author of their own sins. An author is responsible for the work they create, the characters the create are fictitious and cannot hold any responsibility. The player of a video game cannot deflect responsibility onto fictional characters, the human playing the game is the one engaging with the content, they are the author of their individual gameplay experience. “You are here because you want to feel like something you’re not – a hero” states the Konrad hallucination to the player character. The game critiques the idea of extremely violent video games through which the only way to solve problems is excessive violence as something players must take responsibility for. Playing a video game is not an act of passive consumption, but of active engagement, is the impression I get from this game. The final shot of the game (dependant upon the ending they choose – all explore the idea of to what level the player, and player character, will “own up” to their actions, through different plot eventualities) shows a war-torn Dubai, littered with corpses and destroyed buildings, the result of the player’s “problem-solving”.
While I was enamoured with the game’s examination of player complicity, not everything else holds up so well. The game is literal to the point of irritation, the second half of the game seeing many characters outright state the themes of the game through dialogue that initially felt like clever parody of writing typical to the genre, but ends up feeling like a failed attempt to communicate the loftier themes the game aspired to. Similar problems arise with the voice acting (particularly of the secondary characters), and the general gameplay. My issue is while some of the themes get very explicitly explored, others never feel completely fulfilled. While the game does a great job deconstructing the player character, I feel it never quite completely made the jump to the player themselves, as hinted at by the opening credit’s crediting the player as a complicit participant. I don’t feel like many of the ways the story is told through (the plot, some of the characters) are the most fitting vehicles for the themes and observations of the game itself, and while that could be seen as committing all the way to parodying and mimicking the sort of games it’s critiquing, I can’t shake the feeling things might have landed even better if they were communicated with more clarity. The better touches (the setting of the game becoming a ludicrous juxtaposition between the sunny side of capitalist ideals and their gory underbelly, the use of sand as a gameplay mechanic, the dialogue barks morphing from typical to the genre to disturbing and more realistic reflections of the insanity of war) made me yearn for the whole game to be as brilliant.
Still, I’ll always applaud a game biting off more than it can chew rather than one lacking ambition, and this game does excel in some areas. It’s fantastic to see such a self-aware game maturely examine the very medium of video games. Games like this really do feel like a “step forward” in the growth and development of the medium and industry. It’s a fantastic achievement. I give it four sandstorms, and an aquarium.