Spec Ops: The Line - Morally Ambiguous and Bleak Gaming
I first played through Spec Ops: The Line back in 2014 when I purchased it as part of a discounted 2K bundle. For once the actually selling point of this action game was the single player campaign, which had a reputation for being well conceived and written, with solid voice acting. After playing for a couple of hours it became apparent that there was a lot more to this third person, cover based shooter and that the praise its received from the gaming press was justified. I have seldom played through a title as compelling as this. This week I re-installed the game and completed it for a second time. This time round I was able to concentrate more closely on the subtleties of the story. For a five year old title, this is still a gruelling experience.
The story is both intriguing and topical. Dubai has been overwhelmed by cataclysmic sandstorms and fallen into a state of anarchy. Troops from the 33rd Infantry Battalion, led by Colonel John Konrad, have gone missing after a failed evacuation. Subsequently a Delta force team is sent to determine what has gone wrong and rescue surviving members of the 33rd. What they find is a city engulfed by sand and a complex tale of mutiny, CIA manipulation and personal insanity. Played from the perspective of Captain Walker, along with a two-man squad comprising of Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo, the story catalogues their descent into a personal hell and mental disintegration. The game is clearly influenced by Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, which the movie was based on.
The first thing Spec Ops: The Line does is take all the standard underpinnings from the shooter genre and jettison them. There is no binary conflict between the morally righteous US forces and some generic foreign adversary. The enemy in this fight turns out to be your own side. The game does not glamorise war nor does it offer the FPS gamer the usual experience. Tactical decisions come with consequences and the moral choices offered in the game seldom provide a positive solution. The narrative clearly explores the psychological burden that comes with command and it's not pretty. The games mechanics are somewhat standard but perfectly adequate. Although scripted, the action scenes have a genuine sense of confusion and at times even panic.
Spec Ops: The Line has a worryingly credible narrative that challenges the player to be more than just a voyeur in the proceedings. Many of the standard tropes that you find in this genre are reversed. As the story gets more involved and morally ambiguous, the dialogue between the Delta Force team becomes more agitated. The cool, calm radio chatter we saw at the beginning of the game becomes, accusatory, bellicose and even scared. The strain of having your world view shattered is cleverly reflected in the script. As a result, playing Spec Ops: The Line feels very different to other shooters. Even if you have the flintiest of hearts, the game may well surprise you with its difference and honesty. It’s gameplay and mechanics are formulaic but the story is dark, foreboding and disturbing.
Gaming seldom has narratives as strong as that found in Spec Ops: The Line. Hopefully it provides pause for thought as well as entertainment among those who play. War is still grossly misrepresented in gaming and caricatured in the most abhorrent way. This game challenges the established business approach and raises many ethical questions not only about the nature of warfare, but whether it should be trivialised and used as a means of entertainment? At the very least Spec Ops: The Line is an interesting experiment in gaming narrative and is worth a look on those grounds alone. Whether the gaming industry sees fit to take such an approach with future titles remains to be seen. Recommended but no to the faint hearted.