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Criticism Features Video Games

“Blood on the Sand” – On Spec Ops: The Line

I didn’t really know that I liked Spec Ops: The Line until the moment it ended. Often, the closing credits of a video game bring me a sense of relief. The names scroll upwards and I imagine them lifting the weight of the experience away with them. Sometimes I’m glad to be rid of it (I play a lot of bad games). More often, I just see it as the end. A conclusion. Another thing I’ve finished or completed or achieved – whatever you want to call it.

It wasn’t quite like that with this oneAs the assorted names of the Yager development team rolled away off the top of the television, I sat in a stunned 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. It occurred to me these are all themes that games tackle often; that my real life almost never does. Then, when the names had all but disappeared, and the final chords of Jimi Hendrix’s “A Merman I Should Be” rang out with finality, I realized there was more. The true end of the story laid beyond one more obstacle. That was the moment I realized how much I like this game.

To understand that moment, we should go back to the beginning.

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 that it is in any way broken, but unreasonable to pretend that mechanically it is anything more than that – a functional shooter, no better than any of the average examples I can think of, and significantly worse than several of the best.

The story 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. It’s a story about men who don’t always come home. It’s a story about men who carry the horrors of conflict in the tatters of their minds. It’s layered in simulacra, and is the same blood-soaked road we have travelled before, in one vehicle or another.

Spec Ops: The Line is all this. But it’s also something a little more.

Welcome to Dubai

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Dubai is opulence and hedonism reflected in glass and steel.

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 the city behind.

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 unfolded in the half a year since it, along with Konrad’s battalion, 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.

[There is much more to this story, but discussing it openly – as I’m about to – 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.]

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’état against Konrad in protest, and the 33rd splintered into two opposing factions: the “exiles”, and the loyalists who remained with Konrad during the occupation.

Captain Walker’s team – sandwiched between these opposing forces, as well as Emirati insurgents who are being organized by the CIA to attack both the exiles and the loyalists – are forced to defend themselves against these enemies, foreign and domestic both.

It’s a depressing commentary on the state of the AAA market that we should consider the murder of fellow American soldiers more shocking and unreasonable than that of the Arabs or Russians who typify the genre. But this is where Spec Ops starts to differentiate itself from other contemporary shooters, forcing us to question these pre-conceived ideas about who the heroes and villains really are.

This is the first uncomfortable truth which Captain Walker, and the player, is presented with; the first in a series of such revelations which leads us all along a trail of breadcrumbs through the remnants of a fallen city, and eventually to the game’s defining moment: an act of desperation so horrifying, its consequences so catastrophic, that it will 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 is the objective, a heavily-fortified location which may contain vital information, and 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. The player controls it all through an overhead thermal camera; marking clusters of pulsing targets with cool detachment and watching the entire area boil over with scorching white smoke.

Then, the smoke clears, and takes with it whatever scraps of humanity Martin Walker had left, as it dissipates to reveal the corpses of forty-seven 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 two decades, and this is possibly the most unsettling act I’ve ever actively carried out within one. It’s odd, really. I rained a virtual substance on virtual people – bundles of pixels and ones and zeroes. Yet doing so will probably stay with me for a long time. It’s a testament to the power of video games that my participation in the act, 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 glory and heroism, instead shining a light on the murky horror at the core of combat, is in itself a bold, powerful move. I disliked almost everything about the act of actually playing this gamebut as I look back on it with the knowledge of where it will ultimately take me, I see a bizarre logic in its lengthy shooting galleries and endless waves of carnage. I’m not entirely sure we’re supposed to be having any fun at all. I think that might be the point. I think Spec Ops cares less about fun than it does asking us, as consumers, how we should really be responding to the horrors it presents us with.

You Brought This on Yourself

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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 which 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.

There is a bridge from which two men are suspended, one a civilian who stole water from the 33rd; the other a soldier who, in bringing the thief to justice, murdered the man’s entire family. 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. 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?

Captain Walker’s gradual slide into lunacy is a wicked concoction of physical and mental deterioration: visual and auditory hallucinations, severe burns and physical trauma, growing doubt among his contemporaries. His squad commands, previously stern and authoritative, become angry roars. His kill confirmations become psychotic, almost gleeful. His physical executions of enemies abandon detached efficiency in favour of brutal, manic violence.

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 chooses. 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. The boundary between right and wrong is as blurred as the distant, rippling horizon.

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 real threat. 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 the game doesn’t tell you this. If you open fire on the masses Adams will slaughter them all alongside you.

Ultimately, there is no other escape from the horrors these men have witnessed and committed in Dubai. The demise of Adams is a suicidal confrontation with the innumerable enemy, a bold move to allow Walker the time he needs to reach Konrad’s base of operations. What would typically be seen as heroic self-sacrifice is here a cowardly escape from reality. In death, Adams is free from the burdens of life.

Survivors… One Too Many

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The player controls Walker through the final chapter, as he staggers through the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, beyond the surrendered remains of the Damned 33rd (who salute him as he passes), and into John 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.

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.

Whatever choice we make, the credits begin to roll. And so we arrive where we began.

As the credits rolled away to reveal Captain Martin Walker, dressed in Konrad’s uniform, brandishing an AA-12 automatic shotgun and sitting on the steps of the Burj Khalifa, I sat up in my chair and began to pay attention again. 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 shell-shocked 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 which allows you to comply with their demands.

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 that way, butchered like one of the nameless enemies who had driven him to this point. 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.

The last man coughed blood onto the sand. I, and Walker, picked up his radio.

We said, “Gentleman, welcome to Dubai.”

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