Last week my girlfriend sent me a text message that was gushing with excitement. She had completed Bastion and was blown away by how incredible the whole thing was. I responded to her with this: “Games are defined in their quiet moments of perfect brilliance.” Bastion is one of those games.
Spec Ops: The Line is another. It is a game that is not defined by it’s bog-standard by the book cover-based shooting nor by its anemic attempts at multiplayer. Instead, Spec Ops: The Line is defined by its own not-so-quiet but still equally perfect moments of brilliance.
In February I talked about this game. I said that I had high hopes for it, that its developer, Yager Studios, promised a game that would use its violence to affect the players, to prompt emotional revulsion at what they were doing. This would not be a game about mindless self-indulgence and power fantasy, it would be about taking the human condition to the breaking point and pushing it over the line. This would be a game that wouldn’t necessarily be “fun” to play in the traditional sense, but it would be compelling in the way that Greek tragedies were.
Well, they succeeded.
In Spec Ops: The Line the opulent city of Dubai has become the world’s most expensive disaster zone as the mother of all sandstorms tore through the pride of the Arabian peninsula. Colonel John Konrad and the 33rd Battalion stayed behind to assist with the evacuation. For six months nothing was heard from them until a looped radio broadcast from Konrad warns that the evacuation was a total failure and the death toll “too high.” You play as the Delta Force operator Captain Martin Walker who has been ordered on a reconnaissance mission into Dubai to determine the status of Konrad, the 33rd, and any survivors.
Instead you find Hell incarnate.
The story is on full display here and Spec Ops proves what can be accomplished when game developers put pen to paper and actually put a modicum of effort into the story. Sure things like the graphical details, multiplayer, and even the third-person cover based shooting take a backseat, but those sacrifices are well worth the result. There is a line that runs through The Line and it’s an arc. A character arc. The three friends and compatriots, moral high and cracking dumb jokes you meet in the beginning of Chapter 1 are not the same pissed off, cursing, bleeding and battered shells you see at Chapter 13. This isn’t just a plot, this isn’t just some collection of things that happen from title sequence to end credits, this is a story. And its conclusion is one of the most satisfying I’ve seen in quite a while.
Choice is a core element to the campaign of The Line, but so what, don’t you see choice in a lot of games? Mass Effect, inFAMOUS and Deus Ex where all about choice as well, so what makes Spec Ops so special? Mainly because Spec Ops never takes the core shooting mechanics away from you, pulls a dialogue wheel or menu in front of you face, and then asks you if you want to be good or evil, Paragon or Renegade. Instead it embeds its decisions into the standard shooting mechanics of the game, and in doing so gives players far more freedom than those other games like to proudly boast about. Let me give you an example.
The scene is a highway, once the major artery of the city, bustling with life and energy, now almost completely buried by the desert sands, lines of broken down, subsumed automobiles line left hand side, a testament to tragedy. Hanging from an overpass, bound by their hands, are two men, and on both sides, hiding in the dunes, are four former US Army snipers. A voice on the radio informs you that one of the men is a water-thief, a criminal of the highest order sentenced to death. The other is a member of the 33rd whose fervent application of justice resulted in the death of the water-thief’s whole family. Both are crimes worthy of death. You have the gun, so who will you kill?
In most other games you would be given a choice that’s not a choice at all. Some manner of dialogue box or message would appear, forcing you to choose. If the developers were particularly blind to their own mechanic they might even assign moral values to the choices based on their own arbitary dichotomy. But in The Line once the cutscene ends gameplay as usual resumes, and suddenly you realize that you are capable of doing more. Sure you can kill one of the men. Hell you can kill both of them. But you can refuse and simply walk away, you can coordinate your squad and try to kill the snipers. Or you can shoot the ropes, set the men free and try to save them from the snipers.
Other moments like this punctuate the game, filling the void once all the running and gunning has died down. Other times it’s scenes of the three Delta Force operators interacting. In these scenes you will see none of the macho bravado that permeates other shooters. Delta Force reacts at first with horror, then regret, and finally anger when the smoke dies down and the enemies have been left lying in puddles of their own blood. When you first have to shoot it out with former American soldiers no one is happy with how that turned out, rationalizations of self-defense are the only things that silences talk of surrender.
If there is a moral theme to Spec Ops it is not one of good or evil, or even freedom over order. It’s about pragmatism vs idealism. Both of your squad mates, Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo act like your conscience, arguing with each other over the course of your decisions. While none of their points are ever clear cut and there’s always a silver lining, their dialogue can always be boiled down to the conflict over what you need to do (pragmatism), over what you should do (idealism). You need to save the CIA contact so you can find the people in charge, but you should save the lives of all those civilians as its the whole point to your mission. And just like the scene with the hanging men at the overpass, this choice is also made within the core mechanics of the game.
So here is my recommendation: buy Spec Ops. Yager have made an incredible effort here, it is well worth your time if you consider yourself a fan of games, and frankly, it would be a mortal sin to see a developer this brilliant and innovative to go under. Then once you have finished it, play it again. See if there are other ways. Try and hunt down every piece of intel, as their contribution as expository and world building devices belie another advantage games have over other storytelling mediums. The recorded conversation you can pick up between Konrad and the Radioman contains more character development than all his broadcasts from the entire game. See if you can find all the subtle clues that build up to the game’s mind-bending finale. And maybe even try see where you draw the line, and where you cross it.