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Blurring The Line

Spec Ops: The Line forced me to question my personal justifications in a way a military shooter had never before done well. And now I kind of hate myself.

With a little introspective, I’d have to say that I’ve probably killed several hundred thousand people over the course of my life. These persons consist of just about every nationality, every ethnicity, human, animal, plant, creature, or otherwise. But I’ve done so mostly without a second thought. They were the bad guys, they were in my way, and so I put them down with righteous justice. I was justified in ending their existence.

Wasn’t I?

Having played through so many different games, a wide range of them being shooters, I was a little less-than-impressed when I had played the original demo of Spec Ops: The Line. It seemed like a very run-of-the-mill shooter with competent gameplay. It really didn’t look like anything that I hadn’t seen before. I was a soldier, I was giving orders to my two teammates. One was a sniper, the other a heavy weapons specialist, and we were special operators sent in to find survivors in yet another sandy, war-torn city.

About halfway through the demo I had forgotten which of the twenty or so games of that description I was currently playing, and I kind of just put the game into the back of my mind, filed under “Games-I-May-Play-Someday-If-I-Ever-Get-Tired-Of-Battlefield-or-Call-of-Duty.”

Fast forward a month or so, and I was browsing The Escapist, when I stumbled across a review by Yahtzee Croshaw, where he gave his personal, cynical recommendation for the game, (you know, in that Yahtzee-brand way).

So, having found myself with a little extra cash, I decided to pick it up.

It’s now been a week since I finished it, and I haven’t played another shooter since.

SO:TL is one of the first games that I will thoroughly recommend that I actually felt depressed while playing. And right now, I’m going to put up a spoiler warning. This is a game that you should play, and if you haven’t, take that recommendation and play it. If you haven’t, this is your fair warning that what I’m going to talk about may very well spoil the whole experience for you.


Okay, if you’re still here, then I’m expecting to be able to talk candidly about the game. SO:TL is a game that forces you to question your own morals. To question your own actions in a shooter. Playing as American Captain Walker, you guide your team of three into the city of post-present Dubai, where a catastrophe has demolished much of the city, and your mission is to search for survivors. Along the way, you stumble upon a tense and desperate situation, where a battalion of American soldiers, “The 33rd,” has gone rogue while trying to keep the peace among rebellious groups as civilians are caught in the crossfire.

At first, the game seems like a very run-of-the-mill cover shooter. You pop out, headshot a few baddies, toss a grenade, blow up a few more, rinse and repeat. It seems like everyone’s constantly opening fire on you, and so you shoot back to stay alive. The weapons feel tough, and hit hard, and when you blow a guy’s head off, a fountain of gore often follows his cranial combustion.

But then things start getting a little messy. In an early level, while desperately trying to keep enemy fire off of my team, I rushed down a side hallway, mowing down enemies as I went. Then, I turned a corner, and saw movement. I fired.

I watched as a civilian fell.

There was no ping of points. There was no achievement, or even a game over. The game just continued, and she was lying, bleeding on the ground.

Later on, there’s another more poignant scene as you unwittingly release white phosphorus on a cluster of over 50 civilian refugees, but that was almost less potent than that single running civilian.

In SO:TL, there are numerous achievements, numerous little point tickers for killing a certain number of people with a sidearm, or getting a certain number of headshots. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but by the end of the game, those little pop-ups started to make me a little sick. Captain Walker ends up doing some pretty horrible things, and as the game progressed, I wondered about some of the things that I’ve often done in other games.

Getting a wicked killstreak, or dropping bombs on hordes of enemies from a UAV… While a part of me knows that it’s a game, SO:TL awakened another part of me. I realized that that desensitivity that had so long kept me from thinking too much about all the virtual lives I’d taken had suddenly awoken from its slumber. And as I booted up my PS3 to play some Battlefield 3, I suddenly didn’t have the motivation to do so.

One of the loading screens later in the game states rather plainly, “How Many Americans Have You Killed Today?” By that point, I’d probably mowed down over a hundred of The 33rd. Sure, it was all in a digital game, but there was still a weight to it all.

Later on, I came across another message that said “Do You Feel Like A Hero Yet?” There are just so many of these sentiments throughout the game, and my feelings were truly in conflict. I wanted to finish the game, but at the same time, I felt like I was guiding a thinly-veiled mass-murderer through his own madness, and the “right” thing to do would be to just turn off the game and go do something else.

Though I sort of saw the ending coming, I was still amazed by it. Walker’s mental state had never been called into question, and I felt like I was watching the big twist of Fight Club for the first time all over again. It was awesomely sickening.

I truly, truly recommend this game. I haven’t been so engrossed in a video game story since… Bioshock, maybe? Possibly Dragon Age: Origins?

I’m sure I’ll end up playing a shooter again, but for a game to so powerfully throw me for a loop is nothing to scoff at. I don’t know if it’s a sign of some powerful change in gaming as a whole, but I think it’s a great example of how a game can pull you in much more deftly than a simple movie. The interaction is what makes this hit so hard, and I’m glad to have played it.

Even though I kind of hate myself for finishing it.

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