The thematic richness of Spec Ops: The Line

Very specific themes in Spec Ops: The Line

With these few questions asked during a video game conference, I'd like to show you how rich and pertinent is Spec Ops.

- How can a game speak of grief and death?

Spec Ops tackles this theme in several ways. First of all, death is everywhere, gratuitous, horrible, intentional or incidental (like in that scene when you unintentionally kill a woman as she runs across a corridor during a gunfight). Beyond that, it's also about grieving the ethics we thought we were holding onto, about mourning yourself (it is possible to lash out and massacre civilians), grieving your brothers in arms fallen on the battlefied (Lugo, Adams) and then finally, our hero himself with the possibility of killing yourself in one of the five endings. About that, there's a gameplay mechanic allowing you to suicide instead of waiting until the countdown ends and this subtlety has its importance (this is why I am talking about five endings even though players only list four).
My magazine digs even deeper into this theme and goes further with the testimony of American war veteran Christopher Westmoreland, a sergent deployed in Irak twice. Christopher tells us about his experience with the game but also the war: his post-traumatic stress, his relations with his comrades, the perspective of death (leaving his family behind, having suicidal thoughts) to the grieving of his ideals:
Finally, where there's death, there's ritual. And I reveal, as a world exclusive, how the cancelled DLC allowed the character of Adams to go back and bury Lugo.

- Can there be games without stakes?

I have to admit that the notion of stake is a very relative one, in its definition as well as in its ramifications (the stake for whom?). That being said, I imagine that we can deal with this topic from the reward, the experimentation and then the narration angle. However, one of Spec Ops' traits happens to be this intention to go beyond the mere entertaining and narrative dimension and aim for something sensitive. Playing for more lasting sensations, for heightened emotions.
Indeed, the game tries to put you in morally complicated situations on every occasion. First, there is this phenomena that I call "emotional convergence". Basically, some sequences are there to put you in the hero's shoes and make you feel what he feels – stress, doubt, fear, confidence-. On the opposite, the game uses cognitive dissonance. It means that after getting you closer to the hero, it puts you up against him. The feeling of unease stems from the fact that the narrive structure makes the hero commit acts that you would condemn outside of the game, and even inside of it (cf: suspension of disbelief). This time, it's not about making you play, it's about making you experience emotions, about making you think and feel guilty. Certain scenes have marked some players so deeply that they ended up crying, having nightmares or that they simply stopped playing (this is why I highlighted the feedback). Moreover, the game teaches us about ourselves when, as the mob just lynched Lugo, we yield to wrath and vengeance. We thought we were capable of resisting our urges. We were wrong. And the player is held accountable then, not the hero. All Spec Ops did was provide a mirror.

- Is a contemplative experience possible with the ideologically and mechanically structured entertaining works of fiction that are video games?

Here, Spec Ops really is the first name that comes to mind. First, because its structure is very ideological, political (its pacifist message, its criticism of war games) and that we are in the heavily codified TPS genre. Of course, many games do offer a contemplative experience, whether they are open worlds, platformers or TPS. However, said experience often comes from the player's own initiative who stops to look at the scenery, puts himself in a position where he may open himself and let it carry him. And Spec Ops is literally based on observation, contemplation, attentive listening. The game even sometimes imposes long walks on you, with no enemies around. The last level is, in this regard, almost purely narrative. The player needs not hurry. He's given time to understand, to feel, to think and to admire Dubaï as it burns, from the terrace.

- What is an experimental game?

Spec Ops can fuel and confirm the definition of an experimental game. It is a psychological (emotional convergence, cognitive dissonance, the theme of post-traumatic stress) and sensitive (contemplation) experience, a subversive experiment (committed pacifism) without forgetting its strong entertaining and narrative resonance. But what's surprising is the way the playability allows the players to make the game their own and to get out of the codifications. For instance, you can pull on the ropes of the men about to be hanged instead of executing them even though the option is never mentioned in the game or the dialogues. Finally, although it is a game about war, it's also about illusion (nothing is real), religion and let's not forget metafiction (the 4th wall, serendipity). From a narrative point of view, we really are in experimentation. And the best thing about it is that nobody saw all this subtlety. The war acted as a folding screen and very few players went beyond the first degree of reading. In conclusion, this game is so underrated that it tells a lot about the way people and journalists approach video games, imposing concepts and ideas instead of drawing from the substance.

- How are minorities represented in video games?

Regarding this issue, Spec Ops seems noteworthy to me for three reasons:

1) First, it proposes a trio formed with white (Walker), hispanic (Lugo) and black (Adams) heroes. This trio, which has been wrongly called Benetton by some people, represents the racial evolution of the american army pretty well. Moreover, the idea is a little more subtle than it is said to be. Thus, Lugo is named John while Adams wears a hispanic name (Alphanso). We're out of the archetype. Compared to the other media, we can also look at it from the perspective of the minorities representation in the movie industry, notably in the case of the vietnamese conflict. For Spec Ops is directly inspired by Apocalypse Now. By doing so, it immerges itself into the 60s (original soundtrack, historical reference) in order to draw a parallel with that particular conflict. (See point 3).
2) Secondly, because the cancelled DLC did allow to play Adams. We can therefore link it to 2K Games' editorial policy and of course the DLC, The Lair of Minerva, from the misestimated Bioshock 2 (to my sense and by far, the best game of the trilogy). In there too, we played a black hero (Charles Milton Porter).
3) Finally, Spec Ops represents the minorities while trying to point out (very lightly) the Dubaian discriminations against the foreign workers (cf the 14 pages portrait of the Dubai exploitation). In that, it does warn us about the way minorities are treated.

- The video games in the city: what would Plato have to say about video games?

It is a complexe question depending on what we are talking about, if it's games, art, technics or function. Regarding the entertaining aspect, I did quote Plato in the issue dedicated to Deus Ex (the influence of games on the youth): "If their games are maladjusted, they will be too". More importanly, we have to distinguish art's social (or entertaining) function from the Beautiful. There is always, with Plato, a political and social dimension beyond the mere philosophy. Thus can he chase the poets away from the ideal city but legitimately consider poetry as able to embody the Beautiful and not only bound to the stage of imitation.

However, rather than these generic considerations, we'd better focus on the games that are close to his thought. Would he have found games to soften his gaze? Maybe even a Platonician game? And then, we think of Spec Ops, the Platonician game par excellence. I will not justify it now, I do it at length in the magazine. I'm just going to sum up the logic trail:

- Spec Ops is inspired by Heart of Darkness. In addition, its author Joseph Konrad develops in it a Platonician point of view:
- The game is built on illusion and truth. The link with the allegory of the cave is immediate.
- It is a Christian game using Greek myths to show the divine, transcendance, truth. And we know how close Christianism and the Athenian philosopher are:
- Even the contemplative aspect and the role of the sun support this idea. Since I didn't have enough room to put up screenshots to illustrate, I made a short video:

In conclusion, I hope I've stressed, though briefly, to what extent Spec Ops is an essential game and how the magazine Icarus is able to explain it. More importantly, if you're interested in the subject, I invite you to dive in my company into this extraordinary game and more generally into video games: americanisation, games using Christiniasm, post-traumatic stress, DLCs). The magazine is available here:

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