As some of you know, I’m quite a fan of story-driven games, so I will happily step out of my preferred genres of adventure and role-playing games at the promise of a good tale. So when I heard that Spec Ops: The Line, a military shooter, had a storyline that was innovative and thought-provoking, I picked up a copy and added it to my “to play” pile.
Well, I finally got around to playing it, somehow managing to stay spoiler free for the past four years, and decided I wanted to take my time with this game. After all, experiencing the full story of a role-playing game is quite a time investment, so in my naivety I figured a shooter with a good story would employ the same principles. When I opened the game, I immediately appreciated the upside-down American flag on the menu screen, signaling a need for help – a nice attention to detail. And as the game progressed, I liked that the menu screen changed, reflecting the events of the story. But then there was the game itself.
This isn’t going to be a review of the game; plenty exist online, and I’ve read many in my quest to understand what I was obviously missing from this gaming experience, but if you’re looking for a good, thorough review of the various aspects of the game, Red Metal did a great job navigating through the entire experience.
Originally, this post was going to be me ranting about how much I didn’t like Spec Ops: The Line, and how those were 25 hours of my life I’ll never get back. I wanted to rave about the poor controls, the lack of choice during pivotal moments in the story and how that detracted from their meaning (white phosphorus cough cough), and trouble-shoot how the big twist was presented.
But that’s been done. So instead, let’s hang upside down and look at this game from a few different angles.
Oh, the Horror: Spec Ops and Its Line
One of the draws of Spec Ops: The Line is that it challenges the player for doing what gamers tend to do: playing games without considering the in-game consequences of their actions. I personally don’t think the game delivered this very well. This could be because the game focused on the punch, rather than the wind-up. However, Spec Ops: The Line employs various elements of the horror genre, and I think if this were emphasized, the overall effect (the punch) would have been much more potent.
Three kinds of horror are generally employed in media. The first kind of horror is the fear of “the other.” Any kind of “us vs. them” game or movie is an example of this: aliens are invading, zombies are attacking, etc.
The second kind of horror is a portrayal of “the uncanny.” The uncanny refers to something that is almost human in nature, but something about it doesn’t seem quite right. When done well, the characteristics that don’t completely gel are presented in a way that the audience isn’t consciously aware of what it is, but knows that something just isn’t right. This can also be portrayed in the environment.
If you played Gone Home, this is a great example. Nothing particularly frightening occurs, but there is something unnerving about the environment: the lights flicker in the empty house, everything is in disarray or packed in boxes as if everyone left in a hurry, and there is red liquid all over the tub… While it’s not a conventional horror game, I recommend checking out at least a Let’s Play if you have the chance.
The final and most disturbing kind of horror is the story that uses the idea of “self as monster,” when the protagonist winds up being the monster of the story. An example of this would be in Silent Hill 2, in which the town of Silent Hill is representative of James Sunderland’s psyche and guilt. He is his own monster. This kind of horror is the type that sticks with us, because it makes us question the darkness that might reside in each of us, just waiting to come out.
It is this third kind of horror is the type of horror present in Spec Ops: The Line. Jungian psychology describes an aspect of the psyche called the “shadow,” which, according to psychiatrist Carl Jung, is composed of the unknown dark aspects of our personalities. Usually, these characteristics are comprised of our base instincts and negative impulses like lust, vanity, selfishness, greed, and anger, among others.
In a horror genre, this translates to a character completing a story to find out that s/he has been the monster all along, that is, has been acting on one of these dark impulses. In Silent Hill 2, we examine James’ lust and guilt, and in Spec Ops: The Line we watch as Captain Walker’s vanity and hero complex slowly and delicately push him toward his eventual insanity and realization that he wasn’t a hero, after all.
This great horror story was unfortunately eclipsed by the game’s flaws and mishandling of its other and equally important component: the idea of choice and consequences.
“Our Beloved Monsters – Enjoy Yourselves”
To be fair, the idea of challenging gamers for “following orders” and only playing the game because they, the real person, wanted to feel like a hero and be someone they weren’t, was a fantastic twist of an idea. Unfortunately, I think the concept was a little mishandled. There were some great moments, like when you had to choose which hanging prisoner to free, or what to do with the attacking mob at the end, and I was pleasantly surprised when my approach that hadn’t been offered within the dialogue (shoot down both men and then kill the snipers and shoot into the air, respectively) were actually recognized by the game.
So far so good. But let’s discuss the choice that got so many players talking: the white phosphorus mission.
The point of this section, it seemed, was to drive home the shock and horror of the player committing an unspeakable act that killed innocent people because they had chosen to use the white phosphorus instead of almost-certain death. And you’re a bad person… because you had a choice, and you chose to kill those people!
Except the player was not given a choice here. The player was not offered a moral dilemma (as discussed here and here), an illusion of choice (discussed here), or a viable second option to dropping the chemicals. Not using the white phosphorus would have resulted in the player either turning off the game and never playing again, or Walker getting gunned down. If the player wanted to finish the game, s/he had to fire white phosphorus onto non-combatants.
If you’ve read my other posts on choices in games, you know I talk about choices (which involve morals) and decisions (which are calculations to determine the best course of action). The white phosphorus bit was a decision, not a moral choice: the consequence of not completing the game was not enough to outweigh the consequence of continuing with a somewhat unsavory action in-game.
So I shrugged my shoulders, wanting to know the story, and then was berated by the game for deciding to continue the story along the very linear path the game had laid out. Except the game called my actions a choice and started talking about morals to me. It was here that my disillusionment began. The game was punishing the player for wanting to play it, and for playing it the way the developers had designed it. I had more choice over what to do with the mob, which the game practically dismissed, than within this pivotal moment in Walker’s story and mental state.
Whatever statement a game is trying to make, it should not reprimand a player (in real life) for engaging with and experiencing the (virtual) world, especially if the players are not given viable space to really influence the events. This is like getting to the end of, say, the fourth Harry Potter book and J.K. Rowling getting mad at you, saying Cedric Diggory would still be alive if you hadn’t gone and read the entire book! That’s not what people do with stories.
Whether a person experiences a story or not does not change that story’s outcome, as if the ending is part of a perverse type of Schroedinger’s-cat-esque storytelling technique. So don’t punish someone for wanting to know how the story ends under the erroneous claim that the player had to make a morally intense decision.
All That Glitters…
Another aspect of the game that is often discussed is the idea of hallucinations versus reality. Within the game, when a cutscene fades to black, it’s the game’s shorthand for saying that the scene was reality, and when the cutscene fades to white, the scene was a hallucination.
This was actually a really neat mechanic. It was subtle and took a while to figure out the pattern of why some scenes faded to black and others to white. The ending was particularly fascinating, as the endings that show Walker surviving the conflict all fade to white, whereas the ending where Walker commits suicide fades to black. Particularly eerie is if Walker surrenders to the rescue patrol (fade to white), and then comments, when asked how he survived, “Who said I did…?” (fade to black). There are many aspects of the story that are open to interpretation, and if this story had been presented with better gameplay mechanics, it would have been quite powerful.
I also appreciated how the opening helicopter sequence was almost exactly replicated at the end, and Walker noticed it, too. Was Walker experiencing flashbacks? Is he in the hospital, having a nightmare? Did he die in the original helicopter crash, and now he’s forever experiencing his time in Dubai in purgatory? Well done, 2K Games.
Additionally, I played through the endings a few times, wanting to experience all the different possibilities, and noticed something interesting about the trophies.
Walker’s death by suicide/Konrad shooting him both result in bronze trophies. Keep in mind these are the “fade to black” realities. Walker’s death seems, for all intents and purposes, canon. However, his survival and/or return home (fade to white) results in a silver trophy. These endings represent (it would seem) Walker continuing to live in his delusion/nightmare/personal hell. So what has the game done?
Rewarded you for staying in the fantasy world.
…I see what you did there, game… Very clever. But was it too clever? Or too little, too late?
Reception and Troubleshooting
In spite of the shining moments that this game undoubtedly has, it’s not without some glaring issues that detracted from the overall experience of actually playing the game. Although Spec Ops: The Line has an overall Metacritic score of 77 and generally garners favorable reviews from players for its daring storyline, it was considered a commercial failure, with most criticism being directed at poor multiplayer and bland, stereotypical gameplay.
All snarky comments aside, the game had two major issues that profoundly detracted from the experience, the story, and, ultimately, the very real and relevant point it was trying to make.
Controls: I have to comment on the controls, at least a little, because some reviewers have commented that the bad controls were used to emphasize the edgy point the game was cleverly trying to make. They was to emphasize the player’s “lack of control,” or perhaps to satirize the shooter genre in some way. If this was the case, the game was too meta for its own good, because I never translated the unresponsiveness of the “X” button to the psychological well-being of my character. Maybe if the game employed a sanity meter like in Eternal Darkness, or a “Psyche” meter like in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, the lack of responsiveness would have made more sense and the point would have been much clearer. As it was, the controls came across as poor, not as edgy and part of the story.
Do you feel like a hero yet?: I think the point the game was trying to make would have been more powerful if Walker had shown more overt signs of his hallucinations/PTSD earlier on and the player had been getting dragged along for the ride (like his companions were). Perhaps we could have overheard some of his companions’ disbelieving comments when Walker was obsessing over the hanging bodies. Maybe they could have challenged him on what Konrad said when Walker talked into a radio that was broken. After all, Walker’s team was comprised of highly-trained military personnel. Why were they following him if he was so obviously struggling with reality?
The player could have been put in the position of thinking that Walker was insane, but was playing along because “it’s just a game,” therefore having to either rationalize their actions or throw up their hands and say something to the effect of “screw it, let’s just do <insert action here>.”
Cue public service announcement on doing things you didn’t want to do because it’s “only” a game.
Alternatively, the players could have been put in the position of trying to transform the slightly unstable Walker into an undeniable hero, instead of him being seen as an unstable mess.
Cue comments on the gamer only playing in order to feel like a hero.
These are by no means perfect solutions, but it would have brought the main themes to the forefront of the game in such a way that the final reveal didn’t completely come from left field. As it was, it seemed the game was trying to be too clever, smugly telling me of all the “choices” I supposedly made that brought me to this pint, even though as a gamer I simply want to play the games I buy to their ends.
For comparison, this idea (that is, following orders in a game just because the game tells you to, and not because you want to) was handled much more effectively in Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty. In this game, the Colonel/AI starts challenging Raiden to put the game down and telling him he has no choice when it comes to killing. But this story was built subtly, and the punch was delicately readied before smashing into the player’s face. I felt trapped in that end fight with Solidus: I didn’t want to kill him because of story reasons, but I had no option. The game knew I wanted to finish it, and consciously used that against me, announcing all the while that it was using my own desires against me. And it worked, and it was powerful.
All in all, Spec Ops: The Line is not a game I would play again. It has interesting and clever ideas, but ultimately the gameplay itself was not worth the story payout I received. In all honesty, the positive aspects of the game were not immediately apparent, so focused was I on the controls, long load times, and glaringly obvious shams masquerading as major game-changing choices. So while I appreciated the token silver trophy for continuing to exist in a “made up” world, it was not enough to counterbalance the scolding I received for playing the game proper.
What do you think? Does Spec Ops have any redeeming qualities? Does it deserve a place in the horror genre? What do you think of Captain Walker as protagonist and monster? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
For some easily accessible information on Jungian psychology, check out: http://journalpsyche.org/jungian-model-psyche/
For a similarly accessible information on the Jungian concept of the shadow, check out: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/201204/essential-secrets-psychotherapy-what-is-the-shadow
(I figure citing my psychology books wouldn’t really help anyone, so I hope these get you started!)
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Fans of this game have claimed that the player bears responsibility for assuming that it’s a game and they’re just doing what games typically expect of them, but in practice, it’s rather weak reasoning. It’s true that most players wouldn’t think to look for an alternate solution, but that’s because, in this particular instance, there isn’t one. If there was, and the narrative suggested that was the case in some way, I’m pretty sure more people would have tried to find it. It doesn’t have to be obvious, but the designers have to play by the rules they themselves laid out – otherwise, we run into this problem again. In either case, the supposed onus is an illusion – just like the illusion of choice. The player is no more responsible for the horrific events than if they played out in a cutscene.
Anyway, I have to admit most of the umbrage I take with this game stems from its terrible gameplay. If it was better, I wouldn’t have given it such a low score (indeed, when I decided to play it, I thought I was going to award it a 5/10 or maybe even a 6/10 at the end), but as it stands, it’s a third-person shooter which shows less polish than its spiritual predecessors.
So reviewers tried to write the bad controls off as a feature meant to emphasize the player’s lack of control over the situation? Again, that’s not indicative of good reasoning skills; certainly not in this case. When I played through the game, I wrote the bad controls off as inept programming rather than some sort of meta-commentary. It’s not usually a good metaphor if it has to be explained outright. As I was playing it, I wasn’t thinking “Wow, I feel like I’m not in control. What a brilliant commentary!” but rather, “People actually like this game? Why?” I admit that sounds narrow-minded, but I’m still left wondering how fans could enjoy it because I don’t think they would have overlooked that aspect with any other game – indeed, they likely would have rightly considered it a deal-breaker.
I think what also helps Metal Gear Solid 2 succeed where Spec Ops fails is that the people making those claims are bad guys, meaning that even if they have a few good points, there’s a good chance they’re fundamentally wrong. Well that and it was a failed attempt by Mr. Kojima to kill off interest in the series, making it a source of unintentional comedy. With Spec Ops, I couldn’t escape that the authors had a holier-than-thou disposition towards their audience. I don’t necessarily think that was their intent, but that’s how it came across. Considering all of that, it’s of little wonder the game didn’t sell well; the stereotypical macho, profanity-screaming Xbox Live user who needed to hear the message likely gave up well before the halfway point. If they did, I 100% agree with them; good on them for passing up such a shoddy effort.
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Thanks for your thoughtful comment! Yes, as you said, the developers need to play by their own rules in a game; sometimes it seems like they can be a little too clever for their own good, which might result in the smugness you picked up on!
I agree with what you said about MGS; some of the tropes in the series definitely allow it some leeway with how it presents its story. Although I also wonder if the story was simply set up more carefully, too. You, the player, were following orders to kill Solidus and were sent on this wild mission that set off a series of events that resulted in you being stuck in a situation you couldn’t get out of. That is, you found out that Solidus wasn’t technically the bad guy, but rather you had been mislead by/blindly following the word of the Patriots. Like I mentioned, you were placed in a death match, where you were told point-blank that stopping play was the only way out. The devs knew gamers weren’t going to stop, but they infused your in-game actions with frustration and guilt at having the choice taken away (cough because you wanted to keep playing cough).
But yes, I think the target audience might have shut off the game well before the game’s message came up. Ineffective for the game’s message, but I could hardly blame the players.
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When I went through the White Phosphorous section, I tried to stop after the enemies stopped fighting and everyone started running away. That was my way of getting through that conflict, once I had to get in. The game doesn’t allow you to back out halfway through, however. You have to pull the trigger on those noncombatants, even after you’ve already secured your safety. Which you could make as a good case internally, in that game world, but the developers chose to direct that outside of it, at the player itself, when the player had no choice, even when they tried to avoid it. I felt like the developers were judging me, personally, even though they were the ones who forced my hand there when I was trying to do anything but.
That’s really where the plot started to unravel for me. It was that feeling of being judged without having the choice in it that really had me distracted, and I eventually got too irritated, between that and the poor controls, to continue. I don’t think I even made it to the other two moments you mentioned there.
I’ve gotten the feeling of being judged as a person from games before, some of them doing it better and/or more tongue-in-cheek than others, but there’s always an element of it that does fall a little flat with me. At the end of the day, these are all just pretend things I’m inflicting imaginary horrors upon, and there’s no real negative impact from these actions. Trying to make me personally feel bad about it just tends to drop me out of the story.
But I’ve already been round and round with most of these at Red Metal’s house. So onto something new, and mildly related. Talking about the nature of choice, I was playing the fourth chapter of the Higurashi series of visual novels recently, which is another absolutely linear experience where you’re given absolutely no say in how the story progresses. In one of the bonus contents at the end of this chapter, the developers explain their viewpoint of the matter, that there is interactivity there, it’s just not within the game/novel itself. The “game” aspect of it is completely meta, in trying to figure out the various mysteries and just speculate on the story itself. The place for the players is working things over in their own heads, and the conclusions they draw, and the impressions they choose to take on the many matters open to interpretation. In fact, they outright ask that if the arcs that give the answers to those mysteries are out by the time you read that statement, you hold off on reading through them until you’ve given yourself to do that headwork, because it’s that much a valuable component of the experience they’re wanting to craft. Technically, the story has about the same level of player input as Spec Ops’ plot, but I found that completely opposite perspective of the players role in it from Spec Ops’ “Just turn the game off. That’s your interactivity” as espoused in developer interviews to be quite interesting.
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Fantastic point! I think if a game wants a player to have an emotional reaction, it needs to be done well through the story. A choice doesn’t always have to be part of it, because offering choices in games can be complicated. But if the experience is linear, the story needs to be well presented and plausible. It absolutely needs to get in your head, like the Higurashi series seems to do (I haven’t experienced it myself, but I’ve been following your adventure 🙂 )