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REVIEW: “This is all your fault” – Spec Ops: The Line and the retelling of myths

At this stage, it seems likely that Spec Ops: The Line will be one of the most critically unsettling videogames of this year. Already it has inspired more animated and engaged discussion than most other videogames of 2012. It is, as a friend of mine put it, A Game To Talk About. It’s quite a success for the ninth game in the otherwise middling Spec Ops series, and a sign of things to come from Yager Development, the Berlin-based and until-now relatively unknown studio behind the game. On the surface, The Line looks like a standard military-themed third person shooter. Underneath, it’s something else entirely.

The Line’s proposition is simple enough. In the near future, Dubai has been destroyed by catastrophic dust storms, and a planned evacuation by US soldiers went horrifically wrong. The player controls Captain Martin Walker as he and two other soldiers journey into Dubai looking for survivors.

What emerges is on the one hand, something like Heart of Darkness: The Videogame. The player discovers that the remnants of the US evacuation force have, like Heart of Darkness’s Kurtz, become corrupt. The parallels could not be more clear, and at times are even somewhat artless: Spec Ops’ Kurtz-figure is, of course, named Colonel John Konrad, after Heart of Darkness’ author, Joseph Conrad.

On the other hand, The Line is something rather more than an retelling of Heart of Darkness. Its project is not just to mount a parable of a descent into madness, of the fine line between civilisation and vicious demagoguery. Its project is not even (or rather, not just) to retell Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s Vietnam War era adaptation of Conrad’s novella. The Line is more than just an attack on America’s military conflicts of the present day, though it is that too.

Instead, The Line is most clearly an attack on videogames. It is a criticism of third person shooters, of military-lite entertainments, and of those creative people behind them who expend great amounts of energy ensuring that they say as little as possible.

Most pointedly, however, The Line is an attack on those of us who play and uncritically enjoy military shooters. Things only ever get worse in The Line, and never better. As the player continues to push through one atrocity after another, The Line looks at the player directly and asks the question: “What is wrong with a person for wanting to play a game like me?”

As one of The Line’s many disruptive loading screens reads, “This is all your fault.” This is where The Line is cleverest—it isn’t talking about its protagonist here, or setting up some sort of awkward second-person association between player and character like a number of other recent videogames. The Line is talking to you, the person on the other side of the screen, the person holding the controller, the person who paid money in the hopes of enjoying some simulated battlefield warfare. All this blood, death, gore, and destruction? Baby, it’s you.

Despite its occasional missteps and a certain level of naiveté, The Line is an unusually complex videogame with a lot to say. Ambiguous, rough, and confronting, The Line is thematically difficult and deserving of a lot more thought and space than I can afford it here. Therefore, this review isn’t so much an attempt to articulate what The Line might mean as it is a survey of how much remains to be said. The most thrilling thing about The Line is that as flawed as it may be, it remains remarkably complicated, even contradictory. Is it even possible to be subversive as a military shooter? The fact that The Line works un-ironically in terms of battlefield, point-and-shoot pleasure, as well as a disruptive work of criticism is sticky enough in itself. There are no exact answers to what The Line means. Each solution to the problems posed by the game feels less satisfying than the last, each interpretation pointing more openly to unsolved questions instead of blotting them out.

This is not an autopsy but an invitation. The Line presents itself as an opportunity to actually question what we’re doing with the most popular videogames in the world, and what we could be doing instead. As the player travels through a broken Dubai with its three damaged protagonists, blood, death and sanity strewn in their wake, The Line asks its most provocative question of all. It’s a question that could be addressed to almost anyone in the videogames industry, from CEOs to players to press to designers:

“Do you even remember why you came here?”

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  • 1
    Posted August 13, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    “The Line is talking to you, the person on the other side of the screen, the person holding the controller, the person who paid money in the hopes of enjoying some simulated battlefield warfare. All this blood, death, gore, and destruction? Baby, it’s you.”

    But this! This is where the game so utterly fails in it’s critique for me: So what that it’s me? This isn’t actually real! It’s not even verisimilitudinous in the same vein as We Were Soldiers (from 2002) for instance, which is actually emotionally brutalising because of it’s in-your-face, blood, guts, screaming napalm death realism. To even begin to accept that there is a “reality” in SpecOps from which to recoil, we have to choose to enter into it, or be seduced into it, which I completely rejected (and is that not a valid reaction? The producers never seemed to anticipate that reaction, just that we’d get into the game and be “pissed off”).

    This, I think, is the difference between Spec Ops: The Line and my other favourite Heart of Darkeness retelling in games, Far Cry 2. FC2 does not try and seduce you into it’s reality – instead it merely exists, and odd moments of uncanny realism emerge like a monster from the black lagoon, a result of the collision of systemic AI, open space, and unpredictable human input.

    To bring in some Bogostian game theory – I think I played Spec Ops: The Line in it’s entirety while in a state of Simulation Fever. I didn’t reject the (manufactured – come on now, you’re still a commercial game dev studio, Yager! You’re benefiting from it as much as Epic, Infinity Ward, et al.) complicity of the player as such, I just never even wanted to be complicit. It felt like a set-up! “Come play my game, it’s for you dear enlightened game player hungering for more from your shooters… SURPRISE! You’re actually an asshole for playing this game! Suckerrrr!”

    Great, thanks for that Yager.

    (Thanks for the discussion fodder, Dan)

  • 2
    pope_gumby
    Posted August 13, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    On Ben’s last paragraph, I felt similarly about Michael Haneke’s Hunger Games movie. I’d read that it was a fantastic film, so I watched it, and then read up all the commentary around it.

    The general attitude seems to be that by having characters talk to viewers, and breaking the cinematic fourth wall, he was making viewers complicit in the violence and ugliness happening on screen.

    Which may be the case, but if so, what’s the alternative? Not watching it? Do I beat Haneke by deciding from the classification that I wouldn’t enjoy his violent film, and therefore by not watching it, do I win? At what?

    I haven’t played the game, since FPSs (and especially military ones) are not my thing, but it seems like kind of a dick move overall.

  • 3
    Brendan Keogh
    Posted August 13, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    A couple of remarks in response to Ben’s remarks.

    Firstly, I think it’s a really important point that a few of the negative criticisms I’ve seen of the Line have raised that Yager’s game focuses on the player’s responsibility in these games while neglecting to acknowledge the developer’s own responsibility (http://www.magicalwasteland.com/mw/2012/8/2/a-sea-of-endless-bullets-spec-ops-no-russian-and-interactive.html and http://ludo.mwclarkson.com/2012/07/the-invisible-hands/ primarily). My gut response to this, though (and I stress that I’m not sure if it is a valid response or not) is that that is not what The Line is about. Developers are indeed complicit in the way they make money off these games, but players of these games are also complicit, and that is what I think The Line is trying to say. But, sure, that it perhaps paints that as the full story while Yager wash their own hands is totally worthy of note.

    As for feeling like Yager jerked you around for firstly making you play the game and then telling you that you suck for playing it, I think what the game is actually doing is a little bit more nuanced than that. I think it is making those of us that voluntarily and happily purchase and play military shooters (and shooters in general) think about just what it is that we are voluntarily/happily purchasing. Before I purchased The Line, I would have said I buy shooters because I like the gameplay. After playing The Line, I have had to admit to myself I buy shooters because I enjoy shooting people in the dozens.

    For people that typically do not play or enjoy military shooters (or military-ish shooters), I can imagine The Line being at best triggering a “So what?” response and, at worst being totally unethically hypocritical. “I already know military shooters are terrible and evil,” I can imagine people saying. “Why do I need another terrible and evil military shooter to tell me this?”

    I think, though, The Line is not saying military shooters are ‘bad’. That *would* be incredibly hypocritical. I think all it is saying is “Let’s face it, you enjoy these games because you enjoy shooting people.” I don’t think it passes judgement so much as asks questions–and makes the player that normally loves these games to ask questions about themselves.

    So basically, if you have an investment in military shooters, The Line can make you examine that investment. But if you have no investment in military shooters (and moreso if you actively avoid them) I think The Line can be seen as merely reaffirming an opinion, and being blatantly hypocritical in the process. Which is totally understandable, because The Line never said shooters were bad in the first place. So I think it is both understandable and acceptable that people who don’t enjoy shooters generally also don’t ‘enjoy’ The Line.

    Ultimately, players have a responsibility for the games they play and the actions they (we) voluntarily perform in games. The Line has made me more aware of this responsibility than any other game I’ve played. If it takes a strong man to deny what’s right in front of them, I felt pretty weak by the time I finished The Line.

  • 4
    Mr Ak
    Posted August 13, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    I have to admit, that whole “comentary on videogames” is the least interesting part of The Line to me. I agree that it’s there, but I just can’t seem to care. That said, I think it does work *really* well as a videogame adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I was internalising the journey into savagery, and I knew I was doing it, and didn’t choose to walk away – I just don’t see why that journey has to just (or predominantly, or partly) be about videogames. Like Braid was. And Bioshock. There are other things out there, guys. It’s like The Sopranos, the Wire, and Mad Men were all just constantly about television programs. Or Citizen Kane, the Godfather and… you get the point.

  • 5
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I finished The Line last night. I love video games as a storytelling medium, so I grabbed it even though I’m not generally a fan of military shooters. I thought the game was brilliant.

    SPOILERS FOLLOW

    The game really made me think about my interaction with the medium. After the white phosphorous scene, I genuinely stopped to think about whether I wanted to keep playing. And I, as a player, followed Walker’s descent into savagery: Early in the game, where you first see the refugees, I accidentally shot the woman who jumped out at me. I felt awful about that. Considered reloading a checkpoint to go back and not shoot her. But later in the game, I had no hesitation in sacrificing the civilians to save Gould, and by the time we’d stolen the water trucks I was gleefully lobbing grenades at anything that moved, not really worried whether it was an enemy or not. You have to commend any game that can suck you in to its experience so thoroughly.

    The descent into madness is nicely done, too. The obvious hallucinations are of mixed quality – the mannequins/heavy was rather worrying, but the bridge/tower of flame didn’t quite hit home for me. But there was some really subtle stuff, too. Replaying a few early chapters to get all the intel, I noticed some things that indicate that all was not right in Walker’s mind, right from the start. One of the billboards early on has Konrad’s face on it. Later on, a giant billboard of Konrad’s face changes when you turn a corner and look back. I’d have to replay it to be sure, but I’m also pretty certain the burn an Walker’s face – matching the burnt mother’s – gets progressively worse throughout the game, even though I can’t actually remember him getting burnt in the first place.

  • 6
    Ruprecht
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I have thus far chosen not to play Spec Ops: The Line. While this is perhaps the most moral choice, therefore making me superior to anyone who has played it, it leaves me with nothing else to say.

    Toodles!

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