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?”