One of my favourite games of the last few years was Spec Ops: The Line, the latest (and possibly last) in The Spec Ops franchise. Spec Ops has been around for decades. I think I played one in the early nineties. Wikipedia reliably informs me that the original game Spec Ops: Rangers Lead the Way was released in 1998 so it’s certainly plausible I stumbled across it while hogging the controller on the Playstation of a friend.
Let’s have a look at Spec Ops: Rangers Lead the Way, shall we?
Games haven’t really come that far, have they? It’s still all bush hats and boot-polished faces and cumbersome optic scopes even a million years later. We are doomed to repeat a Groundhog Day of incursions, exfiltrations, LZs and beach-heads.
What’s depressing about this is how so often the games try nothing different. Remember that particular day in the endless loop of days when Bill Murray stole big bags of cash from a security van and dressed in a poncho? That was a stand-out day. A lot of the other days were just variations on the theme (an important one, at that) of seducing Andie MacDowell. What were Andie McDowell or Bill Murray's characters called? I don’t know. They were really just playing a variation on a theme of their usual performances. This is a perfectly acceptable part of any actor’s range, it only becomes depressing – as with war games – when it’s all they can do. That’s right, the industry of glossy war games and their glossy wars have become Bruce Willis, whose wry grin and angry eyes are now permanently fixed that way, like a lock jaw of the entire face, and his sole method of communication is saying he's too old or too tired for whatever it is his body double is doing.
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character improves slowly and gradually, over-time. He is repeating the same day over and over and over again but he is steadily getting better at it.
That doesn’t appear to be happening with games about war and, it’s safe to say, five years on,that Spec Ops: The Line did not represent a new trend of introspective, thoughtful shoot-anything-that-moves games. Just like Poncho Murray, it’s a stand out.
It has escaped no-one’s notice that Infinity Ward can deliver eight hour cutscenes saddled to a graphics engine that was beginning to creak when Spec Ops: II: Omega Squad was out, sit back, and make more money than the GDP of some small countries. They do this every year, too, with another studio picking up the slack in between. A conveyor belt of titles that only a trained specialist in a shiny Harley Street office can differentiate: “Ah, yes, sir. It appears you may have accidentally contracted Black Ops III. I’m afraid it’s very serious indeed.”
Most recently, with Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (an apt title if ever there was one), they tried something a little different, however ineptly, and were resoundingly rejected by an audience who seemed to have, hitherto, accepted every indignity lavished upon the franchise. It seems likely that the cycle will now start again and Call of Duty will dust off all the MP40s and Thompsons, and go back to the unmatched purity of WW2.
Spec Ops: The Line remains, then, something of an incongruity in what is an increasingly bland morass.
It is not a testament to how we’re getting better at war games but it is, at least, a strong example of how they can still be interesting if someone involved actually puts in some effort beyond writing “More explosions!” “Terrorists!” “I heard ‘footmobile’ was something soldiers say!” on large Post It Notes then thinking your job is done or, indeed, ideologically neutral.
You play as Captain Martin Walker, leading his Delta Force Team into the city of Dubai which. Six months previously the city was consumed by sandstorms of apocalyptic scale. An officer in the US Army, Colonel John Konrad, was in charge of the evacuation. He and his men are missing. Walker wants to find them.
How does this one look? Does it have some actual polygons? Do the trees still lack density? Are people still approximately oblong?
The answer is that the game perhaps looks a shade less incredible than this picture suggests but it certainly has its jaw-dropping moments. It is also suitably different from the usual contenders to actually have an effect. The ruined city drips atmosphere. This is an apocalypse, albeit localised, and the art design of Spec Ops has a Fallout mentality. That magical environmental storytelling.
This, again, has become a bit trite in recent years. The Division is a distinctly witless recent example of how a modern game, narratively speaking, needs to do a bit more than thoughtlessly dump a few corpses in a room with a sign. Spec Ops is aware of this, though, and the state of Dubai is more than just scenery, it feels more meaningful. It is interesting and foreboding without being overdone.
I remember at the time I first played Spec Ops, I had just tried Battlefield 3 on a new computer. Battlefield 3, although mostly obscured behind a red dot sight, did look amazing but it was a strangely hollow light show for the most part, generic where Spec Ops is always specific, vague where Spec Ops is pointed.
Mechanically, you have played Spec Ops before. It is a third person cover shooter and so naturally the gameplay is like every other third person shooter which you’ve bought and can ever hope to buy. In forty years, people might raise their eye brows at the graphics of The Line just as much as you did at those screenshots of Rangers Lead The Way, but give them a controller and they’ll know what to do. It’s already pure instinct, after so many Gears of War and so many Uncharteds, hard wired into the lower, amphibian levels of the brain: fight, flight, duck into cover, pick headshots.
It is a critique of a genre that is predominantly first person but this, as well as being true to the games that preceded it in the franchise, is a choice that elucidates some of the themes of the game. Primarily, it continually plays on that distinction between the player and Walker, the character, throughout. We are able to view the protagonist from the outside and see the visible effect that the events depicted are having on him.
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of actually shooting Spec Ops is pedestrian, really. Dubai is mechnically another day at the office, shooting young men in the face for extra points. The game does do little tricky things with the shooting – just as it does little tricky things with every base aspect of the military shooter – but ultimately it is solid and little more.
I’ve read people say that the routine nature of the killing is a deliberate choice, a comment on the unthinking slaughter of a thousand previous games but I think that’s a stretch. I think the shooting is unambitious maybe, in all truth, through indifference. Certainly the game's key ambitions lie elsewhere, an adjunct to the shooting not intrinsic to it.
From the outset, something is up with Spec Ops. The opening menu is an upside-down US Flag ripped and bedraggled, hanging over a destroyed city in the desert, as a distorted version of Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner plays. Even with that somewhat foreboding starting point, the game still slowly slides out from under the weight of the player's well-drilled expectations.
A common feature of the genre is the extremely volatile nature of helicopters. They drop out of the sky constantly in computer games. The original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare subverted this trope but, in another indication of how weary military shooters have become, your transportation wildly spinning out of the sky still features in practically every other game of the series. In Call of Duty: Black Ops, off the top of my head I think about four that you ride in go down. Hueys, the workhorse of Vietnam’s Air Cav, are death traps.
In one of the many ways in which Spec Ops uses shooter conventions but also somewhat subverts them, when the helicopter you are riding in crashes – you are killed. For the record, this is the opening scene of the game. Things get worse from then on.
There is some debate about the exact meanings and meanderings of Spec Ops’ plot but I think the most compelling interpretation of the narrative is that the crash is really the end of Walker. Everything else is flashback or fantasy, as he replays what led him to this point. What's really important is that the game is a retelling, strangely altered by the man’s delusional state. Having a game told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator is an immediately different experience to the all-seeing, all-knowing satellite of the Call of Duty games, picking grunts and destinies at random.
The whole game is therefore open for debate. We see ostensibly what Walker sees, part of a full blown dissociative disorder. It’s difficult, retrospectively, to parse what was real and what wasn’t and just how much of what occurred was pure invention or broken, remixed memories. The exactness of this is not ultimately essential.
The in-game fiction certainly implies that Dubai has actually been ruined by sandstorms and there was an attempt by the the 33rd Battalion to evacuate the populace that ended in complete failure. It seems likely that the key events literally happened as they are depicted in Walker’s flashback but it’s worth noting that the hallucinations are in effect from the very first moment. John Konrad’s face can be seen on huge billboards and the sides of trucks. You pass trees covered in leaves and pristine statues then turn around and see complete devastation; the trees burned and dead, the statues broken. Walker’s preoccupations are overlaid on the city.
Dubai itself is most obviously a metaphor: the most opulent of cities, smashed and destroyed. The beautiful rendered ugly. Everything in this game is eventually destroyed. Even the sniper who guards the menu screen dies and is pecked apart by crows.
Walker himself has a simply torrid time.
This physical damage is nothing more than a handy reminder of the psychological toll that his actions are having upon him and those around him.
The voice acting of the central Special Forces Team (Walker, Adams and Lugo) becomes frayed and raw as the game progresses. The respective team members become increasingly agitated with each other. During gun battles, there are a few minor commands that you can give your men – instructing them to focus their fire on a particular enemy, lob a flashbang or heal up – and the neutered, military jargon of the commands, “Get your rifle on my target – there!” becomes steadily angrier and more direct, “Put down that fucking sniper!” “I need him dead!” Executions that you perform on wounded enemies become more violent and sadistic. A clean shot to the face in the opening Act becomes a kneecapping, later on. Everything in the game feeds back to you, making you ill-at-ease with the actions you are performing.
If Apocalypse Now, one of the game’s key influences, is a trip up a river to the heart of darkness, Spec Ops is a trip down, down, down. Almost every level of Spec Ops starts high and drops down. Most actual climbing is kept to between-scene transitions. You’ll spend one level going deeper and deeper into the city. Every time you think you reach bedrock, the floor collapses out from beneath you and deposits you into some darker hell. At the end of the level, you will transition to the top of a skyscraper then start dropping down again. The game literally depicts Walker’s Faustian descent.
Maybe this all sounds horrible. Why on earth, you might ask, are you playing a game which sets out to make you feel miserable? What sort of narcissistic middle-class compulsion is that?
Well, Call of Duty and its ilk have been making us feel bad for years. Every action you take in most modern shooters – however heinous – is carefully rationalised by the end justifying the means. The greater good is stopping the terrorists, saving the world, defusing the nuke, being the hero. You can do anything you like in the pursuit of that goal and have carte blanche to perform whatever acts of inhumanity you need to get the job done. Regrets, presumably, come later. No-one wants to play a game about regrets, right?
Spec Ops is a direct attack on this idea of the greater good and it picks apart how we have been conditioned by the genre to accept the death counts and the outright brutality we inflict. It doesn’t agree that it is necessarily okay to punch glass into a man’s face for freedom and liberty and Niall Ferguson’s wet dream of the West.
In Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward decided that what would be really cool is playing a key role in one of the terrorist attacks that you spend most of these games trying to stop. No Russian has very little build up and is cut off abruptly. It’s nothing but a nasty little vignette, a half idea really, where you somehow walk into an airport with a machine gun and mow down a load of civilians. All of the civilians are well-proportioned clones. There are no overweight people or short people or people in wheelchairs, there are no babies or children: this is an over 18s, consenting adults only, slimming world airport. The act itself is neutered from the outset and the narrative conspires to make it even more toothless.
You are playing a soldier who is personally selected by the sort of General you only find in computer games – who is able to micro-manage an international global conspiracy, as well as an entire army of mixed-arms units, by marching around wearing a T-shirt and carrying a Desert Eagle – to infiltrate the antagonist’s terrorist organisation. One week after being pulled out of his regiment in Afghanistan, this rookie spy is forced to murder masses of Russian civilians in the hope of… I’m not sure exactly what. If the idea is that he has to take out The Nasty Russian Bad Guy then this is a prime opportunity to do so. The Nasty Russian Bad Guy is standing next to him when all this goes down. Now. Shoot him now. Obviously shoot him now. Oh no, no, just kill all the Russian civilians instead…
The essential idea I assume is that you’re meant to do this to prove yourself to the terrorists and bring them down from the inside. Cutting off the head would be no good – despite this being what you spend most of the rest of the levels as the SAS trying to do.
This massive slaughter therefore is an end to justify the means – shoot x civilians to save y civilians. Pure statistics. In this case the means really does need to be objectively assessed on its own merits.
In a cruel (but, to my mind, quite just) twist of fate you get shot at the end of the mission so any theoretical guilt the character might feel or possible tribunal action he might face for this heinously bad judgement call is avoided. Russia stupidly blames the United States for this atrocity and then invades because, you know, Red Dawn. Those stupid Russians! An American spy in an American intelligence operation put together by an American general shoots hundreds of civilians in a Russian airport and they have the outright audacity to blame America. Get your own house in order, Russia, before coming at the USA with your flawed logic and your hordes of paratroops!
Of course, it turns out the American general is a Nasty Bad Guy, too, though I don’t particularly remember his motivation. Maybe he wants to irradiate all the gold in Fort Knox or control the whole water supply for a South American country. Something like that. He’s probably a patriot who loves America and feels that America’s number one status in the world is best proved by provoking a large scale global war with another superpower which lays waste to each of America’s greatest cities and kills tens of thousands of Americans.
Ultimately, you were fooled into shooting all these civilians, you poor, dead, stupid American spy. It’s not your fault. Here, play a five second level as an astronaut who dies, too. Poor old astronaut.
The narrative of Modern Warfare 2 absolves you of any guilt whatsoever in participating in this attack. It was for the greater good. The massive global war claims millions of lives but it’s also really cool and in the end the American General gets blown up and the Russian Man gets hanged and stabbed and eaten by an SAS officer then it’s all okay. We got ‘em, guys! The cost was not too dear! Now, let’s rebuild the entire Eastern Seaboard and all of Europe and most of Russia! Nothing is our fault!
The point is that the Call of Duty games aren’t supposed to make you feel bad. They’re meant to make you feel good. The mission before you slaughter an entire airport, you’re flinging yourself down a mountain on a snowmobile like some latter-day James Bond with more sci-fi gadgetry than the current Bond ever gets to play with. The hard switch to coldly gunning down civilians is a complete tonal U-turn where the game starts writing cheques, in terms of moral complexity, that it simply cannot cash. No Russian, in a way, is just another power fantasy. A meaningless one. If you choose to shoot the other terrorists, the mission ends. If you choose not to fire at all, all of the civilians die anyway.
I’d rather play a game that actively set out to make me feel bad, a game that chose to play on these tensions at the very heart of gaming, than one which makes me feel bad as a side product of being so poorly thought out and weakly executed. I’d rather play a game which is up front about the fact that, actually, yes, this is your fault. You are to blame for this. Well done.
Spec Ops is a proper game where an American soldier makes bad choices in order to pursue his aims. It follows through on this theme. It makes it central. In Modern Warfare 2, you could skip the level where you commit an atrocity. There’s no skip button in Spec Ops.
The game confronts the mind-set and conditioning that we, as players, have built up in order to accept these games on face value. Mere minutes into the very first Modern Warfare, you shoot several unarmed men while they sleep but that’s the job, man. That’s what you signed up for. There’s no questioning of it.
Spec Ops asks those questions. It quite baldly and directly asks them. The embedded journalist with the 33rd Battalion is basically Three Dog forthe city of Dubai and now goes by the moniker Radio Man. He is continually playing music and shouting at you as you progress through the city. He says, “There was no reason for any of this. Why? Why are you doing this?”
The game wants you to ask this question not only from the perspective of Walker but as a player.
Looking back, I’m not sure if it’s making a judgement on why we play these games. The designers play shooters, they made a shooter – albeit a rather interesting and thoughtful one -are they really telling us we’re bad people for playing shooters?
I can’t say. My impression when I played it first was that it didn’t really, that it was provoking the question and exploring the theme but avoiding doing a sort of Bioshock. There wasn’t a Would you Kindly moment so it didn’t have that same aura of smugness. That said, if it looks like it’s saying you’re a bad person, sounds like it’s saying you’re a bad person… well…
Where Spec Ops absolutely succeeds is in making you reassess what you have been complacently accepting. Walker is never ordered to do what he does, the greater good is non-existent. His exact mission is to confirm the whereabouts or fate of Konrad and any survivors, then radio for extraction. He and his team, who are after all only equipped for reconnaissance, can leave at any time.
Your squad mates, Adams and Lugo, actively suggest getting the hell out of dodge at numerous points in the game. The pursuit of Konrad is something Walker takes upon himself, motivated by his own desire to be a hero and his own weird sense of what’s right. It’s this that gets him into real trouble.
He firstly wants to find Konrad because he is sure the Colonel will not have gone rogue, asked why, he says, “Because I know the man!” That’s adequate enough reasoning for Walker and it is often reason enough for us, as players. We love a good personal quest for vengeance. Never has one felt quite so ill-advised.
As the game progresses and the actions of Konrad and 33rd become clearer, Walker develops a full blown obsession with finding the Colonel. At the end of the game, he states that he wants to find him and kill him and kill everyone else, too. There’s a nasty, animalistic edge to Walker by the end. Any remaining veneer of being a professional soldier is gone along with all the various accoutrements of his burned and shredded uniform.
The characterisation of Lugo and Adams has come in for some criticism and it is certainly true that they are not perhaps as well rounded and three dimensional as they could be. They do come to constantly question your actions and your judgement – which at the time I found a refreshing change from the usual, Gears of War-esque manly snark of macho companions – but they ultimately do what they’re told. There was an opportunity, I think, for even more of this. Perhaps the game sells itself a little short not showing a full breakdown of military order within the Delta Force team itself as the situation reaches a submarine crushing level of pressure.
Ultimately, you get both Adams and Lugo killed – and even if their exact fate may differ to how it is represented in Walker’s fractured mind, their blood being on your hands is a key feature of the game. Loading screens ask you how much Lugo and Adams are worth and various moments have a hallucinating Walker envisage himself murdering them.
Walker struggling with guilt and eventually accepting the blame for all that has happened is central to the whole experience. It steadily becomes increasing important from the White Phosphorous scene.
Ah, yes. That scene.
Assaulting an extremely heavily populated enemy base, Walker and his team come across a mortar and use White Phosphorous to clear the way. Through the heat vision scope of the mortar, you identify a large mass of targets and drop the last few of your shells then, as you head down into the target zone, you realise that you have killed several hundred civilians, corralled together by the 33rd for their safety.
The following moments, picking your way through the destruction, are utterly horrible and remain firmly in your mind for some time, particularly if you fire up another modern shooter.
The scene, particularly with the use of the heat vision view, is deliberately evocative of Modern Warfare’s Spectre Gunship levels, in which you use the unbelievably potent arsenal of an AC-130 to rain death and destruction on enemy troops, far below, with complete impunity. All those years ago, playing Modern Warfare for the first time, I thought that gunship level was really something. It seemed a credible, if gamey, depiction of what it would be like, sitting at an actual monitor, dropping heavy cannon shells on buildings below. I felt like Infinity Ward were making a point with this, highlighting the disconnection between the gunner above – the quiet buzzing of the machines, the muted sounds of guns, the remarks of the crew – and the chaos and slaughter below. I know now that it was included by the designers because they thought it would be cool. This was their logic, I expect, for including a mass murder in Modern Warfare 2. Any anti-war sentiment I took from the experience was me trying to kill the author, filtering the level through my own presuppositions about the insatiable thresher that is mechanised war.
It took several years for a game to come out and actually deliver that message but I can’t praise Spec Ops on the basis that it acts as confirmation bias for all my leftist views. It went far beyond that.
Let’s be clear, I knew something was going on with Spec Ops: The Line. I had read enough about it to know that. Even so, when I was presented with a massive new toy in the shape of a mortar and a big pile of White Phosphorous shells, I went straight in.
I’ve read that people tried to do anything other than drop the last shells on the big swarm of men. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh boy, this is going to be nasty.” I expected, at most, some horrible scenes when I went down there – seeing dead combatants and feeling some minor regret for slaughtering them in a singularly horrible way. I didn’t hesitate, though. I know what the heat vision screen means, you see. It means basically a cheat mode. It means impunity. So the game got me – hook, line and sinker.
Apparently if you don’t drop the shells the game effectively forces you to – with a gang of infinitely re-spawning snipers, which is a little on the crude side if you ask me. Other moments of moral choice are much more subtle. Faced with the choice to gun down an angry crowd, it’s all too easy to just open up – No Russian style. If you fire your weapon into the air, the crowd simply disperses.
It didn’t even occur to me that you could do anything other than open fire and so I slaughtered the crowd. The fact there was an alternative, to which the crowd would act naturally, didn’t cross my mind and I like to think of myself as a well-rounded, non-violent and generally quite thoughtful person.
That’s the entire purpose of the game in a nutshell: to call into question things we ordinarily accept and to make you feel bad for the awful things you’ve done. It places you in a very familiar game space and then asks questions of you. It doesn’t provide many answers. You complete this game in the same way as you complete every game it is critical of: you shoot everybody. You duck in cover and pick headshots. If you are prepared to accept this limitation, however, there is a lot about the game to admire.
I can understand people’s dislike of being unable to avoid the game’s worst and most graphic outcome but, although there are small choices to be made, not least of which is in the very final epilogue scene, this is not really a game about moral choice. This is a game about being Walker and falling all the way down with him. It surprises me that people had any reticence at all, calling in the Willie Pete. In the context of the scene, it’s the only logical thing to do. You use what you have to hand. You get the job done. You are the hero, after all.
This is a game where you spend pretty much all of your time shooting other Americans but what haunts you most, what recurs to Walker the most, is the burned woman and her child. The hallucinations and waking dreams increase considerably after this point.
Your squadmates die. Radio Man dies. You destroy the city’s water supply, meaning everyone in the city will die. Finally, you die yourself. The single ending where you appear to be driven home is pure fantasy. The game is very clear: there is no going home from this.
Spec Ops is personal and raw, downright horrible at times but it’s important. Someone had to come out with it, eventually. There has to be consequences. You can’t take modern warfare so lightly, with all the nasty bits rubbed off and just the headshots and the optic scopes left in. Walker hits Dubai like he’s trying to be every protagonist in every game ever made and it breaks him and, ultimately, destroys him. Hundreds of innocents die in the process. This game is not remotely precious in the way it treats you as a player, it looks at your actions and the consequences of those actions in a way that most shooters simply do not.
Whoever let them do this with a franchise that has been around since I was in school, well, my bush hat goes off to them.