[Spec Ops: The Line is nearly nine months old already, yet I'd be an inconsiderate fool not to warn you about the spoilers laced within this article. Beware, me hearties...]
Spec Ops: The Line released last summer to a torrent of mixed opinions. While some praised the game’s ambitious attempt to humanize the horrors of digital wars, others (like our own Cameron Wasmund) were ultimately disappointed with the way these ideas played out. A quite common complaint I picked up from multiple members of the press stemmed from Spec Ops’ dealings with meaningful player choice … particularly, the absence of it.
Quick tangent: Notice how even the “Narrative Trailer” makes no mention of the psychological aspects of Spec Ops. Modern marketing, baby.
There are a few this-or-that alternatives interspersed throughout the narrative-driven campaign, though these terrible deeds give no option to maintain purity and play as a perfectly good guy. Well, at least not outside of turning away from the game entirely – which, intriguingly, is something the writers consider to be a valid path. For those committed to seeing the story to the finish, however, appalling actions are required to progress, often followed up with a, “we didn’t have a choice,” or, “there’s nothing we can do now; let’s keep moving.” You are not allowed to do anything but carry on. That bothered some people, and in more than an emotional sense. To them, this forced wrongdoing came across as unfair, inconsistent with the message they were seeing as Spec Ops repeatedly shoved their faces into military atrocities. Yet in my eyes, I don’t believe these heavy themes would’ve worked any other way.
The success of Spec Ops relies on its limitations, presenting a story more in line with what we would do if dropped into these difficult environments rather than focusing on what we should do. Some real-life dilemmas simply do not have an easy answer. You can’t always be the good guy; can’t always expect a black-and-white, shoot-‘em-or-save-‘em scenario to keep your conscience clean. Sometimes people find themselves in awful situations, the only avenue forward being a choice between what they perceive as the lesser of two evils.
A deeper look into the intentions behind the writing
Even after accepting my take on it, I understand Spec Ops isn’t perfect. Potential plot holes still exist with no logical plugs in sight. For instance – as Cameron pointed out months ago – it seems nonsensical for two Delta Force operatives to continue to follow command while their captain is obviously compromised, constantly hallucinating and holding a running conversation with a dead man through a broken radio. However, imperfection is not equivalent to failure. Spec Ops is the first shooter – hell, the first video game – that made me really think about the repercussions of killing my enemies, that made me second-guess if mowing down the same nameless, gun-toting waves hour after hour was actually the best course of action. The many men I’ve taken out in Metal Gear, the thousands of lives I’ve ended in Uncharted, all executed without the slightest of moral considerations. Yet Spec Ops made me stop and think.
I wanted to quit, to escape this indecent war zone or – even better – to discover some horrible secret that would justify my murders. But I didn’t because I couldn’t, and got more out of this experience because its architects directed my hand. If given a choice, I would have missed it all, opting to fill the role of Mr. Does The Right Thing so I could sleep well at night. Instead, I felt dirty, disgusted even, and that raw emotional response is a testament to the impressive delivery of the Spec Ops message.
The way I see it, every future shooter that wants us to take it seriously has to do the very same thing.