Spec Ops: the Line and Deep Storytelling

Spec Ops: The Line is the best game I’ve ever played where, after I finished it, I never wanted to play it again. On the surface, it’s a pretty middle-of-the-road third-person shooter starring Nathan Dra-… I mean Nolan North as the main protagonist, Captain Walker. But after playing through it even with the background knowledge that it was a whole lot more, it was a pretty eye-opening experience that’s a whole lot deeper than other modern military shooters on the market. Spec Ops delves into not only discussions about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but also the sort of “kill all the bad guys” mindset that a lot of other AAA shooters out there have.

I’m going to use this next bit as a sort of writer’s note. I wrote that first paragraph right after finishing the game and was originally planning on this being a review. I was swept up in the excitement of a game being deeper on a level then just through its narrative and felt like it was a big step forward for the medium of games. Spec Ops is an interesting experience, but now, a while down the line after playing through it again, I feel like it isn’t as revolutionary as a lot of people seem to tell me it is. I know it seems a bit odd to open an article with a paragraph that has a completely different tone than the rest of the piece, but it kind of shows the evolution of my thoughts on the game. I should forewarn that I’m going to be discussing a lot of spoilers about the game in this article and if you’re still interested in seeing everything firsthand and haven’t been exposed to the plot points already, I’d stop reading right here.

The main theme I noticed throughout most of Spec Ops is the fact that it seems to rub your nose in everything horrible you do. This would be great if there was actually an option to not do the things it’s punishing you for doing. There’s a good minute and a half of the camera zooming in on the corpses of citizens that you bombed with white phosphorous in a sort of “Look what you did!” kind of way. It felt ham-fisted and the game wouldn’t actually let you progress past that point without bombing them. So, what’s the point?  The only segments of the game that leave you with any sort of choice don’t carry much significance anyway, such as a scene where you’re forced to choose between saving a group of civilians or a CIA operative. No matter what choice you make, they all end up dying anyway with sad piano music in the background in an almost desperate attempt at provoking an emotional response.



I’m not saying Spec Ops is a bad game. The gameplay itself is functional and I never felt like it handled poorly. Not only that, but the message behind it is a lot more refreshing then some of the Call of Duty games’ more glorified hero stereotypes and it delivered a hell of a lot better then Homefront’s “Press X to hide in dead bodies.”  It starts off with you playing as Captain Walker alongside your squadmates Lugo and Adams entering the sandstorm-ravaged city of Dubai with orders to look for survivors and the 33rd Infantry Division that had been sent in prior. Your objective is to find out if anyone is still there and radio back to command, then leave. Naturally, this doesn’t happen. Walker hears that an old commander he used to serve named Konrad was leading the 33rd and decides that he’s going to lead his men through Dubai, killing hundreds if not thousands of US soldiers to find him.

I’m not exactly making a good case for this game’s delivery, am I? Spec Ops is heavily based off of the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, so much so that Conrad is actually listed as one of the writers on the game’s IMDb page. The main difference in tone I found between Heart of Darkness and Spec Ops is, while Heart of Darkness opens with a small group of men sitting on a boat discussing the horrors of war, Spec Ops opens with you riding on a minigun gunning down dozens of helicopters. The “in your face” attitude of the delivery seems to be a theme.

Throughout the story, Walker and his men slowly start losing their minds to the atrocities they’re witnessing and committing — evident in both their demeanor and their actual appearance — and at the end, you get a very BioShock-esque flashback to scenes earlier in the game showing the fact that Konrad has actually been dead the entire time. Walker was just so warped that he was talking to the hallucination of him through a broken radio. Not only that, but it reveals that in a scene where you were to choose between killing a man who had stolen water or a man who killed the other man’s family trying to apprehend him, they were — get this — corpses hanging from the bridge and weren’t actually alive at the time. At first it kind of made me “wow” at just how surprising it was, then I started thinking about Lugo and Adams. Why the hell didn’t they say something? If I was in the military and my captain was talking to a broken radio saying, “We need to choose,” at a couple hanging rotted corpses, I’d start to strongly consider going home.



Praise has been showered all over Spec Ops ever since it was released due to how much of a modern art masterpiece it is and how it completely disassembles the modern military shooter on every level. Some people are probably reading this saying, “But it’s not supposed to be fun! You’re supposed to feel bad for trying to enjoy it! It’s an experience, not a game!”  and maybe that person would be right. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t exactly think it’s a good idea to mess with a game’s entertainment value just to prove that people die in war and that Call of Duty isn’t real. You could simulate playing Spec Ops: The Line by watching a slideshow of war victims while listening to the Dead Island piano theme with Charles Manson babbling incoherently in the background, then shut all that off and go play some Uncharted and probably get a more interesting time out of it. The campaign is abysmally short — my first playthrough somehow only managed to take me four hours — though I can’t say I’d be very encouraged to finish it if they panned it out with 6 more hours of shootin’ dudes and looking at burnt corpses.

All in all, through all the critical feelings I have about Spec Ops as a game and a piece of storytelling, it’s still an experience that I’m glad I played through and it’s a sure sign that video games as a whole are growing up into a more mature and compelling medium. Think of Spec Ops as the Kill.Switch of multi-level storytelling, preceding the improved Gears of War. This game isn’t perfect, and there’s so many things that could be done better, but I’m sure it’s going to be the groundwork for something absolutely wonderful in the future and I can’t wait to see what waits for us in 2013 and beyond.

Written by: Cameron Wasmund

I'm not good at not liking games, Hit me up on the twitters.

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  • Jay Curtis

    I hope to see more story-driven shooters like this in the future. Except for Bioshock, it seems like most shooters skip story in favor of gameplay.

    Great article!

  • Spec Ops might be the most divisive release of last year. It was fascinating to listen to my many podcasts throughout the week it came out. I’d complete a session of guys praising the thing beyond belief, telling each other to give it a go on easy to simply experience the story apart from the shortcomings of the actual shooting mechanics. Then, I’d switch over to another and everyone would elaborate on it as a massive disappointment with few redeeming qualities.

    I appreciate that you waited to do this pseudo-review, though, separating yourself from the emotional attachment (seems to be my theme lately). An enthralling story is one thing, but this apparently forced, nonsensical approach seems cheap. Hopefully future developers will realize that they need to do more than tell us to feel bad to invoke a strong response.

  • Hmm, this game is as decisive as it is loathed as it is praised. I don’t think a game NEEDS to be enjoyable to be fun. However, if you want to express a sweeping moral statement, perhaps a videogame isn’t the best choice (though I applaud and praise them for it).

    Still, this is the kind of game the industry needs and I want to see more games that put people on edge.