Spec Ops: The Line is a game with a complicated legacy, especially for those who were not around or paying attention during its initial release. As just about everyone reading this is aware, Yager created this game as a commentary and critique of the military shooter genre that had become wildly popular ever since the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
in 2007. Historical shooters, like the WW2 shooter craze that lasted for a ridiculous amount of time in its own right, have the story told, and can work around that to create setpieces that match or are inspired by the stories we are taught in school. Making a game about a modern setting, such as the Gulf Wars or the "War on Terror" post-9/11 is a lot more challenging because it's both too recent for the full public to get a handle on the seriousness of, and far more insidious than the US government would like you to believe. There is no draft, it takes place in a far-away place, and the "bad guys" have a totally different culture and way of life - it's a perfectly docile war that does not linger much in the back of the average American's mind.
So what's the challenge with portraying these wars in a game, then? For one, historical accuracy is out of the fucking window, because a lot of the truth of certain battles and engagements won't be declassified for a long time. But even things we do know about are recklessly and blatantly distorted to obfuscate the United States' involvement in the atrocity. Take 2019's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
, which framed the real-life American-led bombings and killings on the "Highway of Death" just outside of Kuwait as something that Russia did, and that the good guy Americans were acting on to stop. This type of historical revision is much more popular than one discrete example, as even things like playing adrenaline-pumping music and altering the tone of these engagements as "fair" also count as foul play by the developers. Even more disgusting than the historical misrepresentation, though, is that this was the first wave of games, ever, to desensitize the world to violence that was still being actively perpetuated.
In Medal of Honor
, one can feel eventually desensitized to the violent acts they are committing against the Axis Forces, as they were bound together by ideals of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and rampant imperialism - by nearly every Western account, they were the enemy of the world. Crucially, though, we as a society had enough time to digest the fallout of WW2 over the last 70 years to arrive at that conclusion. It may have been pretty obvious early on to many or most, but that framing has persisted from generation to generation, which creates context that people are willing to play around in as artists. It's a universal truth that if you see the Nazi swastika in a film, the men bearing it are intended to be villains. Now how do you extrapolate that to an ongoing conflict, especially one as asymmetric as the current War on Terror the US is engaging in perpetuity in the Middle East? Who will history see as the aggressor, the victor, the side deserving of sympathy? My guess, although it's predicated on the good faith of a lot of people that don't always provide it, is that America will almost certainly not be seen as heroes in this conflict. But we don't have the historical context and fallout of the wars to yet engrain that in the modern populous. This gets at the heart of the dangers of these modern shooters - they are proactively creating a framing and context for the public at large, subconsciously, by placing the player of a massively successful gaming franchise in the shoes of American military in these settings, garnering sympathy for their cause and experiences.
So not only do modern shooters lack context to explore their themes properly because of the conflict being on-going, they actively create false pretenses by way of boots-on-the-ground perspectives, historical revisionism, and gamifying the murders of Middle Eastern folks of all creeds and cultures, while the real life equivalent is happening simultaneously. That's a whirlwind of propaganda, especially when you take into account that American schools purposefully do not explain much about modern history in grade school or even in high school. For some kids, these games might be the only serious media representation of the Gulf Wars that they experience, and that severely damages their opinion and perspective on a conflict that has, by and large, been unjustifiable imperialist bullshit.
"Ok, but what the fuck does this have to do with the game?" I hear you screaming.
The reason for that wall of context above is that this is the fundamental basis for the existence of Spec Ops: The Line at all. The goal of the game, above all else, is to re-introduce context that portrays these modern conflicts exactly how they are - disgusting beyond belief, with no clear moral victory for American troops, a peak into the un-gamification of war and how even the most remotely disconnected killings (by way of drone, mortar, or other) have massive consequences in real life, and ABOVE ALL ELSE
, that any real-world conflict of this kind results in thousands
of unnecessary deaths of innocent people, and to portray otherwise is sick and irresponsible. I will say, however, that the way the game goes about this is particularly harsh towards the player (who presumably purchased the game for $60 or so upon its first release), which has caused some backlash in the "second wave" of consumers that played the game as it started to be sold for very cheap or included in 2K bundles and the like. So briefly, we've got to talk marketing.
Spec Ops: The Line, as far as I can remember, was not marketed as a deconstruction of the modern shooter. While it did boast an intense new story, the majority of its marketing appeal was to rebrand the admittedly terrible Spec Ops series into something that looked appealing to the brand new market of players that enjoyed modern shooters. At a glance of the gameplay, almost nothing about it looks all that interesting, either - it's a cover-based third person shooter set in Dubai, and you play with very standard weapon types for the genre and shoot a bunch of guys in face coverings. Pretty straightforward and par for the course. However, the realization that this game was not going to be pleasant and give the player the conclusion of the promised super-soldier power fantasy was, in my opinion, meant to be a surprise. At the time, that deconstructionist switch caused a massive spike in critical reception, with some reviewers calling it gaming's answer to "Heart of Darkness." In the current lens of the game's digital life cycle, where it's regularly sold for under $5 and thrown into dozens of different bundles for the cheap, this bait and switch premise is by far
the most widely-known thing about it, which dulls the impact quite a bit in retrospect. In that respect, it's very much gaming's The Sixth Sense
, where unfortunately a bit of novelty is baked into the experience that is lost almost immediately after release, and gets worse with time.
Additionally, some of the approaches to Spec Ops' philosophy are a bit heavy-handed. The infamous quotes of peace and historical wisdom displayed upon death in the Call of Duty games are replaced with direct attacks on the player's moral fiber. Just as a sampling of what you might see:- "To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless."
- "The US military usually does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn't real, so why should you care?"
- "Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously."
and most famously,
- "Do you feel like a hero yet?"
This approach leaves a sour taste in the mouths of those who embrace the game's critique on the genre, who sought out the game specifically to experience how one would begin to deconstruct the modern shooter. Many players are very much in agreement with the premise and identify similar industry-wide problems as the developers at Yager do. This is a bit of an oversight by the developers who clearly meant for the game to infiltrate the average consumer's library and then confront them with the reality of their actions. Framing the player as the antagonist is appropriate in that context - if a bit risky considering they just paid $60 for the game - but its new place in history deems it something so far outside the norm of the shooter canon that it's rarely approached with that perspective in earnest, and now played mostly by those that wish to judge the effectiveness and clarity of its critique. By nature, they must experience the game too, and be put in positions where their ideologies are confronted and questioned, even if they do not hold the subconscious beliefs of the original intended audience. This sums up to an experience and critique that, to put it lightly, has not aged particularly well, as its focus was simply too narrow.
There is a case to be made that Yager were going for a hail-mary play that disregarded the longevity of the game, considering the generic look and branding of the title in an oversaturated market, but it holds itself back by not being able to detach itself from the context of its release. Gaming also has an inherent bias toward the player being able to "solve" the situation they are placed in, which has resulted in many clamoring for the ability to always do the right thing throughout the game, and the lack of such moral options proving that it's a weak critique because the player is never able to act in a pious or beneficial way. Adding these options, though, would be catestrophically hypocritical on behalf of the developers, who intentionally present the situation as it exists in the real-world space it emulates - one without any moral clarity or simple, one-man fixes. Not only does Spec Ops: The Line take on the industry in which is is afforded an existence, but also the player for whom it is designed. There is no written contract with gaming that it must always serve as morally reaffirming comfort, but I do empathize with those who try very hard to do the right thing in Spec Ops and are continually rejected. This is, in a very distilled way, the point: even the "best" choice available is sometimes immoral.
The final point I'd like to address is that all of the atrocities seen and executed by the player in Spec Ops: The Line are completely out of self-preservation. If the three soldiers you command throughout the game were killed in the initial confrontation in the outskirts of Dubai, there is reason to believe that hundreds if not thousands of lives would have been saved. The final choice that the game presents you with is to continue playing it. Every fight is perpetuated specifically to keep the player alive and to make "progress" through the narrative, so if you were to give up on making progress, these digital lives could be saved, and you'd have less blood on your hands. This is a completely unprecedented design choice up until the point of Spec Ops' release, and it's a bit contentious due to the consumerist nature of the industry. "You really want me to just stop playing a game I paid money for?" is a question that is commonly discussed. However, in contrast to the game's slowly dwindling "gotcha" that has come to define the genre, this choice posed to the player ages like a fine wine, becoming increasingly more appealing as the price point of entry for the game continues to decrease. Eventually, if this game were to be released as freeware, its most crucial and controversial element may be actualized: choosing to walk away becomes an option that is untethered to the human instinct to feel a sense of ownership over that which their dollars buy.
In closing, I do think that Spec Ops is a very conceptually strong game with good, if unempathetic methods of getting those concepts across. Its execution is shaky at times, and it resides a lot in the realm of satire for its 2012 contemporaries; games are increasingly being perceived as isolated experiences, and Spec Ops is one of the few that truly cannot be detached from the world it was made in. It is highly experimental and occasionally outright confrontational to the player both as a person and a consumer, and as a result is not guaranteed to be a pleasant or even comfortable experience for many. I do think that very few games warrant such discussion and that to alter some of the fundamental design decisions would be to undermine the message behind the madness, even if that means going against some of the most sacred "unwritten rules" of engagement that games have historically had with the player. Spec Ops: The Line will likely stand the test of time as a game studied for both its courage and the controversy it sought to create.