Spec Ops: The Line is one of the most artistically important games I’ve ever played, but it isn’t very fun. Should that be taken as an indictment though? Has every movie you’ve ever watched been “fun?” Was Schindler’s List a rip-rollicking good time? Was Children of Men a laugh a minute?
In Spec Ops: The Line, you play as Delta Force Captain Martin Walker, whose team is sent in to perform reconnaissance in Dubai after the city is nearly buried by biblical level sandstorms. Walker’s secondary objective is to determine the status of the U.S. Army 33rd Battalion, and their commander Colonel John Konrad, who went to Dubai to assist in evacuation, and hasn’t been heard from since.
The game borrows heavily from Joseph Konrad’s Heart of Darkness novel, which if you’ll remember was also the basis for the film Apocalypse Now. But like Coppola’s Vietnam war epic, Spec Ops: The Line borrows only themes like PTSD from Konrad’s book, while maintaining a unique plot line, and presenting a stark criticism of the modern military shooter genre.
In some ways, Spec Ops: The Line defies definition as a game. If I wanted to sound particularly pretentious, I’d relabel it as an interactive drama, or an analysis of modern shooter tropes and conventions. However, Spec Ops: The Line maintains its status as a game by using its mechanics as a metaphor to further draw the player’s attention to them, and comment upon the degree to which these common gameplay devices have become vacuous.
But let’s come back to the idea that Spec Ops: The Line isn’t a very fun game. Gameplay consists of little more than an endless succession of cover-based shooting arenas where enemies tediously emerge from obvious spawn points. Every once in a while Walker will have to take control of an overpowered turret, but even these sections are overlong and often fatiguing.
Yet it appears this banality may have been, at least partially, by design. It may be possible that the game’s developers, Yager, intentionally made the game’s combat a monotonous slog to point out the ennui of military procedure, and cast a negative light on games that lionize such a lifestyle. However, it’s far more likely Yager had a limited budget, and the bromidic gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line is the result of monetary necessity coupled with artistic flexibility.
Where Spec Ops: The Line further challenges player familiarity is in their perception of the protagonist. Captain Walker isn’t a very likable human being, and not in the anti-hero nature that’s common in most player characters. Walker begins as a regular, player insertion, blank slate whose shoes we can peripherally fill, and whose actions we can control.
This melding of motivations is, however, a clever trap. Before you realize it, Walker, and by extension, you, have committed questionable and abominable atrocities, and you’re left questioning who’s to blame, the player or the game.
After playing Spec Ops: The Line, I wasn’t left feeling entertained or charmed, but instead shaken and disturbed. Near the end of the game, Walker and the player are presented with all the terrible actions they’ve taken during their time in Dubai, and the game hits both with a gut punch that would be difficult to duplicate in a non-interactive medium. In one line, Spec Ops: The Line not only berates Walker for his murderous cruelty, but also chastises the player themselves for purposely seeking out a game that justifies and glorifies the barbarism portrayed:
The truth is that you’re here because you wanted to pretend to be something you’re not: A hero.