Strap in, folks, ’cause we’re talking about Spec Ops: The Line, and that means it’s about to get pretentious.
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
Do videogames have to be fun? It’s a question more and more people have been asking lately, usually hand-in-hand with “do videogames have to be games?” In some ways, it’s more a failure of language than of anything else – The Stanley Parable doesn’t fit even one of the qualifications that makes something a game (no failure state, no clear objective, etc.) but it’s one of the best and most engrossing videogames I’ve ever played.
Everyone has an opinion on this issue, and here’s mine: no entertainment product has to be fun. A good example that most of you are probably familiar with is Schindler’s List, which is a powerful, masterful film that means a lot to a lot of people (myself included) but doesn’t exactly make you want to crack open a cold one and play it again once you’ve finished it. It’s too upsetting to be fun or enjoyable to watch, but it is nonetheless a good movie and a good piece of art. And while that particular example may not resonate with you, I’m sure there are others: Roots or Hotel Rwanda come to mind in film, while literature has even more examples ranging from The Catcher In The Rye to La Peste.
Gaming doesn’t have as many works that are trying not to be fun, and while there are plenty of other people who would make this argument, I don’t think it’s because games are any less mature as a medium. I think it’s because gaming as an artistic medium is entirely unlike anything else in that it turns the audience into an active participant. The problem is that while I like entertainment that’s depressing, upsetting, or disturbing, the one thing no entertainment product can ever be is boring. And when you start removing agency and comfort from a game’s control scheme, that’s pretty quickly what you end up with. Take Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, for example, a game which may have an interesting story somewhere in its depths but which is buried under hours and hours of walking and nothing. And no, The Chinese Room, the problem isn’t that I’m not smart enough to “get” your narrative-driven exploration game, the problem is that your narrative-driven exploration game has to involve literally anything other than slowly walking.
It’s really hard to make a game that is both not fun and not boring. Which is why it’s all the more impressive that Spec Ops: The Line’s gameplay manages to pull it off perfectly.
If you’re not familiar (and it’s entirely possible that that’s the case), Spec Ops: The Line is a gray-and-brown realistic military shooter that came out in a time when the industry was choking to death on gray-and-brown realistic military shooters. Everything about the game – from its alphabet soup title to its man-walks-towards-camera cover art to the fact that it was technically a reboot of some series no one had ever heard of – seemed to be designed to make it appear as generic as possible. Do I even need to tell you that it opens with a cutscene in a helicopter? Or that the player character, Captain Martin Walker, is a square-jawed brown-haired white guy voiced by Nolan North?
But as you go through the game, everything seems…wrong. From the moment Captain Walker and his two soldiers arrive in war-torn Dubai, nothing’s what they expected it to be – instead of a safe reconnaissance mission, they find sandstorms, massive civilian casualties, and worse. Walker decides to change the mission parameters to try and find and kill the possibly defective Colonel Konrad, but his quest seems to be less about finding and defeating a villain than it is trying to prove to himself that there is a villain, that there’s a reason for all of this horror and that removing the cause will stop the effects. Konrad himself seems early on like the sort of charismatic, manipulative villain that would later become the staple of the Far Cry franchise and similar, but it’s never really clear if he’s on the US’ side or not, or whether such distinctions even matter here in Hell.
In short: The Line took the military shooter genre and turned it on its head, holding up a mirror to the wannabe Rambos of the world and asking “Is this really who you want to be?” But while the game was rightly praised for its gripping, tightly-written narrative, almost every reviewer complained about the gameplay. Reviewers claimed – and these are all quotes – that they “didn’t feel particularly crafty [when] shooting” and “didn’t feel like [they were] surviving by [their] skill and wits,” that the guns were “difficult to aim” or not “weighty” enough – in short, that the gameplay was “unsatisfying.” Believe it or not, I think every one of these features is actually a good thing.
Why? Because it would be absolutely awful to make a game about the horrors of war – a game that’s specifically about taking a hard look at the most popular genre of the time and asking “should we really be glorifying this?” – and making it a balls-to-the-wall action adventure. This industry loves to criticize Bioshock Infinite’s “ludonarrative dissonance” because a game about the effects of violence set in a violent world with a violent main character has violence in it, but doesn’t seem to see the hypocrisy in suggesting that an anti-war game should make war fun.
What I really like about Spec Ops’ gameplay is that they could have made it more frustrating by making it hyper-realistic – having guns that jam or limiting ammo to what you bring with you or having one-shot kills, etc. Instead, it’s more about taking popular mechanics of the time and turning them on their head. For example: this was the time when series like Battlefield and Red Faction were talking up their destructible environments, and Spec Ops made a point of hyping their physics up too (though whether this was the decision of the developers or a marketing team that had no idea what they were doing is anyone’s guess.) But the breakable environments in Spec Ops are annoying – causing sandstorms or shooting windows just makes it harder to see, forcing you to wait for it to pass. If you actually are able to use them to take out a turret nest, the kill is quick and unsatisfying – you feel like there should be more of a rush when you drop a building on a guy’s head, and your discomfort with the mechanics mirrors Captain Walker’s increasing discomfort with his own willingness to kill.
Likewise, I think that the fact that grenades are a pain in the ass is, quite frankly, brilliant. In almost every respect, Spec Ops’ cover-based shooting is copy-pasted from Gears of War, like thousands of other games at the time. Yet it takes away one of that series’ most important mechanics – the dodge roll. A grenade in Gears of War forces you to react fast, but after quickly rolling away and rolling back you’re dropped right back into the pulse-pounding action. In Spec Ops, a grenade is basically a death sentence. You can’t throw it back, you can’t roll out of the way – your only option is to turn and run, which inexplicably requires you to awkwardly double-tap the run button to disengage from cover. One reviewer complained that this mechanic means that, in the multiplayer, “elevation and good cover will win a firefight nine times out of ten.” This quote is, quite frankly, hilarious. What? You mean that wars aren’t won by whoever’s the most skilled or the most pure-of-heart, but by the more-or-less random whims of territory and environmental factors, cruelly dictating who deserves to live and die based on what scrap of ground they happen to be holding at the time? Huh. Weird. (Incidentally, what kind of anti-war game would make it fun to shoot and kill other real-life people, even via virtual avatars.)
What I think a lot of people may have missed is that Spec Ops isn’t just about war. It’s about videogames about war. It takes away the player’s agency at every turn – not so much that it becomes dull or so frustrating that you don’t want to keep playing – but enough that nothing ever quite feels like it should. You expect the AI to be responsive, but enemies usually just kinda dimly stand there until you kill them. You don’t feel anything when they die. Should you? The amazing thing about Spec Ops is that you’re not quite sure. Overwatch tells you you should feel like a badass. Telltale’s The Walking Dead tells you you should feel like a piece of shit. Spec Ops simply presents you with a difficult situation and asks – literally, at the end of the game – “Well? Are you a hero or aren’t you?”
This is what the game should be, but wouldn’t dare to be in the hands of a lesser developer. Captain Walker’s quest is about his internal struggle with the atrocities he and his fellow soldiers have committed, but I’d argue it’s mostly about his attempt to find meaning in this world. He desperately needs for Konrad to be a villain. He needs to believe that the civilians he killed were really the 33rd’s fault. It’s not just Walker, either – CIA Agent Riggs destroys the city’s water supply because he wants to cover up the actions of the 33rd, not to make America look good, but so that they can all just forget this ever happened. In the same way, the player feels like they need the comforting security of knowing what kind of game this is. They need it to conform to either the doctrine of Gears of War-esque fun or for its mechanics to be clearly trying to mimic the realistic nature of war its story seems to be trying to present, not this weird hodgepodge of design decisions that seem like they don’t make any sense.
And while we’re talking about this game and the problems people have with it, there’s a vocal contingent of gamers and critics who have a problem with the way games like Spec Ops present immoral choices. There’s hundreds of memes making fun of the idea that a game would force you to do something bad – like kill civilians with white phosphorous – and then make you feel like a horrible person for doing that bad thing. After all, they argue, given the choice they clearly wouldn’t have done the bad thing in the first place, so they feel like the game’s guilt-tripping them for something that isn’t their fault. There’s a conversation to be had there, sure, but I think that in the case of this game – where a lot of this type of criticism originated – the white phosphorus scene absolutely works. In fact, it works better as something that’s totally out of your control, because that’s the kind of decision that a soldier has to deal with – an order. In many ways, the game is your commanding officer, forcing you to do these horrible things and then expecting you to just shoulder the guilt. And it contributes to the overall feeling the game is trying to instill in its players – not the feeling that you’re a horrible person, but the feeling that you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be doing, what you’re supposed to be feeling. “I wouldn’t really have done that,” you mumble nervously, looking at the ravaged corpses of these innocent people. “I was just doing what the game told me.”
There have been a lot of stories about how soldiers can justify doing terrible things in the name of “just following orders.” There’s only one story that actually makes the audience justify those same things in their own mind. And if the fact that you (me, anyone) can so easily slip into that mindset due to the machinations of something so cosmically insignificant as a videogame doesn’t rock you to your core, then I don’t know what to tell you.
Oliver Stone famously wrote the script for Platoon after waking up one night and deciding that “If I have to have nightmares about ‘Nam, everyone has to have nightmares about ‘Nam.” Though that quote is disputed (and is probably completely made up), many films have specifically worked to create a sense of deep unease in its audience, including Full Metal Jacket – which is a personal favorite of mine in part due to how it uses sound and music to put the viewer on edge – and Apocalypse Now, which heavily inspired this very game. But I’d argue no film has ever taken that idea as far as Spec Ops: The Line, because it’s an idea that can’t just be expressed in writing – it has to be felt, it has to be experienced, it has to be – for lack of a better word – played. Now, I understand that this means the game isn’t for everyone – hell, I’ll confess that I’ve only managed to play through The Line once because I found it so upsetting. Nor do I think that every game should take the same approach; I love games like The Line or Pathologic that buck the idea that games need to be “fun” to be engaging, but I can also enjoy the mindless guilt-free fun of Wolfenstein 3D or Rocket League. And I will even accept that it’s entirely possible that many of the frustrating gameplay aspects I’m praising here are the result of coincidence and nine years of development hell rather than author intent.
But no matter what the reason, Spec Ops: The Line has perfect gameplay. If it was the fun run-and-gun shooter so many people wanted it to be, I don’t think it would have had nearly the impact or been nearly the achievement it was. The fact that it constantly makes you question your assumptions about good gameplay and makes you feel frustrated and upset doesn’t just make the game better – it’s what makes the game.
If I enjoyed playing it, it wouldn’t be a masterpiece.