Spec Ops: The Line

What I Learned From “Spec Ops The Line”

It’s been a while, so let me recap: “What I Learned” essays are not game reviews in the traditional sense. Rather, I talk about what I learned as a designer from playing the game in question. Sometimes I learn awesome things from terrible games, and sometimes games I love don’t actually give me any new insights.

This past weekend, I played Spec Ops: The Line….

Wait, before I start. This essay will not just “contain spoilers” as we mere mortals understand it — I will ruin the entire game for you. I will spoil this game like five-month old milk. Here be spoilers. Spoiler alert. Seriously, I’m going to talk about the end of this fucking game, a lot. If you haven’t played it, just know that it is not a typical shooter, and the narrative is worth the six or so hours it’ll take to get through it. Come back when you’re done. I’ll be here.

(Oh, and avoid the comments, too. Spoilers there as well, most likely.)

Okay. That was fucked up, wasn’t it?

There’s actually been a lot of ink spilled about Spec Ops: The Line . There has been discussion about how it’s a deconstruction of the shooter genre, about how it’s an elegant send-up of the fossilized and jingoistic tropes of modern FPS games, and blah blah blah. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all good stuff, but it’s not what I’m interested in as a designer.

For purposes of discussion, the key relevant point is that the protagonist and player avatar, Captain Walker, is actually insane, and much of what the game goes into is in his mind. In fact, the game itself is an unreliable narrator. This is not the first time a game has lied to me, but this is the first time I was really blown away by it. This isn’t a case of the game just saying “fuck you” and crossing its arms, but rather the game was giving me bad information that looked like good information. What’s worse, I didn’t realize the information was bad until about halfway through. The final chapter of the game (which I did see it coming), did put much of the game into perspective. Decisions I wasn’t realizing I was making suddenly took on a greater significance.

While it was ham-fisted at times, the idea is captivating. We rely on honest, “real” information from our games so much that when it lies to us, it comes as a real betrayal. But The Line is more clever and subtle than that. A lot of little decisions really sells this twist for me, and they add up to some fascinating learning points to consider as a designer.

  • Decisions were not parceled out. That is, there wasn’t any place where the decision was spelled out in giant letters with “Press A for Yes or B for No.” They were all integrated into the gameplay, making them very natural. Once, I even accidentally made a decision by slipping and killing an ally. The moral decisions weren’t in neat little gameplay airlocks, and as a result everything felt much more real and personal.
  • Decisions were not harped on. There wasn’t really a lot of end-game “This is all because you did X or Y.” Instead, it was a growing, building sensation, a realization that I did some horrible things in the name of war (and gameplay). The game didn’t tell me I was a bad person; rather, it gave me some time to come to that conclusion myself. The end where I get the choice to shoot Walker (i.e., myself) or the hallucination of Konrad allowed me to decide my own fate. The game doesn’t judge me, but it does give me the opportunity to judge myself.
  • Decisions were tied to gameplay mechanics. All of this was tied to the core design: a modern military shooter. A good example of this is picking up ammo. If you injure but not kill an enemy, he doesn’t drop his ammo. Ammo is in just short enough supply that you probably need it. If you push a button near the dying enemy, you beat him to death and take his ammo. At first, it’s just a bit of flourish, but over time it gets more and more brutal, and I found myself more and more looking for alternatives. (And of course, I was needing more and more ammo, so I had to keep killing.) The more I played the game, the more the game lied to me, telling me I was a hero while simultaneously proving I wasn’t.

The game has flaws — it’s a mediocre shooter, it has awkward controls (tying the sprint button and the cover button to the same key was irritating, for example), and the story is a bit hard to follow in parts. But the acting, writing, and visuals, combined with a compelling premise and a devotion to tying it all to gameplay, is really astounding. I finished the game 48 hours ago, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s the first shooter since Bioshock that I’m seriously considering installing for another playthrough down the line.

The idea of an unreliable narrator in video games is still one fraught with peril (yes, I’m still bitter, The Path), but Spec Ops: The Line shows that video games are maturing to the point where we can successfully (if inelegantly) subvert its own tropes to good effect.

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