Do you know those moments where people talk about a game that’s supposedly great but you just sit there awkwardly because you haven’t played it? And people just insist you have to play it? That game was Spec Ops: The Line for me. At least until last week.
I had heard a lot of things about it, particularly during Monday morning lectures of psychology in video games. It was compared to Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness quite a lot. So I was very curious and from the stuff I had heard about it, it seemed very interesting.
Last week, the Humble Store gave Spec Ops: The Line for free for 48 hours. The moment I saw that I grabbed it because I knew it was the moment. I was ready, or so I thought. Some days later, I finished the game and I just sat there thinking “Holy crap” to myself. I wasn’t ready at all. I was a fool for thinking I was ready.
In this week’s Press Start I will talk about why I was so shocked by the game, and it has to do with some of the mechanics and the story, so if you haven’t played Spec Ops: The Line, stop reading and buy it. And don’t make my mistake; you might think you’re ready but you’re not. This is not a game to play when you’re feeling down.
Gentlemen, welcome to Dubai
I knew quite a lot about Spec Ops: The Line way before I bought it, the Internet spoilt it for me. But it was one of those cases where even though I knew most of what would happen, the way those things were done still caught me unawares and provoked a quite heavy emotional response on me.
Mostly, my favourite thing about this game is how it subverts your expectations. Especially if you play a lot of shooters. As usual, there are moments where you feel like a one-man army, you’re indestructible, you’re killing the bad guys, you’re the hero. And Spec Ops: The Line starts that way.
It has you playing the leader of a three man Delta Force team, you go around killing enemies, you can give orders to your squad, there’s banter. And you find out that a former commanding officer is behind the rogue battalion so you want to figure out what’s going on. You disregard your orders because that’s what heroes do; they don’t play by the book because that’s how they save the day. It sounds like the usual fare, but then the game kicks you in the balls and mocks you for thinking that you were the hero of the story.
This is all your fault
Spec Ops: The Line is full of hard choices, like “Save the civilians or save the CIA agent that might help you”, but there’s a moment where the choice is taken from you. You only have one possible choice to advance, you have to use white phosphorus to get rid of a battalion. That’s the only choice, if you try to shoot them directly you’ll eventually run out of ammo and die. If you want to advance, you have to use the white phosphorus.
And at first you have that feeling of “I’m slaughtering my enemies! I’m unstoppable!” but at the end of that scene you find out that there were civilians, and there’s something in you that breaks in that point. Despite hearing about that scene quite a lot, experiencing it was very different. It was so harrowing I had to stop playing the game for a while to recover from it.
And that’s where the game changes, that’s where the game starts playing with you, and mocking you straight away, subverting the whole power/ fantasy aspect.
You are still a good person
The moment with the white phosphorus is the Rubicon in this game, because once you cross it there’s no turning back. And the game starts to change. The changes in the game can be subtle, like some of their clothing getting ripped apart, their wounds becoming more visible as the game goes on. But it also shows in their interactions. At first there’s a lot of playful banter, but as the game goes on, that’s cut to the minimum. And that banter turns into hostility. All because of the stuff you’re forcing them to do.
And then it goes straight into nightmare-fuel territory, because you’ll get hallucinations at certain moments. And some of them can be quite freaky and disorienting the first time. But the thing that will get to you is the loading screens. When the game starts, you get backstory and useful info about weapons and such.
But after the white phosphorus event, you get other messages as well. In those messages the game mocks you. I’m talking about messages like “If you were a better person you wouldn’t be here”, “This is all your fault” and such. Those messages get you ready for the end, where you finally realize that all the horrible things you’ve done in the game have been for nothing. You thought you were a hero but you’re not, you were just an asshole who made things much worse.
It’s interesting that this happens from the moment where you get the only choice you’re forced to do. But then again the designers said there’s a third choice. You stop the game there and go do something else. But that beats the purpose, you bought the game so you have to play it, right? That’s what you get, though. It might not be pretty, but it’s something worth experiencing.
Have you played this game? How did it affect you? Let us know in the comments!
Angry Spaniard, adoptive Irishman. Writer, reader, tea drinker and video game player/designer.