McMillan’s Codex #41 By C.T. McMillan
Spec Ops: The Line
Have you ever watched or read something that changed you so profoundly you could not look at the world the same way? Apocalypse Now was a film that made me realize the psychological and spiritual damage of the Vietnam War and war in general. As someone who has friends with PTSD, the movie rang true with the insatiable need to return to the front and the hypocrisy of superiors denying soldiers the opportunity to continue fighting. Movies at the time were too scared to approach the subject and the technology had to catch up a long time before videogames could explore the same themes. Metal Gear was the first to touch on war and trauma, but Spec Ops: The Line took the subject into places that transcend the medium.
From the outset the gameplay is nothing special. Like Order 1886 and Mass Effect, the combat is tacked on and ordinary with the same third-person cover based mechanics seen in any number of titles. There is also multiplayer that arguably did not need to exist. There is nothing to break up the banality of the gameplay because that is exactly what the game is trying to do.
The Line unapologetically takes after Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the story of a boat captain in search of an ivory trader in the Congo, and the same story that inspired Apocalypse Now. The source material was an examination of imperialism and the movie was an updated version with similar themes in the context of the Vietnam War. The game draws more from movie in a modern sense while looking at the genre of military shooters with an introspective eye. The game uses tropes and clichés to explore the genre with a degree of realism.
One of the ways the game does this is making the enemies American soldiers. They are very talkative, taunting, pleading, and screaming aloud, a choice I feel was intentional. Often times the enemy is foreign to identify whom you are supposed to fight. While this is unavoidable when choosing an adversary, there is also a dehumanizing effect. You, the English-speaking protagonist, is the hero up against foreign hordes hell-bent on spreading terror. There comes a time you stop seeing the enemy as people and just things that must die. The Line subverts this concept by making the enemy relatable. You understand what they are saying and never feel comfortable about killing them.
The game treats the events and their effects on the three main characters as if they were real. Once levelheaded military types, they become visibly and emotionally broken while you move from one point to another. The story begins to take a toll with the characters demoralized and their traumatized personalities coming to the fore. The protagonist Walker begins very clean-cut before he is dirtied, bloody, and unrecognizable at the end. In dialog, his voice becomes gravellier and will curse to himself instead of calling out hostiles and reloads.
In a way The Line cheaply punishes you for playing to make the overall point. The most significant example of this happens when you must clear a path using a mortar. As per military shooters, your perspective changes to a bird’s eye view with an infrared filter to choose where to drop white phosphorous. There is a clever touch where you see your character reflected in the screen picking targets, but the power of the scene is brought down significantly. Without giving anything away, you are confronted with a questionable situation that you cannot circumvent if you want to progress. Though the pay off for your actions is compelling, the shock does not change the fact you had no choice because the game’s script made you. Not only do you feel awful, you get angry at the game for making this event take place.
However, I think this plays into the game’s critique of the military shooter genre. In similar situations from other games, we as players have been conditioned to attack anyone on screen that is highlighted in white. Since Modern Warfare this has become a blatant cliché, one of many used in The Line to make us reconsider what the genre is all about.
Would I say the game changed my perception of war and shooters? Well, no because I do not need a videogame to remind me war is terrible and videogames are not real. But Spec Ops: The Line is one of few titles to even approach the subject in a manner that exploits the very nature of videogames. The game is an achievement that should have been better acknowledged at the time of release and now is as good a time as any for appreciation.
C.T. McMillan (Episode 169) is a film critic and devout gamer. He has a Bachelors for Creative Writing in Entertainment from Full Sail University.