Wait until you’re growing ashen hair and wearing wrinkled skin. By that time, you’ll be looking back at Spec Ops: The Line as one of the most important games in the medium’s history. Something we lack in our world — in our preferred story telling medium, is a concept that’s been experimented with in every art but videogames: subtle reflexivity. Our ability to look inwards, to criticize, evaluate and properly understand this art through its own constituents, is minimal at best. However with the past generation, developers have dipped their toes into the reflexive waters of the interactive arts. Reflexivity’s been excellently touted by the Bioshock series, and most recently, by Spec Ops: The Line.
The game serves as a comment on military interventions, post-traumatic stress disorder and an incredibly dark satire of the modern military shooter. Although, while Yager Development wrote an exceptional story, they bit off more than they could chew. Amongst the themes of violence, heroism and the absurdity of military shooters, Yager interlaces the subject of player responsibility. I can’t say it was shoehorned in — it’s a theme that’s enforced as the game progresses — only it doesn’t coalesce with the entire story.
Responsibility entails agency. It’s an idea that’s affixed to a person who has the ability to make a decision in a given context. Though for this concept to take any actual effect, the decision can’t be the inherent playing of the game. In other words, the player can’t be held responsible for decisions they didn’t make, but were instead scripted by the direction of the narrative.
Yager wrote some truly gut-wrenching scenarios and for that I applaud them. There’s a barrier where the player is forced to choose between the lives of two men to progress. I did feel responsible when I learnt that I could circumvent murder. There’s a scene where the player has to shoot a civilian, enticing a crowd to disperse — wrong again, I could’ve simply shot into the air. These were decisions I made, through stipulations I assumed, because that’s the kind of rote thinking I had learnt from other shooters, and before playing this devilishly brilliant game.
But these moments, as astute as they may be, are in fact few and far in between. Therefore, decisions, and by that virtue responsibilities, are seldom burdened. I’d leave this minor dissonance between choices and overarching plot unscathed, however I began to reach points where the game would accuse me of actions the player has no control over.
There’s a heavy emphasis placed on the gruesome mass execution of civilians by means of white phosphorus. It’s a powerful scene enforcing once again, the absurdity of military shooters and the atrocities of war. It’s an action played out by the protagonist, Martin Walker, however it’s the only option the player has. When the player first reaches the white phosphorous, one squad-mate, John Lugo, proposes that another method must be available — he claims “there is always a choice.” To which Walker responds, “there’s really not.” So I spent about twenty minutes continually repeating the checkpoint as I scrounged about for a less deranged means to complete the objective. Unfortunately, this time spent looking for another avenue was in vain, as Walker was right, there was no other option. As horrifying as this scene was, I took my failure with a grain of salt as the narrative is clearly trying to convey a criticism of war and the videogames it influences.
But Spec Ops loses its balance as it begins to criticize the player through rhetorical censure sprawled across its loading screens. They try to divulge a reaction from the player, by taunting them for decisions that they can’t be held accountable for. Upon loading a particular level, the player is asked: “How many Americans have you killed today?” This somewhat disrupts the overall goal of the narrative, by interweaving responsibility for ironclad plot points. The player had no choice in the matter; Americans were killed because they shot at the protagonist and retaliation was the only means to progress. In this situation, the label of “American” is stripped because the label of “hostile” takes precedence. It’s a quick, simple, and cheap manner to evoke emotion, though it falls flat on its face. The player has no way to bypass killing “Americans” and thusly can’t be held responsible for eliminating hostiles. These loading screens prove to be inimical to the rhythm of the game’s narrative, and merely condemn the player for playing the game, lessening Yager’s core intentions.
Another loading screen alludes to the alleged actions of the player in the aforementioned white phosphorus mission. The bottom of the screen holds text stating that the US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants, but the player shouldn’t care because they’re not real. The entire statement is an excellent shot at war casualties — more specifically, in military shooters. But the problem with this statement is once again, the lack of control the player had in said situation.
Rebuking the player like this doesn’t fit with the overall flow of the narrative and its aims. For the player to accept responsibility, the game needs to have consistent occurrences for the player to be held accountable. This is best exemplified by games like Dishonored, where non-violence is an option, or in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, where the narrative has certain plot twists set in stone, but the player is wholly responsible for the protagonist’s decisions. It may sound like I’m getting defensive about what the game accused me of, but my issues are actually along the lines of how the game — for the most part — failed to engage responsibility and therefore diluted its key objectives by suggesting the very idea.
In a reflexive title like Spec Ops: The Line, any occasion that plainly communicates with the player must be handled with absolute prudence. By continually trying to interweave responsibility within a game already saturated with reflexivity, Yager slightly harms the cadence of the narrative. Though despite any miscalculations that cloud its core intentions, Spec Ops: The Line is still an excellent example of how games can be used to study themselves, and at the same time, make a comment about the world we live in.