Spec Ops: the Line is the military shooter game released in 2012 developed my Yager. Although Spec Ops series had existed before, the Line does not share story with the previous games.
The story premise is as follows; Dubai was hit by the disastrous sandstorm, and Colonel John Konrad of 33rd Battalion refused to follow the order and decided to remain in Dubai to save people. Dubai was buried in sand, and in the end UAE declared Dubai a no-man’s land. But two weeks before the story starts, there was a radio transmission from Konrad, claiming that evacuation of Dubai was failure, and too many people are dead. So the US military sent three Delta Force team, consisted of Captain Martin Walker (voiced by Nolan North, who participated in Uncharted series as Nathan Drake), Staff Sergeant John Lugo, and Lieutenant Alphonse Adams. The Delta Force enters Dubai and faces not only physical, but psychological dangers as well.
This game was peculiar in many ways. Although it is considered a military shooter, the gameplay itself does not stand out much. It is a typical TPS with cover system and battle management system where you can order your teammates to perform certain tasks. You carry two weapons, can attack melee or executions. You can shoot glasses or barriers to bury your enemies in sand but you won’t see that often. And multiplayer is terrible. Even the developers said they did not feel any need to make multiplay but had to make one because of publisher’s demand.
But this game earned so much praises, because of its narrative.
At first, the game seems like a typical military shooter; your protagonist is a dutiful soldier, accompanied by cynical sniper and hard-working fellow soldier. The game is even set in the Middle East. But as the player progress through the game, it twists all the clichés. The majority of enemies you fight are the 33rd Battalion, your fellow American soldiers. They attack you on sight, and you cannot negotiate (like any other military shooters). You will witness the atrocities committed by the 33rd Battalion throughout Dubai, such as massacres, tortures, and infamous white phosphorous usage. Also, you will commit such atrocities yourself, not because you are playing as a villain, but because your protagonist Captain Walker wanted to help.
Yes, the Captain Walker is the stereotypical American hero type soldier – he is dutiful, loyal to his comrades, and wants to do the right thing. He will explain to his teammates that they are in Dubai to do the right thing and make sure those who started the atrocity pay for what they have done. But his actions make situation worse; he thought he was fighting the bad guys, but he ended up killing civilians in the most horrible way possible. Walker helps CIA agent to steal the only water supply left in Dubai to force the 33rd Battalions to surrender, but in the end the water supply is destroyed and the people in Dubai will die of thirst within few days. Throughout all the atrocities he commits, Captain Walker continues to justify his actions by blaming Konrad. But in the end, Walker faces the truth he wanted to avoid.
The changes the Delta Force goes through are exhibited continuously. In the beginning of the game, the characters communicate in professional language and tone. No swears, no overt frustration, just plain and simple disciplinary languages. But after going through several traumatic events, the characters will swear more often and yell in frustrated voices. Their looks will become more scarred and behaviours will become more barbaric. Their initially “heroic” attitudes will be replaced with violent and vengeful attitudes, but why are they being vengeful? If Walker had walked away after seeing that the situation in Dubai was horrible, none of this would have happened. And there were situations got worse with the lack of communications. Walker repeatedly tells other characters that “there is no other way”, but really? You have to wonder what could have happened, if Walker tried to negotiate with the troops at “the Gate”. Lugo questions whether the use of white phosphorous is the only option, but Walker ignores Lugo’s opinion.
One change I found it ironic and chilling was Adams’; when Gould was captured Adams suggests that they should rescue the civilians. Fast forward few hours later, Adams asks Walker’s permission to fire at the angry civilians. These dramatic changes effectively portray how war turns people into monsters.
This game directly asks you the questions too. The loading screen will continuously talk to you and it does not have much pleasant things to say. After killing innocent civilians, the loading screen will ask “do you feel like a hero yet?” and mock your sense of heroism and escapism you feel from playing typical shooters. How many times have you played as a hero who solves every problem with guns? In pretty much every shooter out there. Your hands may be soaked in blood by the end of the game, but no other games made you question your actions. This game does. Spec Ops: The Line asks you if all those bloodsheds were necessary by forcing you into the downward spiral, and mocking your actions. Novels and other narrative arts have done similar things by constantly placing the characters in living hells, but this rarely happened in video games.
Spec Ops: The Line may not have the best gameplay overall, but it certainly shows how narrative can be used in the games. It does force your decisions, but the game provides deep emotional impact to the gamers in the way only games can. Simply seeing a character committing an atrocity feels different from you actually committing those atrocities, and because you “did” those monstrosities you may ponder about the matter deeper.