In this run of Critical Contrast we’ve followed the story of mankind’s capacity for savagery (both on an individual and societal basis) through two mediums: the original literature (1899’s “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad) and the film that was inspired by it (1979’s “Apocalypse Now” directed by Francis Ford Coppola). Their thoughtful pieces, slow-paced and steeped in allegory-a descent into humanity’s evil nature.
These are not the words that come to mind when looking at the cover of 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line by Yager Development. You’re far more likely to think things like “Call of Duty,” or “generic.”
For those who haven’t played this third-person shooter modern warfare game, that’s exactly what it is, but you should go and play it. No seriously, don’t read up on it first go in completely blind, it works best that way and this article is riddled with spoilers, so come back as soon as your done. Heres some Jimi to listen to as you download it from steam:
Feel like a piece of shit don’t you? Good. Because The Line isn’t just as third-person shooter modern warfare game. It’s an indictment of them.
Outwardly The Line might appear a simple update of Apocalypse Now’s critique on the US military, The Iraq War being another of their long, drawn out fuck ups that went towards defining a generation, but this is simply set dressing for its true target- the slew of post COD4 military shooters that dominated the market, whose story elements veered dangerously close to jingoistic moral absolutism with every annual release.
With this target in mind, The Line shifts much of its self-proclaimed influences to the side. It’s set in a middle eastern desert, no ones named Kurtz and no one says “The horror” (unless you count the achievements), but just as Apocalypse Now was forced to adapt Heart’s story and themes for its medium, so does The Line, creating an infinitely more personal descent into humanity’s evil nature.
So let’s find out how it achieves it, you war crime committing bastard!
SPEC OPS: THE LINE
“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”
Spec Ops: The Line plunges the player into the fray, commanding a minigun on a black hawk helicopter pursued by an unknown enemy and with infinite ammo your take to your simple task- the instant gratification of a turret section.
Flashing back to earlier, we learn the situation. Six months prior to The Line, the city of Dubai was struck by a cataclysmic sandstorm turning it into the world’s most opulent ruin. Before the storms cut off all communications, decorated US army Colonel John Konrad (Voiced by Bruce Boxleitner) volunteered his battalion (the “damned” 3rd) to aid the relief efforts, defying orders to abandon the city. Nothing was heard from Dubai until two weeks ago when a faint, repeating signal penetrated the storm wall surrounding the city:
“This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll: too many.”
The US military send a covert Delta Recon Team consisted of 1st Lieutenant Alphanso Adams (Christopher Reid), Staff Sergeant John Lugo (Omid Abtahi) and the player character, Captain Martin Walker (Nolan North). Their mission is simple- locate survivors, leave the city, and radio command from outside the storm wall.
The Line works to put players at ease by looking and feeling like the games it targets. The in medias res turret section is cathartic and makes the player feel badass, and as a cover shooter, the gameplay is instantly familiar to modern gamers, complimented by squad commands, execution mechanics and a mild bullet time effect with each successful headshot. When we’re introduced to Delta they’re light heartened but professional, swapping jokes and one liners to pass the time- archetypes designed to puts us in the comfortable shoes of stereotype. Adams is the professional, Lugo the quip leaden heart and soul, and Walker, whose attitude allies with most player’s wish to just proceed and stop asking questions.
As Delta head into the seemingly deserted Dubai, they’re attacked by armed survivors (referred to as Insurgents), who are fighting with the remains of the 3rd and taking any prisoners to “The Nest.” Walker decides to intervene and rescue the captive American soldiers.
So far, so clear-cut, but as Delta fight their way through the sand smothered ruins, they discover to their confusion that the CIA is behind the Insurgency, pitting the refugees against the 3rd, who after declaring martial law resorted to increasingly barbaric methods to maintain order. Representing the 33ed is not Konrad, but the Radioman (Jake Busey), a journalist turned DJ similar to the photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. The 33ed attack Delta, believing them to be CIA, and Walker concludes that the 33ed has gone rogue. Discovering the 33ed rounding up civilians from The Nest, Delta are forced to shoot US soldiers to defend the civilians. Disturbed by the killing of fellow Americans, Lugo and Adams repeatedly urge Walker to leave Dubai, but Walker insists on investigating further in hopes of evacuating survivors and finding Konrad, whom he trusts implicitly after the latter saved his life in a previous encounter.
Their relationship strained, Delta narrowly escape a trap laid by the Radioman (a homage to Apocalypse Now), with the help of CIA agent Gould, who is captured and killed despite Delta’s intervention, but plans found on his body direct Delta to The Gate, a heavily entrenched 33rd base- too strong for the three-man squad to handle. The only way for them to proceed is through the use of white phosphorus- a chemical based munition which burns its targets alive. Lugo voices his opposition to using the mortar, but Walker pulls rank, saying there isn’t any choice.
Things are about to go very wrong.
Lugo launches a thermal Imaging camera above the battlefield, and Walker (you) is tasked with calling out targets for the white phosphorus mortar- machine gun emplacements, hummers, tight groups of enemies firing at your position etc. You target your enemies on mass, and up ahead you spot a large group of white dots clustered at the end of the battlefield. Gamer instincts kick in, and you ignore the screams of the dying in favour of the multikill, wiping them out in one shot. The dust settles, and Walker’s (you) face is reflected in the screen.
When it’s all over, you drop down to see the destruction you’ve caused first hand. Burning wreckage wreathed in smoke, the pitiful cries of dying American soldiers coming from every side. As you reach one dying soldier, the cut scene takes hold. He asks you “why?”
“You brought this on yourself,” Walker (you) replies. Pained confusion crosses his face.
“We were helping.” His dying breaths pitiful.
The scene cuts to show you that cluster of white dots- civilians from The Nest. Innocent men, women and children moved for their safety but burned alive by you, likely with some satisfaction before the truth was revealed. The squad walk through the mutilated dead; bodies frozen in the throes of a needlessly agonising death; wounds rendered in gruesome detail as the camera pans across. The squad are dismayed. The camera focuses between Walker’s face as he tries desperately to internalise his actions and what he stares at- a woman, her face melted away by the chemical, clutching her equally mutilated child to her charred remains.
In the background, Lugo breaks “This is your fault, goddamnit!” He shouts at Walker (you). Walker makes his decision:
“I’m gonna make these bastards pay, for what they’ve done. Now are you with me or not?”
The squad move on silently, Walker taking one last look at the woman and child as he leaves.
Unlike Heart and Apocalypse Now’s sequence of events tied to the theming (society’s barbarity then Kurtz’s personnel descent), The Line is structured around this single scene. It’s The Line’s raison d’etre: tasking the player with completing simple objectives with simple mortality but without all the necessary information, resulting in complex, horrifying consequences which the game blames you alone for- culpability in recontextualisation.
Even before the White Phosphorus, The Line pushes players towards committing immoral acts. The simple, arcade style gameplay lets the player lose themselves in morally clear-cut action, only for the game to yank them back by muddying the waters narratively, swapping the contemporary cannon fodder of Islamic Insurgents for American soldiers to unnerve western audiences, or more bluntly, like this:
In The Nest, the level design forces players down tight, dark corridors during hectic fire fights, then sends civilians to the jumpy, itchy trigger fingers of the inattentive. Personal execution of dying soldiers rewards players with ammunition, treating them as a resource rather than people, and occasionally The Line will make you choose between two ambiguous outcomes (eg saving agent Gould or saving the civilians nearby), and whilst they don’t influence the plot per say (Gould dies regardless), they do actively engage the player’s mortality, making them feel culpable.
These instances are used as a constant criticism of modern military shooters’ tendency to boil down complex geopolitical conflicts and the horrors of warfare to “shoot the brown men to progress,” but also tie into our primary theme: descent into savagery away from society’s checks.
Akin to Apocalypse Now, The Line shows this descent both visually and audibly. In the face of their mistake, Delta’s professionalism and comradery begin to crack and erode; once restrained calls of “Kill confirmed” become emotional shouts of “got the fucker;” swift, merciful execution kills become drawn out and visceral, Walker (you) taking his time to maim his opponents and look them in the eyes before pulling the trigger. Even Walker’s physical appearance visibly deteriorates throughout the campaign:
It’s also worth noting that even the level design often has the player descending, either by rappelling and zip lining down buildings, or basing combat areas around staircases- an opportunity for metaphor unique to the medium.
As Delta make their way through The Gate, Colonel Konrad begins communicating with Walker via radio, taunting him over his inner doubts and fears, and forcing Walker (you) to take the life of either a water thief or the soldier who killed his family apprehending him. Konrad’s resurgence gives Delta a target to keep them focused, Walker’s admiration for Konrad becoming a need for personnel revenge against the man who put him in this situation.
Walker (you) blindly pushes forward, tentatively allying with CIA Agent Riggs to seize Dubai’s remaining water supply from the 3rd. This done, Riggs crashes the water trucks, admitting that by doing so all witnesses of the 3rd’s actions will die of thirst, burying the truth, and saving the US from a major diplomatic incident. Finding Riggs crushed in the flaming wreckage, Walker (you) may either show mercy and shoot him, or allow him to be burned alive. Either way, acting without fully understanding the situation has again led to suffering and death- Culpability in recontextualisation.
The CIA subplot is The Line’s strongest tie to the savagery of society theme; an act of atrocity done in self-service, much like The Company’s plundering of ivory at the expense of the native workers in Heart, or the dick measuring proxy war that was Vietnam, personified in Apocalypse Now by Kilgore.
It’s not its only tie however, as The Line also implicates pre storm Dubai, but unlike the CIA subplot it isn’t directly related to Walker/ The player’s personal descent, and any direct reference would be detrimental to The Line’s focus. Instead, The Line uses the medium’s unique interactivity to present this theme through environmental set dressing, as well as collectible “Intel” pieces, fleshing out the secondary themes and characters whilst remaining entirely optional, preserving the pacing. In this video for example, the Radioman calls attention to the UAE cover up of the storm’s severity from its people, whilst quietly evacuating its self-serving VIPs:
Delta decide their next move- silence the Radioman (who has been hounding Delta with irreverent rants and Nam evocative music throughout) and use his equipment to order an evacuation. Walker begins experiencing vivid hallucinations as Delta reach the top of the building, the Radioman surrenders, and Lugo shoots regardless. Walker sends out the evacuation order, and the squad commandeers a Black Hawk helicopter to escape, with Walker (you) on the minigun.
Like the game’s opening, this turret section is cathartic to the player, but this time it seems more for Walker’s benefit, destroying the Radioman’s tower and slaughtering the 3rd below. Again, The Line’s recontextualising of shooter tropes makes players question their actions, and those of Walker, the avatar.
The narrative catches up with the opening scene (deja vu to Walker) and as Delta attempt to escape through a sudden sandstorm an enemy chopper collides with theirs- Black Hawk Down.
An increasingly unstable Walker (you) is roused from a surreal nightmare by Adams, and the two cross Dubai’s sand drowned harbour in search of Lugo. Unfortunately the locals, enraged by Delta’s actions find him first and hang him. Adams and Walker (you) are too late to save him, and are given a choice as to how the mob is handled- non lethally, or killed in vengeance.
their mission now a total failure, Delta assault Konrad’s main base, as Walker’s hallucinations intensify, evening seeing Lugo, who blames him for his death. Totally surrounded, Adams, who at this point has lost all respect for Walker (you), kicks him over the side to make a break for Konrad, so that he can go down fighting alone.
Reaching Konrad at the top of the tower, Walker (you) is confronted by this painting:
And one other thing- the long desiccated corpse of Colonel John Konrad, dead from self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Walker’s hallucination of Konrad reveals that he was conjured up by Walker to cope with the forty-seven innocents who died on his orders, and from that moment he has simply stumbled on in a delusional attempt to deal with his guilt.
but if Konrad has been in Walker’s mind all along, where does that leave our Kurtz analog? Again we return to The Line’s strengths: culpability in recontextualisation. Walker is our Kurtz analog, his blind self belief similar to the original Kurtz, and like the Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, he has witnessed and done terrible things. But whereas Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now showed us the character at the end of its journey, The Line puts takes advantage of its medium to make us personally undertake his descent into insanity that film and literature could not achieve as innately passive art forms. And again The Line blames us for these actions- Konrad isn’t really talking to Walker so much as he’s asking the player: “Do you feel like a hero yet?”
Walker responds on behalf of the player: “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody.” This is something that neither Heart nor Apocalypse does- attempt to justify Kurtz’ actions. The former place the savagery as something innate, inevitably surfacing away from society’s checks, but The Line asks why he would make this choice in the first place, concluding that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Now the player is now given a choice- kill “Konrad” and deny the revelation, or accept the truth and Walker shoots himself. If the player shoots Konrad, a final playable scene is unlocked post credits. Weeks later, Walker, bearded and dressed in Konrad’s clothes, is found by a US evac squad, and Walker (you) can either surrender to the US evac squad, slaughter them, or die trying.
Unlike Marlow’s prescribed journey out of darkness, or Willard sailing off into ambiguity, We as players have the ability to choose Walker’s fate, allowing them to voice what they have learned from the experience, choosing between the original novella’s theme of innate savagery, or The Line’s circumstantial capacity for barbarity, and the slim possibility of redemption that offers. Or if your unable to make that decision, you can always shoot yourself in the head.
Two themes, three mediums, one hundred and thirteen years. Heart of Darkness told us of society’s horrors and one man’s journey into man’s propensity for evil if left unchecked by civilisation. Apocalypse Now showed us this descent, immersing our senses in the horrors of war, and seeped us in its moral ambiguity. Finally, Spec Ops: The Line makes us take that descent personally- forcing us into making the wrong decisions time and time again in real-time, holding a mirror up to our own personal ability to commit heinous acts, and ultimately, letting us choose for ourselves to be absolved of them due to our best intentions, or condemned for them.
And I learned to write something shorter, so I’m sure we’ve all profited from this somehow.