So, I have this friend. We’ll call him ‘Jeff”, because, well, that’s what his name is. He plays a lot of video games, and he usually finds some manner of fault with roughly 95% of them. Most of that fault is with the plot, because let’s face it, while video game plotwriting has come a very long way, it is oftentimes still lacking when compared with books and such. So when Jeff recommends a game to me based on the strength of its plot, I take notice. I take a lot of notice. Even if that game is something I may not ordinarily have picked up.
Here is how a typical conversation with Jeff has gone in the past few weeks or so:
“Hey, you should play Spec Ops: The Line.”
“So, have you played Spec Ops: The Line yet? It’s seriously has one of the best plots of any recent video game.”
“Oh man, the ending of Bioshock Infinite was fucking terrible. You should play Spec Ops: The Line and marvel at how much better the plot of that game is.”
“Hey, why don’t you bravely default on all of your other responsibilities for a day and play Spec Ops: The Line?”
So I did.
The game, for those of you who (like me) had never heard of it before, is a third-person shooter set in near-future Dubai. Several months previous to the game’s events, an unnaturally strong sandstorm completely destroyed the city. Everyone in the city was presumed dead or beyond saving, including a highly decorated battalion of American soldiers returning from Afghanistan. When a radio signal is received from the center of the sandstorm, a trio of Delta Force operatives led by Captain Martin Walker are sent in to determine if there are any survivors and, upon finding any, signal for an evacuation.
Of course, if the characters in the game strictly adhered to those criteria, there would be very little in the way of plot. Instead of a simple mission, the team, and consequently the player, are treated to a chaotic vision of hell, presented through the lens of a destroyed city. Through the course of the game, the player is presented with an unflinching view of humanity at its worst. And consequently, the player, through the actions of Walker, are given several opportunities to choose what course of action to take. In the beginning, anyway, the player is given at least some degree of freedom in determining how to overcome the various situations presented. Most of the choices come down to deciding whether to do something that will further the mission or whether to, instead, help a civilian.
The failure comes in the fact that the story is not about choice. The story has a specific set of things that it wants the player to see, and any choices the player is allowed to make come secondary to the mandates of the plot.
See, Spec Ops: The Line is not a typical shooter, though it bears a lot of resemblance to one. It’s a fairly mechanically solid one, at that. There isn’t anything that stands out about the combat features, but what’s there is quite well put-together. But as I said before, the game does not exist to be a shooter. It exists to be a plot in the trappings of a shooter. And that plot exists to completely eviscerate the entire ‘military shooter’ genre by showing, in graphic detail, the results of choices made on the battlefield. Therefore, the results of every choice that you, the player, cause Walker, the character, to make are almost immediately rubbed in your face, no matter what the player’s intentions may have been in making those choices.
The thing is, you, the player, are not always given a choice, even though Walker, the character is. There is, specifically, a point in the game where, right after being faced with the choice of saving or sacrificing two or three civilians, you are forced into actions that kill at least three or four times that many. You are not presented any other option even though Walker is. You simply have to go along with whatever Walker dictates is the way out of that particular crisis.
Now. I have heard the argument that the player always has a choice, and that choice is whether or not to turn off the game. Personally, I don’t agree with that level of meta-narrative. If one goes along with that reasoning, one can also reason that the player can escape the consequences of any choice by turning the game off right after making it, and, for that matter, a reader can pretend that the contents of a book don’t exist through the act of not reading the book. Rather, I am of the opinion that once a person starts a narrative, walking away from the narrative halfway through does not change anything about the narrative itself or the message conveyed through it.
So, that being said, within the confines of the game, the message is constantly presented to the player that ‘there is always a choice, until the narrative dictates otherwise’. In a sense, the player is nothing more than a third squadmate, subject to Walker’s orders just the same as the others are. Sure, your input operates Walker’s legs and arms and pulls the trigger on his rifle, but saying that your lack of inputs can lead to his premature death is the same as saying that putting down the controller and shutting off the computer is a valid ending to the narrative.
I guess my point is that even though the results of Walker’s forced actions are extremely horrifying, it would have had even more of an impact on me as the player if I had been the one to make the choice. Had I chosen the thing that Walker chose, I would have felt like a much shittier person for doing so than I did when the choice was removed from me.
Of course, the results of Walker’s choice are completely horrifying, and it’s at that point that the game starts to descend into an examination of the damaged psyche of the main character. And in examining the effect that the horrors of war can have on a person’s mind, the game subsequently makes the player doubt many of the things that had been assumed from the beginning as fact. Even the identity of the character of Walker becomes quite questionable, and picking out what is real from what is not becomes an exercise in extreme analysis. Aside from the obvious hallucinations, anyway.
While some of the effects have certainly been seen before in games like Metal Gear Solid 3, Silent Hill, and Eternal Darkness, it’s the fact that the game is otherwise free of camp or lightheartedness that really make these scenes feel more at home in Spec Ops: The Line than in any of the games that were obvious inspirations.
In short, Spec Ops: The Line is the game that Metal Gear Solid wishes it could be.
The comparison is one that I’ve made intentionally, in light of the things I have heard about the latest Metal Gear game, Ground Zeroes. That game, as well, aims to depict the horrors of war in ways that are supposed to be shocking to the player. And they are, but not quite in the ways that are intended. For me, the presence of the level of comic relief and blatant exploitation in something like Metal Gear completely detracts from whatever message the series is trying to send. In contrast, Spec Ops: The Line never strays from its vision.
So, the question is, what did I think of Spec Ops: The Line? Well, I think that there are solid mechanics and that there is a compelling narrative, and that the game very intentionally puts the two at odds with each other. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
But hey, the ending was way the hell better than Bioshock Infinite‘s, and in my book, that’s a win.