Spec Ops: The Line – Random Thoughts

Welcome to Dubai

Just finished Spec Ops: The Line.

Wow.

I’ll try to avoid spoiler-ing anything here, because the game is indeed worth playing through for the atmosphere, the moral dilemmas set up in individual scenes, and some thoughtful thematic questions raised about war and what can possibly happen to soldiers and civilians in a situation where there are no clear-cut “good” choices.

Some of my screenshots are from later parts of the game, but I have tried to put them out of any kind of context whatsoever.

Just be warned that its overall theme is pretty much… War is hell.

Laying on the symbolism a bit thickly, are we?

Laying on the symbolism a bit thickly, are we?

And war, war never changes… (To quote another neat game.)

How to describe it then?

Narrative-wise, there’s a touch of Planescape: Torment with, unfortunately, a lot more plot holes and significantly more linear railroading. There’s some Heavy Rain flavor in one or two scenes, (no QTEs, don’t panic,) but I wish there was more.

It's not Heavy Rain. I swear. There's a certain eerie similarity of beard and likeness, perhaps.

It’s not Heavy Rain. I swear. There’s a certain eerie similarity of beard and likeness, perhaps.

One of my nitpicks is that in certain scenes, you are forced by the game into taking certain actions, or else the game simply doesn’t progress. I’m not so fond of that kind of narrative, it’s a bit of a lazy cop out. As gamers, we tend to do whatever the game requests us in order to see the end. Playing with moral and ethical questions regarding something the game railroaded us into doing… well, it’s a bit of a cheap trick in order to reap emotional impact – sorta like how horror game tropes are always play with lighting, play with pacing, play with scary sounds and flash something HORRIBLE onto the screen for a split second. Yeah, it gets a reaction out of us, but it’s been done.

It was interesting to observe my reactions as I played through the game. Knowing it was a game about morality, at first, I tried to be very careful about my actions. I never fired first. I waited for people to shoot at me before firing back in self-defence.

One of the nicer vignettes near the beginning with moral implications. They're not actively opposing you. Do you kill them in cold blood? Order your squad to do it for you, so your hands aren't personally dirty? Or do you give them a chance to fight back by alerting them then shoot them while they're holding a firearm pointed at you?

One of the nicer minor vignettes near the beginning with some moral implications. They’re not actively opposing you. Do you kill them in cold blood? Order your squad to do it for you, so your hands aren’t personally dirty? Or do you give them a chance to fight back by alerting them then shoot them while they’re holding a firearm pointed at you? Don’t think sneaking past peacefully is an option in this game though.

I even managed to avoid killing a civilian, who in one of those cheap-ish designer tricks does a sudden jack-in-the-box act in front of you, and you’re carrying a loaded gun in the midst of a firefight. (It was a near thing the first time though, I fired bullets into the floor near their feet from a combined sheer reaction of EEP and WAIT, NOT-TARGET, which was kind of fascinating to have happen.)

I like what they've done with this option game-wise. Sometimes when you shoot enemies, they don't die immediately, but are still alive and may shoot back. Or simply lie there groaning.You can choose to kill them. And opposite to Bioshock, you get an in-game reward of ammo for the guns you're currently carrying - as well as a violent execution animation sequence. There was also a neat touch where the executions got very brutal after certain plot points, as contrasted with the start of the game.

I like what they’ve done with this option game-wise. Sometimes when you shoot enemies, they don’t die immediately, but are still alive and may shoot back. Or simply lie there groaning.
You can choose to kill them. And opposite to Bioshock, where the goody-goody path is the obvious optimal choice in the long term, here, you get an in-game reward of ammo for the guns you’re currently carrying – as well as a violent execution animation sequence.
There was also a neat touch where the executions appeared to get more brutal after certain plot points, as contrasted with the start of the game, reflecting the state of mind the main character is in.

Unfortunately, after a couple railroading tricks where the main character acts in a way beyond my control, I started to sense that there was a narrative ride we were being sent on, like it or nay, and it began turning into a problem-solving exercise of getting to the next plot checkpoint, since I didn’t have any real options until I got to certain scripted scenes where I could choose stealth/shoot or one of two or three possible paths through a moral dilemma.

I would have much rather been faced with situations where there are no good choices, and you simply have to take one based on the available information you have, and deal with the consequences of your possibly failed intentions. (There were a few places in Spec Ops where they did appear to be trying for this, which was nice.)

The other nitpick is the story unravels a little at the end to become extremely ambiguous and open to multiple possible interpretations. Minor spoiler warning: It’s basically the ol’ unreliable narrator gimmick. Anything and everything might have been a dream after all. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The multiple endings end rather artistically. It’s not at all as bad as Indigo Prophecy where you end up going “da fuck?” after a certain point, but there’s a teensy degree of it where you’re still left trying to glue several story threads together attempting to have it make unified coherent sense. (I haven’t quite accomplished it, to be honest.)

That said, it’s a shooter that attempts to tell a very -different- kind of story about war.

If only for that, playing through the experience is worth it.

But I bought the game though. So I may as well play it to the bitter end, rather than choose not to play, eh?Still, in a sea full of shooters who don't even bother to reflect on deeper themes of war, a slightly incoherent, forced perspective commentary is better than none.

But I bought the game though. So I may as well play it to the bitter end, rather than choose not to play, eh?
Still, in a sea full of shooters who don’t even bother to reflect on deeper themes of war, a slightly incoherent, forced perspective commentary is better than none at all.