Spec Ops: The Line was originally released in 2012. It arrived after the meteoric rise of the military shooter had begun to turn in on itself, long after gaming audiences had begun to question the assumption made somewhere along the way that all we wanted from games were endless power fantasies. After we began to question how many more terse and grizzled meatmen we’d be asked to pilot through how many more war-torn slums and bullet-marked battlefields; how many more nukes to disarm; how many more terrorists to dismember and entomb in order to satisfy yet another post 9-11 fear mongering narrative.
The Line, though often clumsy and nearly always heavy handed, remains a sharp critique of the hollowness at the heart of the games that preceded it and the genre they created. Games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which marked a transitional point for the series away from World War II myth making vehicles and towards brutal and nihilistic anti-terroristic reveries. Modern Warfare’s thesis was simple: though the modes of warfighting were now to be more cutthroat and mercurial, they were necessary in order to defeat an enemy who refused to fight honorably, who killed our innocents, and flew planes into our buildings.
The same kind of ideology underpinned America’s torture and rendition regime at the time. We had to indefinitely detain assumed combatants at places like Guantanamo Bay, keeping them locked up for years without even charging them with a crime. Games like Modern Warfare and television shows like 24 marched in lockstep with this conservative message. The War on Terror was a righteous battle, good against evil, and our nation regrettably had to get its hands dirty in order to see it to glorious fruition. And when there were failures, they did not cast doubt on our cause as much as the clumsiness of our tactics. In Modern Warfare, for example, the American marines blunder into a faux-Iraq, are led around in circles and are finally nuked for their bumbling ineptitude. In contrast, the elite SAS forces are able to out-tactics the enemy and seize the day. It’s never about whether or not to invade and dominate, it’s always about how.
The Line confronts this premise head on. You lead a small team of elite American soldiers into a storm-ravaged Dubai in search of a missing military unit and its commander. As in any other modern military shooter, you employ all kinds of state-of-the-art technology and advanced weaponry. You can order your two squadmates to efficiently dispatch enemy forces with a button click. You can bring down onrushing soldiers with a series of impossible, time-slowing headshots suggestive of superhuman reflexes. But it doesn’t matter. In the end you fail just as the preceding force failed. Because, at its core, your mission is cursed. You’re here, in a country you were not welcomed into. Your intention is to conquer it, supposedly in order to protect the locals (from themselves), yet every move you make only serves to bring them more misfortune and death. It’s not about how good you are, how effective you might be as an operator; you shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be doing this, shouldn’t be pretending you’re here to help anything or anyone but yourself.
At the time, The Line felt like a clear condemnation of the genre and its numerous offshoots. It made a persuasive argument in favor of moving away from these tired, cynical tropes, these assumptions about what “modern warfare” should ideologically be about. Looking back, however, now more than a decade on, it’s become clear that it didn’t really work. More than anything else, The Line is remembered for its condemnation of casual player attitudes towards the kind of violence commonplace in the genre. In its most famous example, you accidentally drop white phosphorus on a group of civilians while firing at enemy soldiers. The game provides the tools to commit violence and then asks us to reflect on that violence, to the groaning chagrin of many players. Regardless of whether or not this comes across as too heavy handed to be effective, it has become the only memory of the game to survive. It’s been memed into a rote complaint about feeling the hand of the developer too much, and relegated into the memory dustbin alongside other games that employed similar strategies like Bioshock and Hotline Miami. These games marked a time when it seemed the direction of AAA was to at least pay lip service to the idea of player culpability to the violence we commit in their games.
It’s clear, however, that violent videogames today, largely absent of any kind of self-awareness of their own excesses, are doing just fine. Call of Duty continues on and moves units year after year, all while doubling and tripping down on the same cynical premise that made its Modern Warfare installment such a breakout hit back in 2007. Nothing changed. If anything, videogames carry even less of a message now than ever. Finally, videogames can just be fun. We no longer have to worry about our own roles in propping up this cynical system. As an undoubted knock-on effect of disasters like Gamergate, which robbed the industry of countless critical and marginalized voices, the conversations we used to have in games rarely happen any more. Politics is dead. Long live the shooter.
Not just in war media but in society at large, a feeling of defeated nihilism and helplessness has set in. During Trump’s presidency, bombings and drone strikes drastically increased across the Middle East and Africa. Hundreds more people were killed, their tenuous role as threats to the U.S. blithely assured by a disconnected military complex. This news barely made a blip in the U.S. where we could hardly avert our gaze from the slow motion dismantling of democratic norms and institutions happening day after day. After Joe Biden was elected, he began anticlimactically to draw down American troops in Afghanistan, leaving it to fall into the control of a resurgent Taliban. Twenty long years of incomprehensible brutality, violence, starvation, and corruption, all adding up to a shrug, a big fat zero. We tried, I guess. Over here, all we could do was stare at the news, glassy eyed, horror curdling impatiently from our insides, held in check only by overpowering helplessness and the never-ending distraction of a social media-fed livestream of our crumbling future.
It’s not that we don’t care anymore. It’s more than we can no longer believe. Back at the start of the War on Terror, there were at least a plurality of rubes you could frighten with the distant threat of terrorism, that you could con into rooting for America and the west to violently crush Islamic fundamentalism worldwide, to Accomplish our Mission. Not anymore. After Iraq, after Guantanamo, after Abu Ghraib, after Wikileaks, after Libya, after Syria, who is left who believes? The jingoistic messaging sits buried under countless innocent bodies, under pointless forever wars and epoch-shifting viral pandemics. The world that provided a ripe bed for new ideological inventions like Modern Warfare, let alone the series’ earlier iterations about heroically battling Nazis in the last Good War, is no more. In today’s fragmented and meaning-agnostic reality such stories feel impossibly abstract and anachronistic; halcyon half-memories, as outdated as the blocky graphics which powered them.
Instead of homages to epic war stories of brothers banding together to fight evil we now have Warzone, an offshoot of the battle royale genre made most popular by Epic’s Fortnite. In battle royale games, as in their namesake movie, players compete against other players to see who can survive the longest. Though Warzone allows for players to team up into small squads, like any other battle royale game, it is principally an individualistic exercise. It is a game about being the last one standing. You’re not meant to stop a world ending threat, there’s no day left to save. The world is ending, and we’ve long consigned ourselves to this fact. What's left is personal survival. Today, our games, with their stripped down and unembellished core loops, reflect this.
The Line isn't perfect. It's snarky, with a self-assured and cocky authorial voice a bit too in love with its own brilliance. But it's effective, despite all of this, at highlighting a very real trend in games. Games were, and are, determined to take enjoyment in (very often base) things without ever providing room to stop and ask oneself why these things are enjoyable in the first place. In asking the question, Spec Ops: The Line is remembered mostly as a killjoy, a nag. Something to make us feel bad for taking pleasure in the morally bankrupt.
But don’t worry. We have by now fully embraced enjoyment. Not enjoyment attached to stories of heroism and adventure, as shooters once aimed for, but something more insidious: something hollow, easy, compulsive, and ugly.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.