header is screenshot from Spec Ops: The Line
R U Still in 2 It
Ed Smith

The moment you apprehend Spec Ops: The Line as a game that is about videogames, or videogame violence, or the morality—or immorality—of violence in videogames, is the same moment where the game fails thematically, and also where you, as the recipient, deviate from comprehending all the other things that the game is principally about. The Line simply cannot sustain the apprehension that it is a game about games, because, alongside the various moments where it seems to invite that specific apprehension or evaluation or appreciation, like the opening cutscene’s little flourish that names your personal Xbox, PlayStation, or Steam handle under “special guest,” despite those moments, it’s a game where you single-handedly kill perhaps a thousand people. And it’s also the way you kill them. It must be something about the Unreal Engine, or this version of the Unreal Engine, that makes shooting and killing in The Line feel ‘light,’ as if you’re popping man balloons. The Line invites this kind of soul searching about killing in videogames or maybe killing generally, but does so almost exclusively through theme and writing—and not in mechanics or the active, emotive, sensory experience of playing. This idea that it’s a game about the decisions one makes as a videogame player, and an invitation to self criticism—a criticism of your, as a videogame player, blithe acceptance of any and all violence, and your, not just autogenetic, but habitual, willing acquiescence whenever games order you to commit violence—is also undermined by the fact that, during its key moment, the scene with the white phosphorous, the game doesn’t give you a choice. 

This frustrates a lot of people who resent The Line for, as it were, blaming them, or expecting and encouraging them to blame themselves, for the violence enacted in videogames, when actually the responsibility—through the omission of any alternative means of play or interaction, or choice—lies with the makers of The Line, and the makers of games generally. It becomes easy to intellectually defeat The Line when you apprehend it as a game primarily about games. Regardless of its various didactic moments, where the makers of The Line are figuratively gripping the player on both sides of her head and screaming at her their thesis, it fails to consistently deliver, uphold, stay true to its apparent point. In fact, it’s precisely that, so to speak, thesis screaming that disables Spec Ops: The Line from successfully or convincingly or reliably making—what seems to be, and what 11 years of criticism has ossified and canonised as—its point. It’s apparently so dogmatic about violence and videogame violence, with, again, apparently, so limited capacity for nuance or gradation, that it becomes eminently easy to reject and contemn. “This is a game about the brutality of violence and the moral hypocrisy of your willingness to enjoy simulating the same,” says The Line. “But it’s the structure and nature of the game that forces me to kill a thousand people and withholds the possibility of performing anything else,” says the player. And with that, The Line and its various exhortatives, no matter how superficially well meant, are irretrievably compromised. 

But I go back to a scene relatively early in Spec Ops: The Line wherein Walker, Lugo, and Adams discover a pile of dead bodies—civilians executed presumably by the game’s pseudo villainous 33rd battalion—and Walker remarks “just like the Kabul death squads,” which imparts to us that here is a character, here is a man, who has experiences and a history beyond what we see and how we comprehend him during the game—a character who exists and is defined beyond our actions as players for the duration of The Line. I think also of the accusatory tone in Walker’s voice during the opening cutscene, where he regales Colonel Konrad’s decision to enter Dubai on an ostensible rescue mission: “I bet all you did was write a cheque,” Walker says, addressing the player and audience directly. And then I think also of the actual white phosphorous bombing scene, whereby in the screen of the computer terminal that Walker is using to direct the white phosphorous bombs, we can see his—Walker’s—face reflected, that is Walker’s face, not our face, and not no face, but specifically Walker’s face. 

And then there is the sequence where Lugo is killed by a lynch mob, and afterwards when you regain control of Walker you are surrounded by the same lynch mob and the game does not telegraph at all what you ought to do, but actually allows you to make a decision between shooting the mob or shooting above them, into the air, to scare them away. Spec Ops: The Line is criticised for failing to engage with the nuances of its polemic— the white phosphorous scene does not allow for the player to make a choice, so how can the game then assume to blame the player for choosing to be violent? But there is actually a scene where you have a choice between violence and non violence, and in respect of that, and also the previously mentioned lengths to which Walker is characterised as not the player, as not a cypher, as not a proxy, it feels as if the presumed meaning of Spec Ops: The Line—presumed by players, critics, and in a large amount of instances also the game and game makers themselves—is not actually, so to speak, the game’s meaning entire. It seems unfortunate to me that this has become the legacy of The Line, that it is a game about games, because that apprehension—which, again, is at times aggravatingly encouraged by the game itself—means that some of the game’s I would argue deeper and more valuable qualities go overlooked. 

Spec Ops: The Line is, I think, a character study—a game about a special operative named Walker, and to a lesser extent his comrades, and their highly subjective experience of the game’s dramatic events. It is Walker who refuses to radio for reinforcements, despite the urging of Lugo and Adams. It is Walker who insists on circling the radio tower one more time in an attack helicopter so that he can “see what this gun can do.” It’s Walker who repeatedly insists that “we can’t go back,” and evocatively remarks on the smell of the white phosphorous when you encounter it for the first time, before the famous refugee camp scene. We are encouraged to view Walker as having a personality—an often very disagreeable personality—and drives of his own, perhaps different to his more reasonable and arguably more traditionally videogamic heroic colleagues. I think of the level where Lugo is killed, which is actually called “Adams,” and it seems to me an invitation to reject and think more beyond just a single, obvious subject. The obvious subject of Spec Ops: The Line is the player. But the game seems to give more focus to Walker, and insists on his idiosyncratic, selfish, almost illusory view of the unfolding drama more than anything else whatsoever. It is Walker’s delusion about Konrad which drives the whole of the game—we are impelled through Spec Ops: The Line, quite literally, by Walker’s own and extremely personal delusions and subjectivity. Without him and his constant insistence that the squad continue on, there would be no mission, no game. It is his face we see reflected in the white phosphorous scene.

But The Line remains popularly and critically and historically ensconced as the game about games, celebrated for how it said something about The Medium. And this, I think, is the irony. At a very surface level—a level that’s patronisingly accessible and reductive and kind of sledgehammer obvious—The Line is a critique of, so to speak, videogame player narcissism, an attack on the precept that as the player of a game you ought to be allowed to use the game and treat the components of the game however you like. It is, I think, the core of the problems with games, the lead in the water that is driving games mad, this idea—in fact, more than an idea: this edict, this rubric, this ordinance, this mandate—shared by players and game-makers that what matters above all is the player’s enjoyment, the player’s freedom, the player’s allowance to use and disfashion and consume a game the way they want. This is why everything is a hundred million hours long, because it’s more stuff for the player. This is why we don’t do politics, because it might upset the player. This is why everything plays the same and avoids anything resembling confrontational subject matter and condescends in every possible respect at every opportunity, because, it’s assumed, this makes for a nicer experience for the player. 

It’s this narcissism, that games ought to let us do what we like without any kind of real intellectual or moral or literary challenge, which is seemingly, at top soil level, confronted by Spec Ops: The Line. But to assume the game on those terms, and the fact that the game has been consecrated and immortalised via those terms, becomes, actually, a much greater example of videogame player and videogame cultural narcissism. Here we have a game that’s about a character—a character drama that touches on questions of identity, pride, masculinity, trauma, and innumerate other themes, ideas, and images, and we’ve spent more than a decade talking about how it’s actually about videogames. It’s this deadly little sewing circle we’ve made for ourselves where, for the most part, the only cultural influence on videogames and the only language and kind of criteria which we can use to judge and discuss videogames is other videogames. It’s an incestuous and self refracting culture that debates and references perpetually within and among itself—not interaction, but disfiguring, blinding, and gradually stupefying intra-action. Spec Ops: The Line as a game, as a text created by its writers and developers, is a product of this also. It is not exclusively the shortcomings of our responses or our interpretations that have ensured The Line will always be the game about games—Yager, its creator, labours the metatextual thesis often in lieu or favour of the more complex and engaging material regarding character and psyche. And that, in combination with—again—the greater narcissism and self interest and self regard and incest of gaming culture results in a severe and perhaps perilous missing of the arguably greater points within The Line

There are a lot of games about games, and they’re all basically saying the same thing. There aren’t a lot of big or even middle budget games with an ardent focus on character and topics of at least some literary substance. The Line invites players to reflect on their selfishness, their kind of self-fulfilling deliberate ignorance of greater consequence or other modalities while playing games. The tragedy is that in accepting that invitation, and apprehending The Line as "the game about games," you do wind up ignoring its greater consequences, and you do get lost in the mirror. And it’s almost certainly those two things that have made games the way games are. 


Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.