header is screenshot from Spec Ops: The Line
Reflections: A Discussion About Spec Ops: The Line
Grace Benfell and Cameron Kunzelman

 Grace Benfell: 

In Spec Ops: The Line's most remembered moment, Captain Walker and his squad use a conveniently placed white phosphorus mortar to destroy an enemy encampment. In an obvious moment of meta-rumination, Walker's visage is reflected in the targeting screen. It's a call back to and critique of Call of Duty levels like "Death From Above," which is viewed through the cameras of a military gunship. Here, the player is not just a floating crosshair. You can see the physical elements, the edges of the screen, and Walker's face, peering back through a glass darkly.

But Walker's visage is not a reflection at all. Videogames are an artificial environment, subject to their own simulated logics, rather than the literal confines of the material world. There are no naturally reflective surfaces in videogames. Before the advent of ray-tracing, reflections were not directly simulated; they were created using various tricks, including simply rendering the environment twice over. Here, though, there would be no reason to render Walker's face twice. The camera's frame only shows the reflection. Walker is not controlling the machine, you are. His image on the screen is a reflection of the player's.

What’s interesting here is not the obvious meta-reading but the creation of the reflection itself. Reflections require rendering power. Real-time ray-tracing, which offers on-the-fly light simulation, is no easy fix. It requires more advanced graphics architecture, massive supply chains, and more power consumption, which are all further steps in the industry's fundamental relationship to an economy that is heating up the planet.

But even back at Spec Ops: The Line's release—when consumer-level, real-time ray tracing was merely a subject of research and development—reflections showed off both The Line's' limitations and its possibilities. Walker's reflection is not always shown; it couldn't be, without significant investment and development time. Dubai's desert sky is reflected most often, more than any of the game's human population. Like every videogame, The Line is full of tricks to create an illusion of 3D space, but the tricks themselves require immense technological effort. The capacity of Spec Ops: The Line to have 3D reflections at all is symbolic of the scale at which videogames like it operate.

The Line is itself about technology. While Dubai’s residents have to melt down valuables to craft bullets, all of the real military hardware in The Line has been imported from the US of A. The refugees burned with white phosphorus cannot defend themselves from this tech. Walker manages to survive for so long because he is armored up, fresh from the homeland rather than alone in the desert. He only dies when the world wears him down (if that happens at all). However, the creation of the game itself, the technology and infrastructure necessary to make it happen, gets comparatively less scrutiny.

What criticism it does get typically focuses on the game’s metafictional gestures. The glaringly-named Konrad stands in for the developer, the person who created the situation that Walker shoots his way through. He is long dead before the game even begins. The only response to this horror is self-obliteration. The game is also, loosely, ecologically minded. Dubai's violent sandstorms are likely a consequence of climate change, though the game never uses the word. But in these flickers, The Line never approaches questions of fundamental creation, what it means to make a videogame period.

The white phosphorus is so conveniently placed it is almost comical. That placement feels like the barest recognition of the chain of military technologies that allows The Line to exist at all. Ultimately, The Line is a game about individuals, choices, the evil of empire boiled down to one man and the trigger finger we share with him. It’s not really about systems. So, I guess I’m wondering, Cameron, can a videogame like Spec Ops: The Line critique the material conditions of its creation? Would even approaching this be a fool-hardy effort?

Cameron Kunzelman: 

The most tempting thing to say about Spec Ops: The Line is that it’s a meta reflection. It’s built into the edifice of the thing, the constant chatter about players, the repetitions, the videogame trickery that throws the meta up in front of our face—this is a game, hey, think about it! The drama of Brendan Keogh’s Killing Is Harmless, a book I do not like but respect immensely, is that it plays this line out from the core of The Line endlessly. Every wall, every shot, every scene, every character interaction becomes a trace of the master narrative that bubbles below the surface: golly, ain’t it something that we do all of this.

I think here, from a vantage more than ten years removed, it might serve us to be radically naive. Maybe it’s best to pretend that we don’t know the trick being pulled, to not know that Konrad is a developer or that Walker is a player and, wow, did you think about how Walker is so generic that he becomes a universal every (white) man? 

So I want to think about a harder truth, that Spec Ops: The Line is a middling third-person shooter that pales in comparison to the games that it is in conversation with. Full up with nameless enemies from a myriad of enemy factions, it is less coherent (and certainly less fun) than a Gears game, and the moments of Nathan Drake mimicry play as unbelievable in a way that Uncharted always somehow managed to pull off. 

When you talk about the technology of reflections, Grace, it makes me think about the kind of reflection that The Line is. Built as an entry to a brand name that stretches back to PS1 hyper-budget titles, it is a kind of cuckoo for its then-contemporary culture, looking like all the other games and yet knowing, in its heart, that it is something different and more beautifully monstrous for its metacritical maneuvers. 

The hard reality, but one worth facing up to all these years later, is that it isn’t all that different. It’s a regular-ass bird—a sparrow pretending that it isn’t. The second and third Gears of War games had already asked us to consider what happens when the war outgrows the warrior and the effects bleed out into, and compromises, the integrity of everything. Call of Duty's “No Russian” asked us to gun down all those civilians, to feel bad about it, and then had the self-respect to murder the player character for being a chump the entire time. These games judged. These games reflected. These games gave us narrative frameworks for thinking the problem, and then paid it off.

As you said, we see Walker in the machine, and we know he controls the machine, yet we’re the ones actually maneuvering the controls to make it happen. And, as we’re eternally reminded, we could have done it any other way. So what do we do with the actual artifact of The Line all these years later? It looks very small to me from the vantage point where we stand in relation to it, but maybe you feel differently?


When I first played Spec Ops: The Line eleven years ago, it felt massive. It was the first thing I ever played that felt so confrontational. It was an experience shared between the hard drive and me, not encoded but theatrical. I used to speak aloud playing games, giving silent heroes like Link or Gordon Freeman my own voice. Doing this with Captain Walker, I felt like an echo in his head. Separate from him, but pulling the same triggers he did.

But every successive time I play it, it loses power. Part of what made The Line speak for me was that I was part of its cultural moment. Back then, military shooters were a key fraction of my gaming diet, bullets splattered in friends’ basements between slices of pizza. Those games felt key to my social world, the one kind of game I could play with the jocks in my church group. I was surrounded with the anonymous white men that populate videogames. When I talked with my cousin about his deployment, I imagined Walker’s face scarred on one side.

Those experiences perhaps primed me to be tuned into The Line's sermon, but it also shows that it is so much of a particular moment. Despite its endless reflections, just as you pointed out, almost everything The Line has on its mind is contemporary to it. There are some Metal Gear Solid references, it wouldn’t play like it does without Gears, the criticism is directed at Call of Duty, and Nolan North is in it. Most of these examples are games coming out just before or during The Line's development. I agree that it is not actually deeper than the games it addresses, but it can also only barely reach beyond its moment. Even with its plentiful influences outside videogames, it cannot entirely escape that gravity. Apocalypse Now has likely been on the mind of every narrative designer who has ever worked on a military shooter.

What I want now from The Line is a greater connection to history. Videogames’ connection to military violence goes back to the very origins of the medium, back to the funding of MIT’s computer science program or the creation of the first flight simulators. When The Line steps up to make a statement about the reality of videogame violence, this history is nowhere to be found. Where is Space War!, or Doom, or, hell, even Max Payne, in The Line’s constellation of influences? In retrospect, The Line feels both narrow and imprecise. This is why I fixate so much on the technology that enables reflection, for that, more than The Line's headshots or ammo counters, ties it to real life, imperial violence. When Steam Decks and Xbox controllers control military tech, the problem goes deeper than simply killing virtual minions, or even in the kinds of dangerous men that the game depicts. It’s in how the very machine is made.

In the face of that, The Line and its ilks’ consideration of virtual lives and imagined responsibility can feel a bit beside the point. Especially when the game's critical posture cannot outrun its own imperial imagination. I don’t know if videogames can holistically address the multifaceted connections of their production to ecological disaster or imperial violence. I am far from against the kind of auto-critique The Line presents, but I do think it needs to be tied into a broader material critique and a broader history of play. After all this time, The Line can’t escape the ways it is just “another one of those.” It even has tacked-on multiplayer.

I’ve grown a lot as a critic over those eleven years, though I still feel under-read (I suspect this never goes away). I can see The Line’s artifice so clearly now, and it doesn’t dazzle so much as exhaust. Unlike myself over a decade ago, I don’t think about what it means to pull the right trigger on an Xbox controller very much. But I do think about what it means that I’ve played The Line over three separate console generations, what it means to have access to each of those technologies, and what the roots of that infrastructure are. But maybe that difference is just a matter of proximity. Back then, I knew veterans and military men, people who are more like Walker than I will ever be. Now, I am in contact with so few, if any, of them.

So yeah, The Line is small. But I wonder, where does thinking through that smallness get us? Is it just a matter of perspective or position? Maybe we are ascending a skyscraper just to fall back into hell again.


When I was a teenager, I watched as an interminable line of enemy soldiers walked through Snake. Then a ghost taunted me and essentially told me that I, personally, was an asshole. 

I can’t speak to technology, and I can’t say that I have much interest in a game being able to comment directly on the sum total of history until its release. The Line draws a wide target, and I understand your desire to want to hold onto it while also talk its failures—this is what a media object is, after all: the sum total of a history that it needs to disavow in order to justify its existence. 

But I do think it is worth thinking about that parade of ghosts in Metal Gear Solid 3, which only appear if you have killed those enemies earlier in the game. That game makes you sit with your decisions and displeasure, not as some kind of momentous event, but as absolute killer fucking boredom. The first time I played MGS3 I assumed that something had broken because it went on for eternity. Turns out that I had just really hammered my way through a lot of enemies, and that the game was going to make me sit through it all to remember, at least for a moment. And all of that is tied up in what the game has to say about the WWII generation and the world they have wrought—the world was born from zero, after all.

As you say, The Line doesn’t try for a bigger statement about history or videogame violence because it is caught in some kind of linear argument about players and their actions. Walker has about a single sentence’s worth of history before he enters the game and he’s got none after it is over. He’s ephemeral, an excuse, and there’s nothing to say about him and his relationship to Afghanistan (other than that it exists) or Iraq (which seems unspeakable here) or even his personal history as a living, thinking person. He’s an excuse to do a thing, to disavow everything but the middling effects of touching buttons to make things happen.

I do think that the most “meta” move in the game is aesthetic. When Walker meets Konrad, the commander is painting, and the painting depicts the immolated civilians. As if we’ve forgotten. As if we can’t get it without seeing it again. There is something beautifully perverse about a game that asks you to do some of the most banal repeating tasks that also doesn’t trust you to remember a single, cinematically preserved image from two hours previous. In any case, we’re supposed to look at it, and to think it, and to wonder how this Konrad can see the thing that we saw. Little did we know that Walker was hallucinating the whole time!

I say all of this to say that if a game is meant to be reflective, to use the language from your opening, that it has to trust us to be able to recognize reflection. In MGS3, it was immediately clear that I was reaping what I sowed, and over the years I’ve understood that that’s the entire game, perhaps even the entire franchise: living is reaping the whirlwind. If we want games that take violence seriously, that recognize the long history of it and its broader implications outside of the neat commercial package, they’re going to have to trust us to take that claim beyond the game. The Line doesn’t trust, period, and has to redeliver the meta move constantly to get us to remember that it matters. 

But what can I say, I’m cynical on this point. If this game arrives, it will not have a major publisher behind it.


I agree and that fact is what makes The Line still somewhat unique and still completely doomed. What bite it still has is from its scale, combined with the determination to condemn the forward logic of games like it. Walker’s fatal sin is that he cannot just stop, cannot contemplate what he has done and walk away. Most of the games The Line is tied to are about pushing ever forward. Even the title, and its invocation of an otherwise unrelated series of military games, is about this. The buck stops here, the honest end of all this military fiction is death. That’s the line we all have to cross.

But playing it is itself repetitive and propulsive, not contemplative. The Line directly evokes the scene from Metal Gear Solid 3 that you describe, but it heavily condenses it. It’s just four figures, named characters from across the game’s runtime, and a bunch of background corpses. As you say, MGS3’s power comes from its boredom, in sitting in the feeling for an uncomfortable amount of time. The Line misunderstands and so pushes past that discomfort. Despite the direct moment of inspiration, The Line’s form cannot allow it to linger.

With that in mind, I hope that I want less for games to account for their entire histories and more for them to take a particular stand as part of both past and future. Writing this, I thought a lot about Sephonie, a game intimately concerned with ecological and imperial violences, which leans into videogame nonsense even as it critiques it. I thought a lot about Decolonators, which embraces a liberatory violence rather than an oppressive one. One can trace the past these games are linked to, but they also make arguments for the future, ludic and otherwise. In that sense, they trust us to imagine more and linger in that imagination.

I don’t know if the game you describe exists yet, or if it ever will. You’re certainly right to be cynical. However, I do take some comfort in the fact that if these games (and these futures) are going to come, they will come from us: Peers, artists, other small-timers. After all this time, the possibility of those voices still excites me.


Grace is a freelance writer, a contributor at Paste MagazineGamespot, and Uppercut. She is currently reviewing niche indie videogames on her Patreon. You can find her and her work on Twitter @grace_machine and on her website.

Cameron Kunzelman is a critic. You can follow him on Twitter or listen to his game studies podcast. You can read his book on speculation and video games.