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Crossing Spec Ops: The Line

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 17 Jul 2012 16:00
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But the unimaginably horrible death of civilians alone wasn't what made it get to me so much. I mean, I scrape far worse things off my basement floor most weekends. It wasn't even the fact that it was unwittingly committed by the protagonist and by extension me. No, the most horrifying part of it was remembering what had been going through my mind at the time. Seeing all those white blobs and thinking "Oh boy! This'll be just like getting three in one shot in Missile Command or something. Bombs away! I'm the best at shooters!" When the truth about what I'd done became clear, that was what made me feel sick. Not the gore, not the darkness in Walker, but the darkness in me. This, Roger Ebert, is how videogames can be profound.

I've heard some people say the demo didn't impress and that they assumed Spec Ops would just be another generic war shooter. And I could see how you could get that impression from the game's early bits. There are a couple of things that bode well for the writing - I particularly liked the Radioman and his habit of taunting you through pop music with appropriate lyrics - but it's the white phosphorous scene that's the turning point. The central character arc basically starts there. It sets off a downward spiral that doesn't seem to have a bottom.

After a while I got the same feeling I got from God of War 3, that it seemed like all we were doing was fucking things up and that the heroic thing to do would be to stop playing and go to bed. The difference being that this was entirely intentional on Spec Ops's part. I had to keep playing to see how Walker's arc was going to end. You see, after the white phosphorous incident I fast grew to dislike him as a character. Again, intentionally on the game's part. The way he kept trying to keep a neutral attitude and convince himself he was acting perfectly reasonably was almost comical. I took some satisfaction from the way the cohesiveness of his unit broke down as his sidekicks called him out on his bullshit.

The final ending twist, that Walker had become delusional from guilt and that we could no longer trust large chunks of his version of events, seemed quite fitting after all that. Since I had already entirely lost faith in his humanity it seemed appropriate that the faith I had in his perception was also completely misplaced. Almost a relief, really, that I could feel even more distanced from the bastard.

I think what says it all about Spec Ops is that your final choice in the game is whether or not to shoot yourself in the head. And that you really, really have to think about it. There are some games or sections of games that end with the main characters death - see a distressingly large number of chapters in Modern Warfare games - and it usually feels like a gyp. The usual question that occurs is why you get a game over if you die in gameplay at any point before the cutscene death if that's what the story had scheduled anyway. But sometimes it works. There are some character arcs that, when rounded out, can end no other way. Not satisfactorily, anyway. In Water is actually my favorite ending of Silent Hill 2. It's sad, but it's a satisfying, closure-y kind of sad that I think best fits the narrative arc they were going for.

In all Spec Ops endings that end with his survival, Walker himself expresses disappointment at his continued existence, so who are we to disagree? There is a certain line that, once crossed, means there can be no return. Oh wait. The Line. I think I see what they did there.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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