As you’ve probably gathered from the 75 billion other articles that have been written about Spec Ops: The Line, it’s a game with a moral lesson, namely that shooting people in the face with guns is a bad thing.
The rule of thumb in Spec Ops: The Line is to be a total bastard all of the time. If you’re presented with an irrational or rational decision, take the irrational one.
But if you want to get to the absolute core of The Line‘s teaching I feel like you need to play the game in a very particular way. Several difficult decisions are presented to you as you go along, as well as three very different endings. And although there’s a value in choosing whatever it is you want do to, as I explained last week with Red Dead Redemption, this is a game that has a much greater effect if you toe a line. Admittedly this line has been created by me and I’m now telling everyone to do what I say like a great despotic tit, but hear me out, because democracy and all that shit aside, I feel that playing this way brings the most out of Spec Ops.
You have to be an asshole through, like, the whole game. Seriously – be the nastiest bastard you can. There are several choices throughout Spec Ops that have either violent or pacifistic outcomes, and I’ll get to those in a moment, but first, just when you’re shooting, you need to be a rotter. Kill EVERYONE. When they’re dying, run over to them and do their heads in with your gun butt. This will make sense. Trust me.
I also want you to encourage your teammates to kill. A lot of the time they’re content to just pretend during the combat, firing but missing, swapping dialogue to keep the momentum up. Don’t let them. You have a button that can order them to fire or throw grenades. Use it. You should to get their hands as bloodied as your own.
Ok, so that’s the combat down (just go FUCKING ballistic, basically). Now let’s talk about those choices.
Again, the rule of thumb here is to be a total bastard all of the time. If you’re presented with an irrational or rational decision, take the irrational one. If one path leads to more people getting killed, the other to saving lives, take the one where everyone dies. Trust me. This WILL make sense eventually.
Some examples. First is the infamous white phosphorous scene where the guy you play as, Martin Walker, accidentally bombs to death forty or so unarmed civilians. You don’t have a choice here per se – regardless of what you want to do, you will always have to drop that Willie Pete – but what you can do is throw yourself into this with as much gusto as possible.
Kill those civilians as quickly and totally as you can. Even if you’ve played Spec Ops before and know what’s coming, don’t pussyfoot: As soon as they appear on your screen, bomb them, bomb them and bomb them again. This scene is fucking horrible so it won’t be easy, but if we want The Line‘s script to really pay off, you need to be a monster.
Another big choice comes a little earlier in the game where you can choose between saving a mission-critical CIA agent or a couple of civvies about to be executed by firing squad. Remember what I said about rational and irrational? This is the only time that doesn’t apply and you need to do the rational thing (or at least, what would be rational to a trio of cold, hardened Delta troopers) and try to save the CIA agent. He dies anyway and so do the two civilians. It’s tragic, it’s bleak, it leads to the highest bodycount you can possibly get from this scene. And that’s what’s important. Stay with me.
After the phosphorous scene you’ll be confronted by two captives and told to pick one to kill. John Konrad, the murky US colonel overseeing all this madness, tells you that one is a water thief and that the other, an American soldier, punished him by murdering his whole family. You have to pick and kill one. The right thing to do here, you might think, would be to ignore both of those options and try to shoot the ropes holding the two guys prisoner, also killing the snipers that are watching to make sure you make a decision. But we’re not going to do that. We’re going to kill the water thief and let the murderer go. Now, I know that even in the destroyed version of Dubai where the game is set, where water has become a kind of currency, stealing isn’t as bigger crime as murder. But there’s a reason you need to do this. It’s a horrible reason and I feel grubby for telling you to do it, but it’ll make sense.
The last big decision comes when you find that one of your teammates, Lugo, has been lynched by the local (and naturally very angry) population. He’s dead, you can’t save him, but what you can choose to do is scare the crowd off by firing into the air or shoot them all. I think you know what I want you to do. As an added bonus, you get to tell your surviving teammate, Adams, to shoot the civilians, too.
And then we get to the end of the game which is where, as promised, this all starts to makes sense. There are four ways to end Spec Ops: The Line. The first sees Walker commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. Don’t do it. You’ll get a post-credits sequence where, weeks after the events of the game proper, the US military arrives looking for Walker and finds him slumped over a machine-gun, half crazed, wearing Konrad’s jacket. If you like, you can open fire on the Americans and see where that goes. Kill them all, and Walker retreats back into the city, totally off his nut. Die (and you probably will) and it’s pretty much the same as if you’d just shot yourself.
The Line tells us that, though the shooting and killing we do in FPS games might seem beneficial insofar at it unlocks the next level, it has repercussions; it’s hideous.
So instead, do this right, and surrender your gun to the troops. As far as I’m concerned, this is where the entire miserable story of Spec Ops: The Line will click rightly into place.
The game is a treatise on war shooters like Call of Duty. It tells us that, though the shooting and killing we do in FPS games might seem beneficial insofar at it unlocks the next level, it has repercussions; it’s hideous. The Line challenges our lazy and unquestioning attitude to violence in games. It gives us red herrings, false targets and vague objectives and watches us kill, kill and kill again regardless. The game says we need to blow these people up and we do it; who’d have thought they might be unarmed civilians with children?
And this is why you need to be a total bastard when you play it. You need to behave like a war shooter does. When I say you need to get out there and start killing and killing, it’s because that’s what Battlefield expects you to do. When I say you need to smash heads in with your rifle, it’s because war shooters award bonuses for flair – kill three people in a row on CoD online and the game gives you a power up.
War shooters are also racist and jingoistic. Not only do games like Medal of Honor denigrate brown people into caricatures and targets, they elevate the white American – and all of his exceptionalist conceits – up and up until he’s a hero regardless of what he’s done. And that’s why you need to shoot the water thief. He’s the lesser criminal but he’s also non-white. The American murderer on the other hand is Caucasian and Yankee; as far as the war shooters that Spec Ops is out to deconstruct are concerned, this man can do no wrong.
You need to drop the phosphorous with gusto because war games expect you to kill complacently and with fervor; you need to let the civilians and the CIA guy die because what most shooters lust after is high bodycount. So many war games are just kill, gouge, kill, gouge and the only way they have of measuring your performance is by how many corpses you’ve racked up. In Spec Ops, you need to be a good little war game and make as many bodies as you can.
And then you need to carry all of this away with you. When I spoke to Brendan Keogh, author of Killing Is Harmless, he said that a lot of people he knew who’d played The Line just shot Walker at the end and walked away. I can understand why that might seem the right thing to do. On the surface, it’s a kind of penance – it’s a visually striking way that we can accept punishment for what we’ve done. But it’s really just a false absolution. Suicide might give some redemption, but it’s not like we die – killing Walker just gives us an excuse to wash our hands of the whole thing. That’s not allowed.
We need to see the war game fucking suffer. I want to see Call of Duty, Battlefield and the rest of them carried off like Walker at the end of Spec Ops – head down, eyes wet, barely speaking: irretrievably changed and forced to live with what’s been done.
I also feel the same about myself. Playing The Line, I want to bring out and accentuate the very worst impulses I’ve felt while playing FPS games, impulses to be violent without cause, or racist, knowingly. And then I want to be permanently changed by it. When I finished playing The Line, it changed my perspective of war games forever – it only feels right that Walker should end the game with his own perspective also irreparably changed.
And all of this is just so, so much more powerful if you play the game like an asshole. If you make a genuine, concerted effort to condense all that negative war shooter behavior into Spec Ops: The Line, the lessons you learn come much harder and stay with you much longer. Trying to get there can make you feel a bit sick, but this is something everyone needs to be told.