After almost 10 years, Spec Ops: The Line is still an insightfully cutting story of choice, responsibility and the horrors of modern warfare.
It’s been almost a decade since Spec Ops: The Line was first released, and the game is still shockingly relevant. In 2012, the modern military shooter won critical acclaim for its deconstructive approach towards its own genre. Whereas titles like Call of Duty, Battlefield and their various imitators celebrate military intervention by depicting war as a glorious spectacle, Yeager Development’s title took a more human and consequentialist view of conflict.
Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel that explored the failings of European colonialism, Spec Ops tells the story for a modern audience with a few unique twists. Whereas Conrad’s novel interrogated the so-called “civility” of empires, Yeager’s game questions the impact of American militarism and why shooters so frequently celebrate it. By forcing players to think of its characters as flawed, desperate humans instead of nationalistic super-heroes, Spec Ops tells such a bitingly relevant story that, almost 10 years later, it still has no equal.
Ironically, Spec Ops: The Line isn’t technically set in a warzone despite its nature as a military game. Instead, the story takes place in Dubai, where order has all but collapsed due to ravaging sandstorms. To protect and evacuate the city’s people, America’s Colonel John Konrad volunteered the services of his battalion, only for the situation to spiral out of all control. It’s into this dangerous environment that the US sends three Delta Force operatives on a mission to find survivors, intending to send in a larger force to rescue them.
While the game isn’t explicitly about war, its smaller scale makes it feel like a more genuine reflection of it. Modern military shooters are often criticized, especially by players outside of the US, because they generally depict the nation’s armies as heroic paragons that can do no wrong, even when they have their enemies utterly outnumbered. Spec Ops avoids this minefield by treating its soldiers as individuals who live and die by their own choices, not nationalistic hammers with which some poorly-characterized villains of the week are bludgeoned.
This more personal focus allows the game to delve deeper into the psychology of its characters, exploring the consequences of the choices made by soldiers in stressful situations. The American military enters Dubai with a sincere desire to help and, while their presence ultimately makes things worse, it’s abundantly clear that their intentions were noble. This desire to play the hero is foundational to the tragedy of the story and nowhere is it better reflected than in the journey of its protagonist Captain Walker.
In keeping with the themes of choice and consequence, Walker is rarely controlled by cutscenes. Instead, players must typically carry out his actions to proceed, whether that means leading charges, gunning down enemies or even exterminating them with incendiary weapons. Whereas many war shooters use cinematics and set-piece spectacles to rob audiences of agency, Spec Ops requires the player’s participation. This leads to the infamous white phosphorus scene, where both player and avatar unwittingly incinerate a camp full of civilians.
The scene remains shocking because it exposes how horrific modern warfare can be. Video games often trivialize the tools at an advanced army’s disposal, turning airstrikes or nuclear bombs into power-ups or multiplayer rewards. Spec Ops, by contrast, takes such a weapon and exposes players to the reality of just how horrifying it can be, and in doing so, underlines why it’s so important for militaries to have rules of engagement. Walker, on the other hand, gets innocents killed because acting out a power fantasy is more important to him than his actual orders.
Of course, a hero is nothing without a villain to juxtapose themselves against, and Walker wastes no time shifting the responsibility for his actions onto Konrad. By blaming the missing colonel for allowing the situation to have reached a point where friends and foes are no longer distinguishable, Walker can deny the reality of his crimes while dragging his men down a road to Hell. By the end of the story, even the game’s loading screens are asking players if they feel like heroes and openly mocking how casually games approach the subject of violence.
Spec Ops: The Line wasn’t the first game to make such criticisms. Call of Duty 4, the game that started the modern military craze, has a shockingly cynical attitude towards its own setting, but the series’ success cost it that insightful edge. The Modern Warfare reboot was accused of denying American war crimes, and a US veteran openly criticized the game for treating white phosphorus as a toy. Whatever one thinks of Call of Duty nowadays, it’s clearly no longer the game that warned players about the horrors of war by showing soldiers dying ignobly in a nuclear inferno.
That, ultimately, is why Spec Ops remains the perfect military story: because the industry at large is still indulging the same tropes it was critical of. Yeager’s tale has lost none of its relevance for all its rough gameplay. Its portrayal of soldiers not as immaculate heroes but flawed humans making hard choices under terrible circumstances has more to teach us about the realities of war than anything that’s been released since. From a storytelling perspective, the game is nothing less than a masterpiece. However, considering that the wider medium never stopped to answer the questions it was asking, one can’t help but be left wondering if that’s really such a good thing.
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About The Author
Sam Rowett (109 Articles Published)
Freelance writer and game designer with masters degrees in Game Design and Creative Writing. Builds his own games at @SamRowettGames