For the next game in my Let’s Play A Bad Guy series, the overwhelming temptation (and outside suggestion from readers) was that I had to go with Grand Theft Auto 5. Being that it is the biggest game in the world right now (and will likely remain so until GTA6), this seemed like the obvious choice. Which is exactly why I didn’t go there. Not only did I bravely (heroically, even) buck the current trend of analyzing GTA5 for all its evil meats and cheeses due to overexposure, but also because the “bad guy” quality of Rockstar’s current endeavor is the same thing we’ve been arguing about since mom watched her toddler bag his first hooker way back in 2001.
No, I wanted to play something different–something that discussed the very nature of “evil” as an idea. Something that addressed the fact that those we think of as the “bad guys” rarely (if ever) see themselves as such. And so I finally played Spec Ops: The Line. And I got my wish. Oh, sweet Jesus–I got my wish. Developed in 2012 by Yager Development, Spec Ops: The Line at first seems like any other generic third-person shoot ’em up. If anything, the controls are awkward, and the learning curve can be downright frustrating. And as the storyline continues, you see that that was very likely Yager’s intention all along. You play as Delta Force operative Captain Martin Walker who leads his two teammates through a sand-covered nightmare asylum that forces you to ask questions about war, sanity, and the nature of becoming a villain.
There are going to be some pretty heavy spoilers ahead. So you’ve been warned.
The first thing you notice about Spec Ops: The Line is the soundtrack. It kicks ass. You open with a tattered American flag and the distant, hallucinogenic strains of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” and already you’re sold. Let’s blow up some bad guys. For liberty. Later, choice songs and original soundtrack pieces set the mood perfectly–bullets are flying and you are a warrior god. This atmosphere is built brick by quiet brick, and it makes it all the more jarring when the world around you begins to decay like a rotting corpse.
The first time I began to suspect that I was the bad guy was around the time I plugged an American soldier in the head while he offered his squad mate a piece of gum and contemplated life. “You have to find peace anywhere you can,” he said, just as his skull exploded. It’s important to note here that both of these men were members of the 33rd–a team of American soldiers who had gone rogue and were under the orders of Colonel Konrad, a madman that had taken over a deserted, war-torn Dubai. The setting of Spec Ops is really an antagonist in itself–an unreal landscape of urban desert apocalypse, slowly being swallowed by sand storms. It’s so dreamlike and otherworldly that you rarely stop to take stock of who it is that you’re killing–in a world like this one, it hardly matters. By the time you exit the ruins of another luxury hotel and find yourself surrounded by an open landscape with dead soldiers hanged by their necks on every available overhang, you are waist-deep in the violent fever dream shared by both Captain Walker and Colonel Konrad.
But if the motivations of Captain Walker were suspect before, that’s only because the game was just starting to warm up. White phosphorous is an incendiary weapon that has seen some controversy in modern warfare. It sticks to skin in a fashion similar to napalm, and can devastate communities with its indiscriminate killing power. Walker and his two teammates use it to even the odds against an entire army that stands between them and Konrad’s tower. The white phosphorous serves as a way for our protagonists to even the playing field, and achieve victory. On Walker’s targeting system, the enemy is a series of grainy black-and-white outlines. But after the devastation is completed and your targets are neutralized, you are forced to wade through the dead and dying. You are forced to accept the consequences in any way you can, justifying your cause every step of the way. You and your partners begin to question your role in all of this. “He’s turned us into killers!” your squad mate Lugo shrieks. Later, when another soldier demands an explanation for everything up until that point, Walker’s only reply is a vague one about the role you’ve chosen: “We’re fucking soldiers!”
It’s after this segment that a snap in Walker’s mind is made far more evident. In a return to the flashback that opens the game, he breaks the fourth wall for the first time, crying out “We’ve already done this!” Even the loading screens reach out and tap into your psyche. Gone are the glorified images of chisel-jawed men with guns and brave looks. In their place are shots of you and your team, staring into the middle distance–numb, and entirely unsure about their place in this world. Even the messages change. Where there were once pointers on weapons or background information, now there are accusations and chilling consolations. “If you were a better person, you wouldn’t be here,” says one. “How many Americans have you killed today?” asks another.
It only gets worse.
The death of a comrade in arms sees you firing on civilians. As each chapter progresses, Walker is getting more gaunt and torn apart. Even his voice shifts over time, from his cool, clipped orders in Chapter One to his hoarse, ragged growls in Chapter Twelve. It’s little things like that that further accentuate how far Walker is from himself–how much he has to cope with, and how many horrible things he has done. You’re just following orders–aren’t you? By the time the storyline draws to a close, you’re questioning everything about not just this particular shooting game, but every shooting game you’ve ever played. Who gives the orders? And why should we obey them? Who watches the watchmen?
Spec Ops: The Line isn’t content to let you play the Bad Guy and let you off with some physical morality meter that you can read and study–it shows you the consequences for the horror you’ve caused, and the only times you’re able to lull yourself into believing that you’re not responsible for the atrocities in Dubai are the times that the designers want you to believe that. And only then so that they can pull the rug out from under you at the least opportune moment. If you care about video games as an artform even a little bit and you haven’t played this game, you truly need to go out and get a copy. Spec Ops: The Line stands out as one of the most memorable games I have ever played, and your role as a villain within it is truly chilling.