The “Payoff” of ‘Spec Ops: The Line’

Spec Ops: The Line avoids a predictable payoff.

This post contains major spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line is a military-themed, cover-based, third-person shooter. You’ve played this game before, many times over. However, it’s still a game worth playing. It offers a different kind of story than the one normally attached to such shooters. Rather than revel in the power fantasy of shooting guys, the characters in The Line are so disturbed by their own actions that they slowly unravel over time. Based on this description, there’s an assumed “payoff” that should come at the climax: these guys should go insane; they should cross that metaphorical line.

The game seems to be heading in this direction during its latter half when it begins to introduce some nice Eternal Darkness-esque tricks, but then the game ends right when the hero, Walker, reaches his breaking point. There’s no “payoff” -- at least not the kind that we’re expecting. There’s no concrete example of Walker stepping so far over that titular line that he can’t come back. And that’s actually what makes the ending great.

A lot of things happen throughout the The Line that make you question Walker’s state of mind. As Walker is attacking an encampment, he sees the entire place bombed with white phosphorous. The enemies come rushing at you as they burn, and you’re quickly overwhelmed. When the game reloads the checkpoint, another comrade is yelling at you to take cover, and there’s no fire anywhere. Or: after a comrade dies, that character suddenly appears as an enemy during a particularly rough firefight, cursing Walker for “leaving me to die”. He’ll kill you, and when the game reloads the checkpoint, we’re suddenly faced with a normal enemy.

Hallucinations like this make it clear that Walker is an unstable man, but he always seems to recover from them. Even when you’re forced to do terrible things, even when you choose to do terrible things, Walker always rationalizes his actions in a way that makes sense or at least sounds like it given the context. He’s never presented as undeniably insane, just pushed to the ragged edge and hanging on for dear life.

Rather than end with a definitive answer regarding Walker’s sanity, The Line ends with a decision in which we get to choose, metaphorically, whether we think he went crazy or stayed in control.

Walker comes face-to-face with his imaginary villain and all of his false heroics are exposed. Konrad tells him that the only fitting end is suicide. We then have to choose whether to shoot ourselves or the imaginary Konrad.

If we kill ourselves, we’re agreeing with Konrad that we crossed the line, that we went too far, that Walker went crazy, and that he can no longer be trusted. He’s a danger to society and must be punished for his war crimes.

If we don’t kill ourselves, we’re rejecting Konrad, arguing instead that we toed that line, but that we’re ultimately in control. What’s interesting about this choice is that it can either be seen as an honest act at redemption or just another act of denial. This choice, presented at this point in the game, essentially leaves it up to the player to determine the ultimate moral message of the game. The thematic message—that war is hell—is the same no matter what, but we get to choose whether Man can survive that hell. The Line is undeniably a war story, but is it a war story based around damnation or redemption?

It’s a brilliant ending that embraces the interactive strengths of the medium. Like Bastion and Grand Theft Auto IV, the game spends most of its plot setting up a philosophical question, then uses the "gamey" narrative device of branching paths to explore both possible answers, allowing it to explore these themes more fully than any passive and linear media could.

Then it goes a step farther by demanding the player actually confront this moral issue as well. Walker does some horrible things over the course of the story, but because this is such a rigidly standard shooter, those horrible things can lose some of their emotional impact. I’ve played all the Call of Duty games, and I’ve seen wartime atrocities rendered with pixels. Within the context of a military shooter, the most disturbing scenes of The Line weren’t that disturbing to me personally -- at least in the moment. But the ending changed that. By framing the events of the game as part of a grand moral question, it changes the context around them. In retrospect, I come to think of those events not as scenes of video game violence but as scenes of real violence, and I’m suddenly shocked by my previous lack of shock.

Based on the elevator pitch, you might expect Spec Ops: The Lineto payoff in a predictable fashion. Thankfully it doesn’t, and its actual payoff proves it to be so much more than just another military shooter.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.