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.