Spec Ops evokes your memories of other shooters while casting those memories in a new, more disturbing light.
This post contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The Line is a pretty great game. The story challenges traditional shooter tropes, raising some disturbing moral questions in the process, and -- most importantly -- the ending doesn’t cop out. It follows through on the promise that it sets up and forces the player to confront issues of violence that we normally take for granted in games. It has been criticized for being generic, and there’s no denying that it plays like a typical shooter. However, that’s actually what makes it so effective at times. Its adherence to standard shooter tropes allows it to evoke memories of other shooters while casting those memories in a new, more disturbing light.
There are two moments that stand out to me, personally.
The White Phosphorous Scene and Rainbow 6: Vegas 2
There’s a moment in The Line where you come to an encampment of enemy soldiers. They don’t know that you’re there, but there’s clearly too many of them to take on in a firefight even with the element of surprise. Conveniently, there’s a mortar nearby that shoots white phosphorous, so your team uses it to clear out the encampment. Afterwards, you have to walk through the camp and see the burned and mutilated bodies up close and even watch as soldiers die and beg for death.
I played a lot of the Terrorist Hunt co-op in Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, and I was a huge fan of the incendiary grenade. My friends and I always played Terrorist Hunt on the hardest difficulty, which meant that we were incredibly weak and had to hide just as much as we fought. Regular grenades didn’t fit well into this scenario. Not only were they loud and drew attention, but they also killed people too fast. I would toss one out, hear a boom, but I couldn’t be sure if I had actually killed the terrorists shooting at me or if they were just hiding and waiting. Incendiary grenades, on the other hand, made people scream. Every time that I threw one out, I would immediate know how many or how few terrorists I killed by how many screams I heard.
For as sadistic as it sounds, this tactic was purely practical, and within the context of that game while fighting against very obvious bad guys, it even felt moral. But the true violence of my actions was hidden from me. For one, I was usually hiding behind cover while they burned, so I never saw them suffer. Two, the game wasn’t designed to make me regret killing my enemy. There was no stench, no burn marks, no one begging for death. Their screams implied suffering, but it was a very simple, sterile, and scant kind of suffering.
The Line made me do something similar, but then it forced me to confront those people as they burned, it forced me to face up to the violence that I caused. Now I feel guilty for burning all those terrorists alive. Not for killing them, but for killing them in a way that now seems unnecessarily malicious.
Sergeant Walker and Nathan Drake
The main character, Walker, is voiced by Nolan North a.k.a Mr. Nathan Drake himself. People joke that Nolan North is in every video game, and he certainly does do a lot of voice work. However, it’s not just that his voice is recognizable, it’s that he plays the same character in so many games. In an attempt to cash-in on the popularity of Uncharted, it seems that some developers hire North just to “play Drake,” hoping that the familiar and charming voice will attract more players (think Dark Void or Prince of Persia). So when The Line begins and Walker first opens his mouth, all I hear is Nathan Drake. Sure, Walker isn’t as jokey or smarmy, but he speaks with the same cadence. And I immediately like him.
I love Nathan Drake. I love his sarcasm, his self-deprecating and self-referential humor, and I love that his humor is clearly used as a defense mechanism. He’s not a one note character. He realizes when shit goes bad and reacts accordingly in his own way. He’s a classic rogue, and as soon as I heard Walker, I attributed all these same characteristics to him. But Walker is not Drake, despite the similarity of their voices.
As The Line progresses and Walker is pushed closer to the proverbial edge, his voice changes. He becomes violent, more aggressive. Instead of just shouting professional orders (“Cover that door!” or “Take out that machine gunner!”), he demands executions (“I want that guy dead!”) in a voice that sounds like Drake but also one that suggests something more violent in its undertones. It’s a disturbing evolution of his character, and it’s particularly effective for me because it transforms that familiar and fun voice into something darker and more twisted. To hear a voice I associate with friendliness turn into something frightening adds an emotional and personal layer to the narrative about war changing people.
There are more moments of subversion in The Line, but these two had a personal impact on me. While The Line does look like any number of other modern military shooters, those similarities actually work in its favor. It’s a critique of those games, and it can’t critique those games if it doesn’t evoke those games in some way.