‘Spec Ops: The Line’ Denies the Player the Pleasure of Play

Spec Ops: The Line isn't a criticism of mediocre shooters, but of the romanticism that has so often gone hand-in-hand with the modern shooter genre.

Since its release, quite a few people have described Spec Ops: The Line as a horror game. It’s easy to see why one would describe it that way after playing it. The hallucinations, the harsh treatment of the player, and the symbolic imagery of hell would be enough for a player to come to that conclusion regardless of anything else that the game might be doing. If one was to call Spec Ops: The Line a horror game, it wouldn’t be monster horror or gothic horror, but the strange twisted nightmare of psychological horror. The kind of horror that makes one look inward at an obstacle course of torture of one’s own making.

I can see the argument for it, and yet, I don’t know if I could fully subscribe to it. Instead I want to focus on a design technique. Spec Ops: The Line seemingly borrows from horror games, particularly early survival horror games like Resident Evil. The early Resident Evil games managed to cultivate a terrifying game with static camera angles and difficult to maneuver tank controls and other design choices that weren’t optimal in the traditional sense. These design choices were born of technical limitations, but as we saw over the years as the developers added better player control that the games lost what made them effective horror games. Spec Ops: The Line isn’t quite this extreme, as much of it still functions like a traditional third-person shooter, and instead operates under the same ethos but with a more subtle approach to sub-optimal design.

The combat in Spec Ops: The Line is not great, but it’s not terrible either. At best, the combat mechanics might be described as adequate. It’s functional with some flaws. Entering and leaving cover is not always a sure thing. Most of the time the cover based mechanics work as intended, but approach the chest high wall at just the wrong angle and you’ll end up standing next to it instead of behind it. The enemies seem to exist in that space between being bullet sponges and bullet fodder. The shooting itself lacks the kinesthetic feedback that brings visceral excitement to encounters. Headshots produce a small burst of blood and slow down time for a second or two, which in other games would highlight the awesome nature of the skill needed to take that shot, but those two seconds in The Line serve as a muted appraisal of the player’s skill. The game allows the player more finesse in lining up the next shot, but lacks just enough feedback to produce any kind of heightened sense of accomplishment in your previous success. In short, the mechanics come up just short enough that the fighting feels off and lackluster, while at the same time still tuned enough to accomplish the job.

Much has been said about Spec Ops: The Line‘s lackluster combat. Many of the assertions by those who liked the game think it a proactive statement made by the game. Whether that is as a commentary on lackluster military shooters or as a way to numb you to video game style killing in preparation for what is to come, in all of these analyses, the mediocre shooting (whether intentional or not) is thought of as a purposeful addition to the game’s theme.

I think this mediocrity serves to highlight the exact opposite, though. I see the combat as having been tuned this way because of how any alternative approaches would have effected the rest of the game. I imagine a version of the game in which the shooting was just that much better, in which it actively engages the player in a positive way (even minimally), in which it is of equivalent quality to the shooting mechanics of Call of Duty or Battlefield, and in which it is able to do all that only to still allow the player to descend into the horrors of war. On the one hand, this would allow the player to experience a power fantasy full of adrenaline fueled action and a sense of accomplishment, while on the other, it would serve as a tragic story of loss and misery.

Spec Ops: The Line isn’t a criticism of mediocre shooters, but of the romanticism that has so often gone hand-in-hand with the modern shooter genre. It’s doing so by presenting pretty much the same types of missions and activities present in those other games, but then leaving the romanticism common to them behind. It also leaves behind the patriotism and starry-eyed machismo associated with the kind of hero that serves as the protagonist in these kinds of games. In it’s place, it shows the consequences of what would have happened if you behaved like a video game protagonist. It reveals the actions of the player without the filter of that form of idealism.

If Spec Ops: The Line had brought the core player engagement — this romanticized version of the act of playing the game itself — alongside the story that they wished to tell, that would be missing the whole point. A work of art is not just what subject that it is about, but about how that work presents that subject. Sometimes choices have to be made, not because they are the right option, but because all other options are the definitive wrong ones. This is a military shooter that doesn’t want to excite the player. That is a certain emotion that the game doesn’t want to evoke in the player as a result of play, so it does its best to leave all possibility of doing so out of the game entirely.

I would suggest that The Line borrows this approach from horror games because it is in such games in which these kinds of diminished game mechanics are most apparent. In some horror games, for example, you remove the player’s ability to move the camera. As a result, suddenly what you cannot see becomes more important than what you can see. Hinder the player’s movement and suddenly running becomes more important than fighting. Horror is created from the addition of limitations. It is created through the denial of player options.

It’s not just older survival horror games that do this kind of thing either. We see these design decisions in modern indie horror titles in which the player is stripped of potent abilities and a clear sense of agency in the world. Amnesia lets you walk, light a lamp, and open doors. You cannot fight. All you can do is run and hide. It’s what allows it to be such an effective horror title. Were you given the option of fighting the monsters in Amnesia that would change the fundamental experience because it would alter the how the player engaged with the game. Of course, these are more extreme examples than what we deal with in The Line. It is one thing to remove a whole set of mechanics and another to simply tweak existing ones. However, the same principle underlies both approaches.

I’ve always felt that the idea that the fact that the combat mechanics in Spec Ops: The Line are poor is an attempt by the developers to “say something” was always the most spurious claim in any analysis of the game. As I played through the game, the mechanics frustrated me. The large waves of enemies, the choked quality of the level design that seemed to actively fight my attempts to protect myself, and constant death left me no choice but to brute force my way through sections. One particular turret sequence frustrated me to the point of rage. I felt relief when I finally fought my way through that one sequence an hour later, but no joy. My thoughts were not “I did it,” but instead “about fucking time.” In a way I could imagine evoking this kind of response as being the point, to match my own frustration to that of the protagonist’s own sense of impotent rage. But then there are moments in the game that don’t inspire frustration, but also never inspire positive emotions. The game denies a sense of success, not through antagonism, but though a denial of tools to feel competent and prepared to face its challenges.

None of this ever felt like the game was telling me something. Instead it always felt like it was denying me something. The combat is just bad enough to never feel good. In a way, that is the way Spec Ops: The Line wants it, not because it wants to make a statement, but because it wants to stop itself from accidentally making a statement that it doesn’t want to make.

The best executed horror games are about the powerlessness of the player and creating a sense of being helpless in the face of danger. They frustrate the player on purpose in a crafted context in order to inspire fear. They limit the player’s ability to fight the monsters that they send their way. This is why I don’t quite feel right calling Spec Ops: The Line a horror game. You have a machine gun and grenades. You are never helpless. And yet, I wouldn’t object to the description. But if I were to concede the point in some way, I would focus not on the feeling of overt terror that the game evokes because of the imagery that it presents to to the player, but instead to the constant feelings that playing it inspires. The Line kept me frustrated, always in a state of tension, and it never allowed me to achieve catharsis. The game pushes me as the situation pushes Walker; always over that next hill, around that next corner is the objective. Only now, it’s not. I achieve the goal, and yet I still feel frustrated. I feel no release. I am not glad, but I am not afraid. I feel something, and it refuses to name itself. And at the end of the journey, only when it is over, do I find that I didn’t fight with monsters, but became one. Only then, do I achieve release.