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‘Spec Ops: The Line’ tells a conflicted tale

‘Spec Ops: The Line’ tells a conflicted tale

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Spec Ops: The Line
Yager Development
2K Games
PS3, Xbox 360

Drawing inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as well as the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation Apocalypse Now, Spec Ops: The Line tells of a three-man Delta Force team sent into a Dubai decimated by sandstorms, tasked with tracking down rogue Colonel John Konrad and his 33rd Infantry. Having disobeyed a direct order to abandon Dubai, Konrad and his men remained to provide aid to the remaining population. Their last transmission repeats on an endless loop: “Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll: too many.” So far, so Call of Duty. 

Things start to change fairly rapidly, however. As Captain Martin Walker, you lead your two comrades through a post-apocalyptic landscape, slowly uncovering the truth of what happened as you make your way to the heart of the city. As you progress, you begin to realize that perhaps the 33rd Infantry weren’t helping the locals as much as they proclaimed – evidence of torture and worse litters your path.

Reaching a location heavily-fortified by Konrad’s men, you are tasked with using white phosphorus mortar rounds against them. Afterwards, as you walk through the charred and burning bodies, you realise who you really killed: the civilians who were being sheltered by the 33rd

From that point on, Walker becomes unhinged. Blaming Konrad for making him kill innocents, his outlook grows skewed. He commandeers a radio from a dead solider, using it to argue sporadically with Konrad. His squadmates continually beg him to turn around and go home. Slowly you, as the player, begin to carry out actions in the name of ‘good’ that you find harder and harder to agree with. You start to realise that, unlike most video game protagonists, Walker might not be the heroic extension of yourself you were expecting. And as you reach the climax of the game, it becomes less and less clear who should be viewed as the true evil of the story. 

The Line throws a number of neat narrative tricks to keep you uneasy. Loading screens tell you that ‘cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously’. At a base level, you want to continue playing, to kill the enemy and move forward like every other shooter, but are you really killing the enemy? As if aware of the seeds of confliction taking root, the game itself advises you to stop playing. ‘How many Americans have you killed today?’ it asks as it loads the next level. ‘If you were a better person you wouldn’t be here.’ 

spec-ops-the-line-preview

At one point your squadmate finds himself fenced in by a baying mob, angry at your team’s actions. They edge closer, shouting at you in a language you don’t understand, the ripples of violence spreading. Some of them start to throw rocks. What do you do? The Line doesn’t tell you anymore, it’s given up. But there’s always a choice: you can gun them down or you can walk away. What would Walker do? What would you do?

The final kicker comes in the game’s dying moments. Upon reaching Konrad, you find the Colonel’s corpse splayed out on the floor, a gun still clutched in his rotting fingers. He’s been dead all along, a suicide from before you even arrived in Dubai. He was never on the other end of the radio, was never forcing you to kill. Walker invented the fiction to give him reason to keep going, to fool himself and his teammates from the truth. And maybe to fool you from it, too. Only his squadmates knew something wasn’t right; they begged him to turn around. Or did they beg you? 

Walker has become Konrad – the Konrad dead at his feet as well as the Konrad alive in his mind. A monster responsible for the butchering of innocents, or at least of forcing the innocent to butcher. And you as the player carried him forward despite your reservations; despite knowing what you were doing was wrong.

The final message comes right at the end, when you’re given the option to await extraction or use Konrad’s gun on yourself. ‘You are still a good person,’ it reads. But somehow, the words ring hollow. 

[wpchatai]