NOTE: This feature assumes that you've either completed the campaign in Spec Ops: The Line or know about how it ends. Consider this your one and only spoiler warning. This is a post-mortem and there's explicit discussion of major plot points. It is highly recommended that you complete the game before reading. Continue at your own risk.
Spec Ops: The Line accomplishes a rare feat for a video game: it tells a story that matters. Really matters. It hasn't happened often in video games. BioShock is a great success story example, a game that got us all thinking about the truth and consequence behind player choice in video games. It didn't definitively pose and then answer a question. Instead, it made a very simple, very clear observation with its shocking plot twist and then left players to ponder how that line of thought reflected back on them.
It's really not so different from Spec Ops' crowning narrative achievement. In the final analysis, we clearly see the ties to Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, in the story from lead writer Walt Williams. Something's off though. Conrad's tale exposes the shadowy horrors of war against the backdrop of the period and the region in which his story is set. Spec Ops is a lot less socio-political and a lot more internally focused, as Williams told G4 during a recent post-mortem interview.
Questioning The Heart Of Darkness
"Heart of Darkness is very much about the character," he explained. "It was about the ivory trade and this view of the British, the way they were treating the locals. [It was the same with] Vietnam, obviously, for [the Heart of Darkness-inspired] Apocalypse Now. They were very much making a statement about a particular point in time."
"[With Spec Ops], we were really trying to shine a light on the darkness in us as gamers and the types of games we choose to enjoy for entertainment. WHY we go into those games. We wanted people to be thinking about the inherent darkness of sitting down and playing a game where you kill thousands of people. What does it say?"
What does it say? A good story grabs hold of you and doesn't let go through the beginning, middle, and end, but it takes a truly great story to leave your eyes glazed over and your thoughts scattered as you try to make sense of how what you've just seen. Spec Ops falls into that latter category, but only because the player's emotional journey through the game is so inextricably linked with Captain John Walker's.
As Walker and his squad tread deeper into the sandstorm-ravaged ruins of Dubai, they discover grim truths about what's been going on there only after they've taken it upon themselves to designate Konrad and his Damned 33rd as "The Enemy."
By the time the credits roll, every truth that you thought you knew has come apart at the seams: Konrad was dead throughout, his voice was just a hallucination, the Damned 33rd were in fact working desperately to save the civilian population the whole time even though it went against their orders to pull out, and you, controlling Walker, falsely believed yourself to be playing the role of hero throughout.
It's a devastating moment, seeing these truths laid bare. It leaves Walker shattered; regardless of which ending you finish with, he's a dead man walking from the moment he steps out onto Konrad's balcony and sees the sun-decayed corpse of his supposed tormenter waiting for him. It wasn't Konrad. It was never Konrad. It was Walker all along. And through him, it was you, the player, all along.
Angry For The Right Reasons
That's the trick, and the intent, in Spec Ops. Even in the face of mounting evidence that Walker and his squad are, in fact, doing a very bad thing, you the player forge ahead through the story. You can even see the explicit warnings in late game loading screens that ask questions along the lines of, "Do you feel like a hero now?"
As Williams put it, "This is your fault. We designed these things to happen, but none of this would have happened if you hadn't put the disc in the system, picked up the controller, and played the game simply because you wanted to go on an adventure and feel like a hero."
Through all of this, the hope on Yager's end is that you're getting good and pissed off. It's key to the emotional journey that you're taking with Walker. "Spec Ops taught me that, when it comes to writing games, the words that you use are not as important so much as the emotional arc, as someone emotionally understanding the situations going on around him," Williams said.
"The white phosphorous scene is a really good example of this, when Walker has that moment of seeing what he's done and being shocked. Then he has to shut all of that emotion away and make the choice to keep going, to blame Konrad and the 33rd for what happened rather than taking the blame on himself."
"We wanted the players to feel angry at us, the writers, because in many ways the game lied to them, the game tricked them in some way. We want the player to think, 'I can't believe this happened' and then make the choice within themselves to keep going on or has this game crossed a line and they're just done, they're just f-ing done and they're not going to do it anymore. That gamer emotion is always meant to match the character emotion."
You chose to put the disc in. You chose to keep playing. It's hard to shake that basic truth when you're confronted with the crystal clear 20/20 vision of hindsight.
Unraveling Walker's Journey
There's another important layer to the narrative in Spec Ops: The Line, a subtext that is entirely open to interpretation. There are elements scattered throughout the game, many of which only become easy to spot in the late stages that suggest there's a level of dream-like fantasy to the proceedings. And there is, depending on how you read it, another story going on behind the story that plays out on the surface.
"There are things at the beginning of the game, particularly in chapters one through five, that people haven't picked up on yet. Konrad's face appears in billboards and advertisements occasionally throughout [those early chapters]. Sometimes those billboards and advertisements even change when you come closer to be something else," Williams explained.
"You may have noticed a lot of faces with the eyes blacked out. Those are actually, at least internally, not real. The eyes blacked out are part of this hallucination of Walker's. You'll notice that the eyes are only blacked out when there is something horrible in front of them, that they are closing themselves off to what they would be seeing."
"There are a couple of different ways of looking at the game," he continued. "We wanted the story to work on a surface level, like if you didn't think deeper beyond what was in front of you then you could assume it was very straightforward. But there are two things to it that go a bit deeper. One is a way of looking at the epilogue. No one's picked up on this yet either, and I actually thought that they would. When the game is doing a normal transition, it fades to black. Anytime Walker is hallucinating, it fades to white. And that entire epilogue is white fades."
"The other thing, and a lot of people have pointed this out in reviews, is the helicopter prologue. You get back to that at the beginning of act three and Walker directly calls out the fact that they've done this before. There is a way to read this story that the prologue, the helicopter fight, is the only part of the game that you are alive. Walker dies in the crash and everything after that is him reliving everything up to that point and punishing himself over and over and over, like it's his personal hell."
"[That read explains] where a lot of the hallucinations come in at the beginning. This is just his own guilt, and Konrad is that personification. You can say hell, purgatory, however you want to look at it. This is [Walker's] punishment that he's going to continue to put himself through."
Fitting Into The Big Picture
Hearing this, I point out to Williams that a lot of those reviews he mentioned characterize the fourth wall break during the second helicopter sequence as a nod in the direction of the game's meta-commentary on violence and our engagement with it in video games. It's there as well, he said. The narrative tie he described is very much there to be extracted for those who want to see it, but self-reflective commentary is integral to the DNA of the entire project.
"That was something we were really looking to do with the game. [Spec Ops] is really designed in a meta way in that we really wanted to be creating situations where we're causing the player to feel toward us the way that Walker is feeling toward the situation [in Dubai] and Konrad. We wanted the game itself to be actually turning on the player. Not just Walker, but the player. The person with the controller in their hand."
"In many ways, it always feels like games are trying to embrace the player. They open up to the player as you move through and overcome it. It's specifically designed for you to inhabit. In Spec Ops, we wanted to give you the feeling that the game was opposing you at every turn. That it wasn't going to open up and allow the player to be victorious."
You did this. You put the disc in. You played through the story and didn't stop, even as it became clear that you could have and should have stopped playing.
The big success is in the fine line that Spec Ops treads. The difference between an emotionally affective scenario and an exploitative one can be measured in degrees. Great care was taken during development to ensure that everything players were asked to do in Spec Ops had meaning, even if that meaning wasn't entirely clear at first glance. Interestingly, it's Call of Duty that helped keep things honest as the game came together around the story.
"We went over that thing with a fine-tooth comb so many times to make sure that [we weren't being exploitative], because we knew it would only take one thing," Williams said. "A lot of people compare the white phosphorous scene to the 'No Russian' level from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. That was a big inspiration for us, how that had such a controversy to it. I personally felt that the reason it did was because right at the beginning, it said you don't have to play this if you don't want to. You could just skip over it."
"If you're going to have a scene in your game that is that controversial, it needs to be something that you HAVE to play. The fact that you could skip over it and just go directly to the rest of the game said to me that this wasn't necessary to the story they were telling, it was just kind of a moment to shock."
"We didn't want any of those because we knew if we even had just one, the rest of the thing would just fall apart. You wouldn't be able to buy into the rest of what happened. There were things we threw out because ultimately we felt that it wasn't organic, it wasn't required, it was just there to shock.”