Review | Spec Ops: The Line

Last week, I finally played Spec Ops: The Line (only 6 years late!). I’d heard about its ambitious, ethically challenging story, but I’d tried to avoid spoilers. Going into the game, I knew one thing; I would have to make choices that I wouldn’t want to make.

I was expecting tough choices from The Line. However, I wasn’t expecting false choices. The Line contains a mid-game scene where protagonist Walker (and by extension, the player) is treated as if they can choose between two actions, even though the game mechanics allow only one. In the next dilemma, the game lets you continue assuming that only one choice is possible; this time, you could have done something else.

After that initial, infamous, decision, I was so annoyed at the action I’d had to choose that I wanted to put the game down. I chose to play on, but I did so by playing it as a game, unable to try and put myself in Walker’s shoes. This was because to me, those false choices had weakened the game’s intended message. Spec Ops: The Line wants you to feel how easily people who believe they are doing the right thing can become corrupt. It wants you to experience that corruption: the tension between right and wrong becoming stronger, violence becoming more alluring, and your goal overriding your conscience.

But in a false-choice scenario, there can be no tension. When a game’s design makes only one route available, taking that route isn’t a moral choice but a mechanical requirement. The only other option I had in that scene was to turn off the game and never revisit it.

However, I then saw someone argue that this forced choice is a fundamental point of The Line. When I visited a forum to look up specific details about an achievement, I saw a post that discussed how the player, just like Walker, could have chosen to stop at any point. Walker’s desire for progression causes every event of the plot, and our desire for progression is responsible for every decision we “had” to make.

Then, after completing The Line, I discussed it with a friend. I mentioned how its multiplayer mode seemed to be out of place, and an illogical addition, in light of the game’s campaign. The Line‘s multiplayer espouses what its single-player campaign critiques.

A screenshot from the multiplayer mode, obtained from the game’s offical website.

In contrast, my friend believed the multiplayer itself could have been part of the satire. He wondered if the developers could have included multiplayer precisely because people expect millitary shooters to have multiplayer modes, and because tacked-on multiplayer modes were common in game releases at that time. To him, the multiplayer mode could have represented the developers critiquing the games industry, as well as gamers.

Although my friend’s theory was interesting, the official comments about multiplayer inclusion counteracted it: the multiplayer mode was bundled in to tick a checkbox, rather than being a reference to those forced multiplayer modes.

Reading and investigating these multiple arguments showed me that The Line‘s satirical nature makes it hard for me to discuss it as a game. Knowing that The Line is deliberately self-aware, and that it aims to deconstruct both its nature as a game and your role as a player, means I don’t know how to analyse what it does. The Line has flaws, but which are genuine faults and which are intentional critiques or references to the genre? Which clichés are deliberate parodies, and which clichés are from the developers falling into the same patterns they intended to question?

In theory, every design choice could be be double-bluff, a reflection or a joke about that choice rather than a straightforward decision. So, when a game is developed as satire or as a deconstruction, how do you separate its content from its aims? That’s a question I don’t know how to answer yet, because satirical or deconstructive games can easily give me a “hall of mirrors” sensation, which gets in the way of thinking about them.

Despite the frustration I experienced during parts of The Line, I would still recommend it. The game initially challenged me to think about what I chose, then to think about the effect of those choices being in a game rather than a film or book.  It made me want to scour through all of the online history and resources that I could find, in order to figure out the “real” narrative. While I’m not sure how to discuss it as a game, it succeeds at being a puzzle.

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