Now Playing: Spec Ops – The Line

Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line has accrued a bizarre reputation as a third-person cover-based shooter that stands against violence. This is obviously and annoyingly oxymoronic, to have the game condemning the source of its own entertainment value. I’m not the first to say so.

But the contradictory nature of the narrative does offer a surprising level of motivation, pulling you deeper into the game to see what sort of knots the protagonists will tie themselves into next over the games’ central moral conundrum. The writing and acting are excellent, and the script does its very best to scale the impossible face of paradox.

Lucky job too, because as a shooter alone it’s merely fair to good. All the essential ingredients are there, but the context-sensitive controls are often frustratingly clumsy, and the initially impressive library of weapons have a tediously indentikit feel. In play terms alone it’s hard to see why you’d pick this over a Gears of War or a Band of Brothers.

The answer is that struggling, wriggling plot. And the more of the game I’ve played, the more I’ve come to suspect that a lot of critics got it wrong: this isn’t a violent game condemning violence so much as one that tries to unpick the often-flimsy motivations and justifications offered for violence by its perpetrators.

Once I’d seen it from that angle, it became a much more subversive and less problematic experience, allowing me to soar over the games’ jagged narrative canyons with a clearer and more appreciative eye.

The Line demonstrates that a compelling story can often trump detailed mechanics when it comes to video games. It’s a lesson more AAA writers and producers ought to learn.

5 Responses to “Now Playing: Spec Ops – The Line”

  1. Yorick January 31, 2014 at 6:27 am #

    I haven’t played this game yet, but I’ve heard a lot about it. Is it still actually worth playing now or is having heard of the major themes and some specific scenes enough to spoil the impact of the experience?

    • Jackolantern January 31, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

      If you are interested in a game that at the very least is trying to have a conversation about violence in video games, I say give it a try. I never thought that it made a particularly strong statement against violence, pretty much the only way to interact with other characters in the game is to shoot them. That being said, it does have a lot to say on what it does to someone who only has violence as a “solution” to his problems.

      What I think drew people to it in the first place is that it has anything to say at all about the nature of violence and video games. In a desert any water is good water.

      • Ferawyn January 31, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

        The lack of choice made the game feel flat to me. It is utterly linear. The only choice given to the player is if you want to shoot the enemy in the torso or the head. You’re not committing the atrocities in the game, you’re just watching them happen in spite of yourself.

        Maybe if there had been choice it would have had more impact.

  2. Michael Barnes February 2, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

    How is a game that rewards players for “350 kills with any rifle”, “killing three enemies with one grenade”, and “getting 250 headshots” (all actual achievments/trophies) having any kind of “conversation” about violence? Let alone that the silly campaign- written at about the level of a kid’s picture book about the My Lai massacre- is back ended with multiplayer and it’s usual rewards-for-murder scoring scheme?

    It’s just plain bullshit to pretend like this game is saying anything deeper or more meaningful than Bulletstorm. The intent is there, but it is clearly the wrong genre, the wrong gameplay, and the wrong medium for these minds of messages to carry any impact to anyone over the age of fifteen.

    What the game is, however, is a great example of how pitiful it is when game developers strain themselves trying to reach for artistic credibility…while wallowing in the very things that are keeping the medium locked down in pre-teen murder fantasy. Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us are so shining examples of the shockingly low standards of storytelling in video games and a general failure of the medium to convey narrative and meaning through actual gameplay.

    • Matt Thrower February 3, 2014 at 9:35 am #

      Predictably, I don’t entirely agree. The idea the game is “anti-violence” is clearly nonsense, but abut halfway thought I started to see parallels between the reasoning offered by the protagonists for their action and those given by UK and US politicians for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

      Perhaps I imagined them, but having got that notion, the whole setup seemed to make a lot more sense. “Here are the appalling consequences of your violence,” the game said and then asked “Why? Do the reasons given for this on either side stack up? Do they justify the consequences?” To which the answer is, of course, no.

      If I’m right, then that goes on to justify my praise of the games’ writing. That’s there’s any level of allegory at all in a gaming plotline puts it a substantive cut above any other big-budget game around.

      It’s patently false that a violent game automatically disqualifies itself from saying anything useful about violence. Look at Hotline Miami. Basing play on murder prevents a game from taking a pacifist stance, but it doesn’t mean there’s not a huge gray area between the extremes to explore.

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