Sadistic Design in Spec Ops: The Line

“Yet to go further in tackling these issues I’d like to look at them as symptoms, not as the problems themselves. There’s something wrong with our commercial games, and with the core audience that buys and loves them. There’s something broken about the marketing machine that keeps feeding this ouroboros. There is a power structure in place and we need to find out who to talk to in order to take it apart.” – Leigh Alexander

This review spoils the entirety of Spec Ops: The Line. If you’d like a spoilerless review: it was promising but disappoints in every way.

Let’s return to the AAA critical refrain, last heard when Mass Effect 3 was released: Spec Ops: The Line is not a very good game. In fact, it’s a completely generic game; the only difference between SOTL and Gears of War is its setting, polish, and a smaller feature list. Machinima calls it “unique in its intelligent treatment of adult themes,” Mitch Dyer at IGN says it “makes killing people mean something,” Allistair Pinsof of Destructoid replayed chapters “to [understand their full] gravity” – the list goes on and on. It’s critically lauded for its themes and novel treatment of the standard shooting people experience.

Why, then, are its game design and writing such insults to the player’s intelligence?

Before the game’s release, Spec Ops: The Line built a lot of buzz through claims that it was based on the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness. While the novel is firmly entrenched in the literary canon, it’s more popularly  known as the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a movie which is widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. Both the novel and movie are about a man named Kurtz who descends into the depths of an uncharted land and manipulates the natives into viewing him as a charismatic god. He even wins over representatives from the “civilized” world – Marlowe, a British trader in the book, and Captain Benjamin Willard, a US Special Forces operative in Vietnam. In both cases, the protagonists find Kurtz after a lengthly and surreal journey, meet Kurtz, are enchanted by him, witness his death, and return to “the real world” in order to report on their experiences. In their own ways, each work (at its most basic) is about understanding the difference between morality and ethics – particularly pragmatism – and the question of what keeps someone good when she is the most powerful person in the room.

Spec Ops: The Line, by contrast, is largely about the question of why one would spend money on a game which does its level best to make you stop playing.

On a mechanical level, it’s a basic cover shooter: pilot your avatar, Martin Walker, Special Operations, to hide behind cover to regenerate health, throw various types of grenades, tell his squad members to attack specific people, and fire various kinds of weaponry at various kinds of enemies. Sometimes Walker will find a grenade launcher or sniper rifle. The lead writer on SOTL, Walt Williams, contends that this utterly stultifying gameplay is a deliberate choice: you see, they didn’t want to scare players off with unfamiliar or interesting gameplay before they had the chance to be dumbfounded by the plot’s sinister revelations. I have to thank Mr. Williams; before playing this game and researching what he had to say about his game, I didn’t believe that the frequent assertion by blog commenters that “game writers are just people who want to be screenwriters” held any validity at all. Perhaps foolishly, I still believe that there are people out there who genuinely want to write good games in which the player has an effect on the world and characters around her, and that it’s possible to do this well; however, in Spec Ops: The Line, Mr. Williams has gone out of his way to present the illusion of choice and then “surprise” the player by yanking the rug out from under her feet.

Like the often-lauded Bioshock, which title we are all very tired of hearing, Spec Ops: The Line plays upon the necessary obedience of the player to game mechanics: once someone purchases a game, they’re going to try to play it. When Bioshock did it, it was something of an interesting observation, though the rest of the game let down that premise; in SOTL, it’s a tired motif that is approximately as shocking and relevant as a picture of a puppy. Sure, it’s nice to see, but it’s hardly uncommon. You’ve seen it a million times before.

The plot of Spec Ops: The Line has very little resemblance to Heart of Darkness. While it is a clear inspiration to the characterization of Cpt. Martin Walker, Walt Williams seems to have missed the point – and indeed, most of the movie and book – by focusing on the “gradual discovery of a crazy leader’s actions” motif to the exclusion of any other thematic, technical, or intertextual elements. Where Marlon Brando reads T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (itself inspired by Heart of Darkness), Martin Walker makes a series of half-sensible command decisions on his star-crossed trek into Dubai (itself a blatant contradiction of orders.)

While doing reconnaisance as a forward spec ops team, Walker orders his two squadmates further and further into Dubai, apparently immediately forgetting that communication with his superiors is possible. In a fit of paranoia stemming from a misunderstanding of a dying CIA agent’s last words, he drops white phosphorus onto a huge encampment of US soldiers and refugees. You may have heard of this event. Granted, when faced with the decision I thought it was a bold decision to present; however, that was a short-lived attitude once I discovered that it was impossible to choose not to drop the WP on the encampment, impossible to step away after only bombing the military targets (in an interview with Williams, Jeff Gerstmann noted that the segment didn’t end unless he’d bombed the obvious group of civilians, to which Williams responded with a bemused air that he was more observant than their testers) and in fact that the game presents you with unkillable enemies if you try to engage the encampment with small arms. It’s no decision at all.

At the time, this reminded me of nothing so much as the stereotypical Dungeon Master who, in running a tabletop RPG, brutally murders his players the instant they deviate from his preconceived script. In practice, of course, one of the most vital skills a DM, writer, or game designer can possess is the ability to adapt. When Williams says (in the same interview) that at one point the development team allowed the player to choose not to commit that war crime but took it out “for technical reasons, maybe, I’m not sure,” he is in fact conceding that his real objective isn’t giving murder weight, but chastising the player for doing the only thing implemented by the implementors. In claiming that the game attempts to “give murder weight,” IGN and the developers of SOTL betray their lack of familiarity with media outside third-person shooter games. As any regular consumer of the nightly news could tell you, murder’s horror lies not in its weightiness, but in the startling ease with which it can happen. It’s the blitheness with which one can murder that is at the center of works like Silence of the Lambs, Full Metal Jacket, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, etc.

Which is the whole point of consequences. One merely has to look at the average YouTube video’s comments to see what lack of consequences does to social propriety and justice. In fact, one merely has to look at Spec Ops: The Line to see what horrors an unchecked ego can wreak: in the name of depth, the game trots out that old nag of endings and reveals that Konrad is all in Walker’s head, that he and the Damned 33rd are simply hallucinations brought on by Walker’s horrific crime. (On an unrelated note, I am flabbergasted that the game press fell in love with the most basic of freshman creative writing plot twists.) It’s thereby revealed that every choice after the white phosphorous was a false one. While the player may choose whether to execute a soldier who killed innocents or a water thief, it is revealed later that both were corpses in the first place. The dilemma of whether  to rescue a group of innocents or a CIA agent is also moot; both died anyway. There are a couple of quasi-interesting moments throughout the game, like when you can shoot a civilian mob or fire warning shots, but this twist handily invalidates all of them.

Rather than telling a story that “really matters,” in the words of G4TV‘s Adam Rosenberg, Spec Ops: The Line tells a story that ultimately matters not at all. Although it is marginally better than most ‘telling a story’ shooters in that it pretends to allow the player to participate, this tiny step is hardly unique. If this is the high-water mark of current game development, it’s a sad climb back to the lofty heights of the mid-oughts and earlier, when games like I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, Sanitarium, and Slouching towards Bedlam questioned the player’s complicity in the events depicted within the game.

If games are to mature as a medium – a low and desperate phrase that betrays anxieties that are more about ourselves than our pastimes – then we can’t rest on our previous laurels and call them unique and innovative. We’ve already had games that referenced the fact that games are designed and that players are limited to what the designers implement. We’ve even had attempts at making a statement about why we’re driven to solve puzzles. As clever as they are, they are the equivalent of a film student pointing the camera at a mirror.

It’s time to stop patting ourselves on the back and time to stop awarding developers cookies for imitating our favourite movies and games.

It’s time to hold ourselves to any standard at all.

Further Reading: Bad at What? The Question of Skill and Games Criticism (Medium Difficulty)

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter (Grantland)

Horror Done Right: Alan Wake, Language and Control (Medium Difficulty)

Call of Apathy (Medium Difficulty)

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  • Matthieu Calvarin

    I think this way of making games like interactive movies is pretty old.
    Half-Life (1998) brought scripting into the FPS genre and Medal of Honor (1999) stabilised the concept with heavily scripted scenes, coridor mapping and a high content density to avoid boredness. But for a decade, the photorealism of the engine was the main argument to sell FPS and the Call of Duty franchise was just a style among others. We got fast-FPS, a lot of battlefield-like FPS, some survival FPS usually with zombies, some RP asymetrical multiplayer FPS like TF2 or QW, etc.
    (Yeah, I’m mainly a FPS player.)
    Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (2009) changed everything. Publishers discovered that you can make a game completely linear as long as you continuously feed the adventure with new situations and Bayxplosions (Michael Bay style). There was no reason to replay the game since the experience would be exactly the same but it doesn’t matter: the online key authentification had already killed the second-hand market. They also discovered that cross-platform games were the key for fortune and glory. And it became the new criteria for funding. In 2010, 2011 and early 2012, many great PC licences got an awfully linear cross-platform sequel and most of them failed, at least on PC. Bioware, which was famous for its PC RPGs made Dragon age 2. You complain about Mass Effect 3 but have you played DA2? It is supposed to be the sequel of Dragon Age: Awakening. I loved that game. DA2 is just lasyness, desilusion and boredness. They didn’t even bother to create unique maps for different places or icons for items in the inventory.

    Anyway, open-worlds are not dead. Many games try to copy the GTA and the Elder scrolls paradigms (Assassin’s creed, Borderland, Rage, Prototype, Saints Row, 2 worlds, Kingdoms of Amalur). DayZ kept ARMA2 in the steam sells top 3 for weaks. Minecraft showed that procedural generation is fun. Let’s hope this is the future.

  • Brendan Keogh

    Hi Karl,

    My apologies but I really couldn’t disagree with this post more. Overall, the tone reads more like you are trying to discredit the incredibly positive and meaningful experiences so many other critics have had the game because you have a bugbear with “stultifying” cover-shooter mechanics and can’t possibly imagine such a game saying something meaningful.

    I’m having trouble figuring out where to start with this comment, but I think my biggest issue is where you say:

    “Perhaps foolishly, I still believe that there are people out there who genuinely want to write good games in which the player has an effect on the world and characters around her”

    Ultimately, yes, I think that is foolish to believe because, no, videogames have never been about the player making important choices and having an effect of the world and characters around her. At least, not primarily. Some videogames are, and that’s great! But primarily, videogames are about doing what you are told. About the developer setting up a possibility space (be that space narrow or wide) and the player acting within it. A linear corridor-shooter like Modern Warfare or Spec Ops is not inherently a ‘worse’ game than Minecraft or Just Cause 2 or DayZ just because the limitations on the player are stricter. Such a presumption greatly skewers how videogames actually function, how players actually engage with videogames. It privileges a certain kind of videogame while dismissing others. In fact, I wrote about just this RIGHT HERE: Really, in this post I feel like you are chasing mirages yourself, wishing there was a game here doing what Spec Ops is never really trying to do.

    For me, Spec Ops is a military shooter that critiques military shooters. More than anything it may or may not say about human nature or war or cultural-military complexes, it says fascinating things about military shooters themselves. What it does is it honestly and openly bes exactly the kind of game it is critiquing. Not to be hypocritical, but to draw attention to its own implicitness in the acts on the screen, to draw attention to the player’s implicitness in every game. The most obvious critique is seeing your Nolan North-voiced character reflected on the screen of the WP targeting system, as though to say “This is what you do in shooters. In all shooters. Are you okay with that?”

    It isn’t simply saying ALL MILITARY SHOOTERS ARE BAD OMG! There are enough future/indie focused critiques willing to dismiss any AAA game out of hand. Instead, what Spec Ops is doing is far more admirable. It simply says “This is how this is.” It’s up to the player to decide if they are okay with doing that or not.

    And that is how Walker’s choices reflect the players. No, you don’t have a choice to not to do what you do in the game. The ‘choice’ you have is to not participate, to not partake in the activities of military shooters. If you do choose to partake, this is how it is going to be: you are going to be a murderer. Similarly, Walker’s choice is simply to NOT KEEP GOING. Every single step he takes he is making a choice to not just stop. Every second the player pushes forward on that analog stick, they are making a similar choice.

    You say Spec Ops has no choices. I say it is about how you ALWAYS have a choice, Every button you press on the controller. Every time you aim at this pixel instead of that pixel or hide behind this cover instead of that cover you are making a choice. I don’t want inFamous style Kill the granny/build an orphanage choices. I want micro choices held together by a strong authored story that someone else has written for me. That is why I play ‘linear’ shooter, and I think Spec Ops is one of the most intelligent of such shooters I have ever played. Nay, the most intelligent.

    If you don’t think Spec Ops did that well, that’s fine! I’m totally fine with you disliking Spec Ops, or for thinking it did not do what it was trying to do well. But by complaining about the lack of choice, you are doing to Spec Ops what John Walker did to MW3, which I also critiqued ( ) The kind of critique you are doing in this post, I feel is about as meaningful as complaining about Minecraft not being a racing car game. That’s simply not what the game is trying to do. Instead of critiquing the game against a measurement of what games ‘should’ do, we should be looking at what the game does do. What Spec Ops *does* do is clearly having a great affect on a great many people (self included), and I think understand that and maybe critiquing that is more constructive than dismissing it outright.

    Which, I stress, is not meant to sound like you are ‘wrong’ for not enjoying Spec Ops. That’s fine! But this reads like you think everyone else is wrong for what they got out of the game. I can’t help but feel like you have not been able to get past a pre-conception about cover/military shooters and have thus missed what this game is actually doing.


    • Karl Parakenings

      Well, exactly. You’ve quoted many of my strongest beliefs as contradictions towards this piece, so I can’t help but feel that I’ve miscommunicated my own views.

      ” But primarily, videogames are about doing what you are told. ”

      Exactly! That’s the only thing they can be about. Even Minecraft, at a high enough level, is a designed set of verbs. Every game, at some point, is a script for the player to enact.

      The problem here is that the player does what they are told and then are expected to feel bad for it. It’s explicitly extradiegetic; it’s not Walker who feels bad, as he either kills himself or suicides by army or says “did i really survive all that?” implying a disconnect, which the wearing of the Konrad jacket reinforces. You, the player, are supposed to feel bad.

      If it were just a critique of Call of Duty, I’d have little to no problem with it. Nor do I think that other people who found the game affecting are wrong.

      I do think that designers have a responsibility to consider the message that they are espousing in games, and also to respect the audience of part of that consideration. Buying a game is a commercial exchange in good faith; to then intentionally alienate the player is bad design and bad writing.

      For reviewers like you and I, the choice is more clean-cut. Since we didn’t buy the game, we don’t feel as compelled to play it; or, in another sense, since playing games is our living, we already have to do it, so being compelled to not play games is immaterial, a fantasy. For the average player, though, the decision to buy a game is an active one; it’s a selection out of a great field rather than one in a procession of many others. Given the material transactional nature of games as cultural objects, I can only see rhetorical moves like Williams’ as insulting to the end user.

      I’m not chasing mirages, in other words: I’m only describing what I see in front of me. I’m not saying that Spec Ops is meaningless, but that the move it makes is one that has been done many times before, and to treat it as new and innovative is to ignore the very history of games that we invoke to contrast with the frequently unoriginal AAA market. My problem is much more with unthinking critical acclaim than it is with the game itself, because the game itself is fairly self-consistent; Walker doesn’t see a choice, and so we don’t have one either. But in a wider perspective, the currency used to procure the game comes with effort, and that effort means that we are already invested in a particular game when we play it, and I think it’s dishonest on the part of Williams to ignore that.

      Hopefully this cleared some of my comments up. Thank you so much for writing a thoughtful rebuttal. :)


    • Karl Parakenings

      Or, in other words, it’s much more that I believe that games with stultifying cover mechanics are capable of heretofore unseen heights of expression that I wrote the above piece. It’s the self-important profundity which suffuses the game with no real support that I find personally offensive.