Published on January 14th, 2013 | by Matt0
GOTY 2012 — Matt: Spec Ops: The Line
Since Ricardo decided to write about my personal GOTY pick, The Walking Dead, I’m going to write about my runner-up for 2012. Another game that did an amazing job with its story, choices, and brutal player revelations: Spec Ops: The Line.
Upon first glance, Spec Ops appears to be nothing more than a very generic, third-person, military shooter set in the Middle East. After a late first act turn, however, the game proceeds to flip what you expected on your head, and instead takes you on a slow, spiraling descent down a dark road to madness. Without spoiling as much as I already have, it’s safe to assume that things to do not go well for Capt. Walker and company.
Spec Op’s story not only addresses themes such as the horrors of war and posttraumatic stress disorder, but also is a direct statement on war games, player agency, and those who seek entertainment out of virtual violence.
Throughout the game players are presented with “choices” that do have consequences in the main story, but when it comes down to the most important moments of the story, there is no choice. If you play the game, you will do horrible things to proceed, and the game will take note of that. It might seem unfair for a game to ask you to do something and then say you’re a bad person for doing it, but in a world where we’ve become accustomed to being “the one,” the player character who can save the day and do anything no matter what, Spec Ops tells you sometimes you can’t control everything.
According to the lead writer for the game in a series of interviews, Walt Williams, the player does have a choice: He or she can stop playing the game.
Again, the idea seems totally alien, contradictory, and perhaps even nonsensical. At the end of the day Spec Ops perhaps does not have an opinion itself, but is simply asking the questions. Why do we get enjoyment out of virtual violence? Is it OK for us as a society to glorify war and grisly deaths the way modern war games often do? Does the player always have to be able to save the day and make whatever choice they want?
Spec Ops: The Line is by no means a perfect game. In fact the gameplay itself would probably be described as bland. It’s a perfectly competent 3rd person shooter, with some vehicle sequences thrown in. The game flew under many a radar prior to release for not showing off anything that seemed interesting, but the only way it could have shown anything that was interesting would be to spoil its story.
The game relies on shock to convey its message. One could argue how effective some of those moments are, but for the most part I was genuinely moved by the game and its characters. Seeing how the Delta Force team slowly falls apart is incredible. Even small details, like having the character’s “reloading” and other shouts grow more desperate and unhinged as the game progresses create a sense of insanity. By the end of the game even the loading screens are calling you out. “How many Americans have you killed today?”
Spec Ops works better as a conversation piece, a work of criticism, than a game. That’s why it’s number 2 on my personal list. But the questions it asks are those that need to be asked. With recent events, people outside our world are asking questions about violence in video games. While I don’t believe video games cause real world violence, there is still room to examine why we view these forms of media as entertainment, and take a hard look at some of the potential problems this entertainment industry has. Knee-jerk reactions and angry shouting at those who disagree won’t help our case.
As for Spec Ops it’s a shame it didn’t quite get the attention it deserves for pointing out some of these things. While there was a brief zeitgeist following the game’s release, discussion on some of it’s larger themes seems to have dried up. Hopefully other games in the future can pick up that torch, and continue to view these important subjects in a nuanced way.
While Spec Ops: The Line may not have been my game of the year, it rides a close second. What it represents is perhaps more important that what it actually is.