I’m currently playing through Spec Ops: The Line from Yager Development and the above image sums up the feelings the game can give you at times perfectly. I’ve still to finish it but I am nearing the end so I feel as though I can talk about the game with some authority. Also fair warning THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!
Spec Ops, in the short time I have spent with it, has become one of my top games of the year and it may even get a spot in my top ten of all time list if the ending is what I am expecting it to be. On the surface it is one of the many run of the mill shooters that constantly flood the market. It has a range of weapons to play around with, cover based shooting mechanics and regenerating health. It is all, “been there, done that and got the t-shirt” game design. What makes it so good though is the presentation of that design. The characters and story are drawn from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its film re-imagining, Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola. All that has changed is the character names, setting, and time period with additional threats and anti that are required to make the game compelling (that means lots and lots of “bad guys” to kill). The game has its main thread of Walker travelling through a ruined Dubai to find the rogue general, Konrad (a nice double wink and nudge to both Joseph Conrad and Kurtz). That is the glue that binds everything together. The keystone that allows all sorts of amazing thought provoking stuff to happen on Walker’s journey to Konrad.
One such moment is when the game makes you kill a hundred or so civilians with weaponised white phosphorus that just sticks an emotional knife in your gut that leaves you feeling hollow and ashamed afterward. It then leads into a firefight with the “bad guys” that is hard. Not because of game difficulty but because of what is running through your head. The game’s use of sound emphasises this by not pumping the action movie soundtrack that the rest of the game’s battles enjoy. Instead you get the slightly dulled sounds of the battle and Walker’s sudden switch from calm and in control leader to a man slowly loosing his mind. His exclamations become more guttural, drawn out and saddening because you kind of feel the guilt too. It is the first time I have ever played an action game that has made killing the enemies feel bad.
By the final act of the game the weight of the player’s actions weighs so heavily on Walker that his mind begins to well and truly break. The walls between the game and reality begin to blur as he sees and feels your influence on him and a few stand out moments break the fourth wall. Such as when you have to redo the opening action set piece with the knowledge of context. It starts happening and Walker exclaims that they’ve done this already. It isn’t a funny line, the way it is delivered by Nolan North makes it sound tired, desperate and confused. This is a man on the edge of sanity and this is where things truly start to unravel for him. In the opening of the game the last credit given is your Xbox Live Gamertag/PSN ID as a “Special Guest.” At first you might think it is a cool little addition but by the latter parts of the game you realise why you are the Special Guest, you’re the one that has made all of this crazy, depressing misfortune fall on Walker and his team. Your constant need to simply play through the game has broken these men and resulted in countless dead enemies who are all American troops. You could go as far to say that the player takes on the role of the madness that has taken Konrad and his troops and that is slowly creeping into Walker and his men over the length of the game. Basically, it can all get very meta if you think about it and trust me you will think about it.
It is a game that is required playing for a designer I think because it takes all the things we know that make up an action war game and subtly turns them on their head. The interface and pop-up bars tracking achievement progress take on a menacing quality. The terminology of the objectives varies from blunt to blink and you’ll miss it subtext. It will make you think, it will make you feel and it is incredible because of that, because like I said, the gameplay is decidedly average. The story compels you to move on to its conclusion as it pulls you further and further down its rabbit hole. The gameplay is enhanced by the story and context of each situation it stops being about just Walker needing to get to Konrad but you too. You need to see it through because things get so maddeningly dark.
Everyone talks about gaming needing to have its Citizen Kane moment and while we are not quite there yet, Spec Ops: The Line gives you glimpses of that moment. It uses the established rules and learned habits of the player to great effect and makes you question yourself and the nature of war and conflict. Few games give you these glimpses that make you step back from the experience, detach and then process it. From the Geth dilemma of Mass Effect 2 to the meaning of the journey in Journey. Its little moments that say a lot and say it so well it sticks with you. Spec Ops has several of these moments so if that’s your thing, like me you are in for a treat.
Spec Ops isn’t unique in provoking strong feelings in me though. I’m the type of gamer who puts himself in the game as much as possible, I invest myself in the characters and world as and when I can. So when a game comes along and messes with my head for doing that then it deserves praise. It also deserves praise because it is a game that is actually saying something. It isn’t a shallow 80s action movie style game like Call of Duty or a Sci-Fi adventure like Halo. It is a game that contains those very rare things of subtext and ability for you interpret what is playing out before you. It follows my favourite design ethic of simple surface layer, in this case the third-person action genre and then optional depth for those who want it, in this case pretty much everything in this post!
You can get Spec Ops: The Line super cheap right now so you really have nothing to loose. Go play it and be absorbed by it, Konrad is waiting for you.