Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
In Spec Ops: The Line, the player takes control of Delta Force Captain Martin Walker on a reconnaissance mission to desolate Dubai. Under Walker’s command are heavy weapons and explosives specialist Lieutenant Alphonse Adams and Staff Sergeant John Lugo, sniper, engineer, and polyglot.
The sparkling postmodern oasis that is the city of Dubai has been ravaged by freak sandstorms, turning the metropolis into a wasteland. Its leaders abandoned their people before the cataclysmic natural disaster hit. As luck would have it, the 33rd Infantry Battalion of the US Army led by distinguished Lieutenant Colonel John Konrad had just finished their tour in Afghanistan and came across Dubai. Their decision to join the relief effort was curtailed by orders to abandon the city, but they defiantly chose to stay to help the civilian populace.
Soon enough, the sandstorms got worse, stranding the 33rd with the rest of the citizens of Dubai. After failed attempts to keep the peace in the dire conditions, the 33rd tried evacuating the people only to fail at that mission as well. With all communications lost, the UAE declared the city as a no man’s land and the 33rd was disavowed by the US government for treason.
With one ominous radio message by Lt. Col. John Konrad managing to breach the sandstorm wall after the tragic events, Capt. Walker and his men are sent to investigate.
In the beginning, the game doesn’t do anything to set itself apart from the average modern shooter. The premise sounds much like your garden variety VG war thriller plot, and the mechanics follow the formula of your generic realistic third-person cover shooter.
You fight native “insurgents” in the beginning. You try to rescue your fellow soldiers. You dash from wall to wall to get closer to your objective while avoiding gunfire. You pop in and out of hiding to carefully aim and shoot at your enemies. You issue a command to your squad every now and then to throw a grenade or snipe a turret operator. You move from action-packed set piece to set piece. Your health slowly regenerates. You even get little notifications for performing particular actions like blasting an Arab’s head off with a pistol or blowing up a group with one grenade.
If you were to stop playing an hour or so into the game, I wouldn’t fault you for dismissing it as “just another shooter”.
In terms of gameplay, it doesn’t really rise above that statement. Where it makes its mark as one of the more important games of this generation is in its self-destructive narrative tied to player agency.
The game presents you a number of moral dilemmas. In the first one, you have to choose between rescuing a CIA agent being tortured right in front you or civilians getting lined up to be executed. In another, you have to decide the fate of a civilian who stole precious water and a soldier who apprehended the thief not before killing his family.
None of it comes easy.
But what turns out to be the some of the most powerful choices are the ones made for you by Capt. Walker.
Late in Chapter 4, you turn your crosshairs from the insurgents to your fellow Americans, the Damned 33rd. All because of an established internal conflict with the CIA sowing dissension, you and your subordinates are shot at by Col. Konrad’s loyal men. You shoot back, wiping the squad out with your impressive shooting, by now refined to calculating effectiveness.
In self defense, Walker says to the dissatisfied Lugo and Adams. Plus, they’re traitors as deemed by the powers-that-be. They’ve also imposed their own form of dictatorship, rounding up rowdy civilians in the name of the law.
From here on out, the 33rd Battalion is the opposition. Those treasonous power-hungry mad men deserve to be put down.
Then Chapter 8 “The Gate” happens. Walker, Adams, and Lugo come across a heavily fortified encampment of the 33rd, none of the soldiers there aware of Walker’s squad’s presence. Though their position offers them a good vantage point, they still have a whole platoon armed to the teeth with trucks, turret-mounted jeeps and APCs to deal with.
Engaging in direct combat leaves them little to no chance to survive. In a bit of twisted fortune, a barely guarded loaded artillery unit sits on that very place. Its payload: white phosphorus. Having already seen its effects on humans in a barren target site just before they got to the encampment, Lugo and Adams hesitate. So does Walker, but he knows what has to be done. Lugo implores him to stop. There’s always a choice.
You press on. For the mission.
Load up the grayscaled top down screen, point to the scurrying figures on the ground, and rain white hot death with a click of a button.
You rappel down the battlements, and just like in Hotline Miami you walk through the horrors of your own doing. Soldiers with their legs blown off. Americans half-dead stumbling through the charred rubble. And finally, a container full of innocent civilians huddled up with their faces completely burned away from their skulls. What was once a woman clings to what was once a child in the middle, the woman’s one empty eye socket staring straight at Lugo, at Adams, at Walker, at me.
I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know they were there. This is all
my Konrad’s fault.
He made me do it.
I move forward. He needs to pay for this.
From this point on, Walker slowly starts to grow unhinged. He starts cursing out his squadmates whenever he gets hit for not providing cover. He growls his kill confirmations with an expletive thrown in unlike the measured tone in the first parts of the game. Instead of the mercy shots Walker does to execute downed opponents, he gets vicious by making enemies plead first before blowing their heads off, beating them to death with his fists, or crushing their necks with his boot. Later on, the hints in the loading screens change to mocking questions and fatalist statements.
Soon afterwards, he and his squad see dead soldiers tied up to chairs – more victims of the infamous incendiary weapon. At least their deaths don’t entirely hang on Walker’s conscience, as they were executed upon Col. Konrad’s orders for disobeying him. Walker grabs the radio nearby, and speak of the devil, it’s Konrad on the other side. Walker brings it with him, and Konrad never fails to question Walker for his actions every step of the way, serving to both burden Walker’s fragile mental state and drive him to press on.
A side mission with grizzled CIA veteran Riggs to supposedly bring the Damned 33rd to its knees by taking control of the city’s remaining water supply goes badly through betrayal, and only compounds the psychological stress Walker is experiencing.
I doomed the city Riggs tricked him into euthanizing the city, and he’s forced to make one last ditch effort at evacuating the citizens, some of whom were witnesses to Walker’s complicity in crashing the water tanks.
A hallucinatory trip to the satellite tower to broadcast the evacuation message ends in the entire structure collapsing thanks to Walker’s need to see the helicopter’s mounted gatling gun’s power.
Then all of a sudden, I’m transported back to the very beginning of the game. I’m reliving the chopper shoot-out sequence, and even Walker remembers that we did this already. And just how that section ended earlier, we crash.
Only this time, I awaken to a Dubai blanketed by a red mist, with the iconic Burj Khalifa turned into a symbolic Barad-dûr in the background. A complete 180 from the tempered entrance of the Delta squad to Dubai filled with light-hearted banter and just a handful of questions.
Konrad starts berating Walker once more for stamping out any hope Dubai had left with his actions while turning against his fellow Americans. Walker sees some of the people he’s killed, shambling towards him while making him damn sure it was all his fault. The short scene was also rather eerily reminiscent of Naked Snake’s walk through the river of Sorrow in Metal Gear Solid 3, but it packs more punch into the seconds that felt like eternity. It doesn’t make a full listing of the nameless soldiers you killed unlike in MGS3, focusing on just the three men that directly affected your mission.
Finally, he sees Lugo being swallowed by the sand as he cries for help. And as Walker would find out soon enough, it was foreboding of the Staff Sergeant’s death by the hands of the civilians. One more hard decision comes, as Lugo’s lifeless body is cut down from the noose and the Arabs surround the two remaining soldiers.
Faced with a literal angry lynch mob who just killed a squadmate, a friend, I still somehow managed to keep myself from mowing them all down. Despite the shoving and the pelting of rocks, I shot at the ground to scare them all off. Despite all that, Walker swears vengeance on the Damned 33rd and on Konrad.
The climactic battle between Capt. Martin Walker, Lt. Alphonse Adams and the Damned 33rd kicks off with Walker being reminded of the horrors of white phosphorus. The artillery is fired into the air, exploding in a flash that envelops the screen. Konrad welcomes Walker to hell, and he too is burned alive.
He snaps out of it thanks to Adams, and the two overcome the odds once again. On the last road to crush the remnants of the 33rd, a heavy obstructs their path. But Walker sees Lugo instead, screaming in anger for being left behind to die, and having to be dragged through this suicide mission just so Walker can feel like a hero.
If you die in this segment, the game instantly reboots to the start of the section as if nothing had happened. The heavy looks just like a heavy now.
In the last stand, Adams and Walker are finally overwhelmed. Walker wants to surrender, thinking it’s the only way they can still finish their mission of evacuating the civilians from the city. Adams has none of it, asking the enemy to just kill him already because he knows it’s over. Out of frustration, he pushes Walker to safety so that he can “finish the mission”.
Walker makes it to the tower with no opposition, only to be greeted by a squad of soldiers – the last of the 33rd. They stay in file except for one who greets Walker, telling him that they surrender, that Dubai is his, and Konrad is waiting upstairs. They salute him. Not what Walker was expecting, but what he probably wanted all along.
It’s worth noting that throughout the rest of the game, Walker and his squad move from one big area to another mostly by going down. They rappel down cliffs, zipline down through empty buildings, Walker slips down across the face of a skyscraper, and they crash land from a helicopter ride. The mission is both a figurative descent into madness and a literal descent into the bowels of Dubai.
Until Walker takes the elevator ride up to Konrad’s suite to finish his mission. Suffice to say, the “encounter” with Konrad is a revelation. Walker wasn’t just hallucinating turning Adams’ face into mush or Lugo firing bullets at him. He was hallucinating the entire situation where he “had to choose” between the water thief and the cruel soldier. He was hallucinating when he was hearing Konrad’s voice “over the radio” which was busted up the entire time. He needed someone to blame. A dead man.
His original assignment was simple reconnaissance, but he just had to play the hero. He had to fire the white phosphorous. He had to keep going.
He was just trying to save everyone.
Faced with the unsettling truth, “Konrad” gives Walker one more choice. Owe up to his transgressions that left nothing but a trail of dead bodies in his wake by shooting himself, or stick to the script that none of it would have happened in the first place if it wasn’t for Konrad. He has five seconds, or Konrad chooses for him.
It takes a strong man to deny what’s right in front of him, but it takes me the full five seconds to make that decision.
At the very least, Walker gets to go home. He’s a broken man, but at least he’s home.
But then Walt Williams, the game’s lead writer, shares his personal take on the story saying that Walker and his crew died in the helicopter crash after destroying the satellite tower. Everything after that is him stuck in a hellish purgatory. Williams also points out the fade transitions also play into the story, as every time the screen fades to white instead of black, Walker hallucinates.
In the ending where you choose to surrender your weapon, sure enough, the screen fades to white. The other two endings where Walker refuses to hand over his AA12 and either dies in a hail of bullets or overcomes rescue team Falcon-1, the screen fades to black.
In the end, there is no saving Captain Martin Walker.
It’s a sobering statement that goes against the typical glorification of war in your average shooter. In taking this route, the act of committing violence regains the weight it lost from being trivialized in most games.
But for as powerful as the acts of violence are, the game doesn’t quite hit all the right notes to keep its execution of its themes pitch perfect.
Having to face wave upon wave upon wave of nameless soldiers didn’t quite help me empathize with any of them. Besides the white phosphorus scene, I never once felt sorry for a single soldier that I killed.
I understand that Williams intended for the countless battles to wear on the player. However, having no real emotional connection to the Damned 33rd besides them being “fellow Americans” (which doesn’t even have that going for it since I’m not American and I’m totally against America’s modern military interventions) won’t make me care. Popping off their heads and blowing them up with a sticky grenade just don”t have the same emotional punch to the gut as dealing with a CIA agent who tries to earn your trust and gives you a way out then backstabs you later.
I also see it as a concession to a third person shooter requiring such gameplay. You have to fight through hordes of enemies, or it wouldn’t be much of a military third person shooter. The achievements popping up on screen whenever you perform well with a certain weapon or make one of the decisions also don’t help, breaking the immersion by reminding players that it’s still just a game that pats your back for killing people in a specific way.
On one hand, sticking to the conventions keeps the experience as close as possible to the genre it’s criticizing, making that action much more apparent. On the other hand, being trapped by those conventions detracts from its goal of giving more weight to the act of killing.
Nevertheless, the rest of Spec Ops still manages to squeeze out real drama from both its gameplay and narrative. Walker should be the poster boy for every war game with stories that rest entirely on one man’s shoulders – suffering from a severe case of PTSD.
Although some have argued that removing choice from its most powerful moment – the white phosphorus scene – makes it seem hollow, Williams defends it by saying soldiers are thrust into such situations where there are no good choices and not all pertinent information is readily available.
The circumstances are quite similar in Hotline Miami, and yet we gamers just have to keep killing despite not fully knowing why. Of course, having paid good money to be able to play these games in the first place is one important factor. However, it can also be argued that buyers enter any transaction with any product without the guarantee that they will enjoy it. People can walk out of a movie theater, put down a book, turn off the DVD player, or delete an album from their music library if they don’t enjoy it.
We’ve been desensitized to video game violence from all our past experiences where killing (and killing plenty) is a given, and that our enemies’ deaths really have no effect on us. Because of this, we accept “missions” that involve a whole lot of violence without question. Besides, we’d probably be given a good enough excuse later on anyway.
So when that expectation is subverted by a reason such as a selfish act of intended heroism gone absolutely wrong or by having no good reason at all, it either makes us feel sick enough for playing through the whole thing anyway or has us question why we seem to revel in the violence.
Whichever the case, it’s a good thing that there are games such as these that cast this deeply-rooted aspect of video games in such a light. This form of media can be more powerful than traditional ones such as books, film and theater for its inherent interactivity driven by the consumers themselves. By approaching the visceral and relational act of committing violence as something that means something to the players, video games can bring about more emotionally-engaging and thought-provoking experiences.
It can also help diversify the already saturated market that has relied too long on violence-centric gameplay mechanics (as Williams himself mentioned in his talk at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference), leading to more creative avenues that explore conflicts which successes don’t hinge upon inflicting pain or outright killing another party.