My review of “Spec Ops: The Line”

This game stunned me.  I had heard rumors that it was “more intelligent than your typical shooting game”, and that it was based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I figured “oh, great, another game trying to prove how intelligent it is by stealing from other media.”

It is influenced by Conrad,  that’s for sure.  But it’s more than that.  If you’re a fan of military action games, then you need to play this game.  It’s best if you go in knowing as little as possible about it, so if you haven’t played it but think you want to, I advise you to stop reading this now and go play it.

If you’re still here, I’ll assume you have either already played the game or else never will.

Now then, as I was saying, the Conrad motif is present, but the game is actually more like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” or Fight Club.  The plot of the game is that you play as a soldier, Cpt. Martin Walker, who gradually goes mad as he fights through a complicated conspiracy in a ruined and war-torn Dubai.  The city has been destroyed by sandstorms and Col. Konrad, whom Walker served with in Afghanistan, was charged with rescuing the population.  But the Army has lost contact with him, and Walker is sent to look for him.

About halfway through, Cpt. Walker and his men, (and thus, the player) are faced with a situation where they have to commit an atrocity to advance towards the goal.  Walker doesn’t realize until it’s too late that it’s an atrocity; only afterwards does he realize that things weren’t as they seemed.

After this, he begins to pick up the voice of the mysterious Colonel Konrad (why not “Kurtz”?  We’ll get to that) over the radio, telling him to do horrible things.  Walker and his squad fight through the ruined city, until ultimately both his squadmates are lost in the increasingly hellish fighting.

At the end, an injured Walker drags himself to the top of the tallest tower in the city, all the while listening to Konrad’s voice over the radio.  At last, he finds Konrad—dead.  He killed himself before Walker ever set foot in Dubai.

The twist is that ‘Konrad’ as we hear him over the radio is really a hallucination of Walker’s—something he imagines to shift the blame for the atrocities away from himself.  At the same time, Konrad is also a sort of ‘conscience’ for Walker.  He tries to tell him to stop, but all the while, Walker ignores him and blames him for the ever-escalating horror.

At the end, Walker can either shoot the hallucinatory Konrad or himself.  There are multiple endings, all of them extremely powerful and shockingly dark.  It says a lot that the ‘best’ ending is the protagonist committing suicide.

Ok, so why is the Colonel named “Konrad”?  The reason is to subtly reinforce that he is the voice of the author.  When he berates Walker for “trying to be something he’s not—a hero”, it’s the voice of the game talking to the player.  That’s why we play these things, isn’t it? To escape into a fantasy—it’s kind of pathetic when you think of it just like that, and “Konrad” is suitably disgusted.

It’s a complicated, mind-bending, confusing and shocking game.  It’s targeted at players of games like Call of Duty and assorted knock-offs. It’s about the effects of war, and criticizing the cavalier way violence is treated in most war video games.

You could definitely make the criticism that the game is manipulative.  It tells you to commit some atrocious deed, and then berates you for committing it.  (Sometimes there’s a hidden way to avoid it, sometimes not.)  I can see why this might make a person hate the game, since it’s obviously using its rigged mechanics to mess with you.

But then, that’s what all games—in fact, all art forms—are doing, right?  Manipulation of emotions is why we play these things, why we read books that make us sad or watch movies that make us laugh.  This one just happens to make us ashamed of ourselves.

It is, by far, the darkest game I’ve ever played.  Knights of the Old Republic II at least gave you the satisfaction of having learned something—and if nothing else, you saved Telos, right?  The “refuse” ending they grafted on to Mass Effect 3 at least implies your story and knowledge persists into the next cycle.  Deus Ex felt like you were making the best of a bad situation.  But this… the endings are basically “everything ends in disaster, and it’s all your fault.”

I can see a player either thinking it’s brilliant or completely hating it.  I feel both.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?