When video games are described as provocative, it usually means they have found a way to further their joyous dance with violence and promiscuity. Spec Ops: The Line has a different agenda though, which is that it has an agenda — not the usual prerequisite for most entertaining shooting games that sell by their millions to old and (too) young alike.
Spec Ops: The Line, developed by Yager Development for PS3 and Xbox 360, looks like any other shooting game. While it’s not as grandiose as Call of Duty or as perfectly crafted as Uncharted it’s a well executed and enjoyable third person experience.
From over his left shoulder you play as Captain Martin Walker, voiced by Nolan North, who is sent into a sandstorm-struck city overrun by local militia to recover fallen comrades. Aided by a small squad of soldiers you shoot your way through numerous enemies to reach the centre of the metropolis.
Sand features heavily in the form of vision impairing storms, movement limiting drifts and looming banks of the stuff restrained by glass and steel that can be used to bury your enemies with a well aimed shot.
Mirroring the heavy weight bearing down on the city’s architecture is a growing sense of unease about your role in this rescue mission. The currency of good and evil is slowly eroded by the discovery of mixed loyalties in those we are supposedly rescuing. Concern becomes acute as the player finds herself making irreversible decisions that make her culpable for events on the screen and deny her the usual distance we have from books and films about war.
Initially these can be met with a wry smile at the developer’s self-awareness of their problematic use of violence and war for entertainment — they really are making a point about morality and that in itself is unusual. As things continue though we realise that we are already deep in a honey trap that demands the attention of our conscience as well as our trigger finger. Choices and actions that initially seemed good and right become blurred and confused when faced with the shifting loyalties and logic of war.
It’s a shock tactic. Like a husband enjoying a salacious affair only to discover his wife and children in the room with him. Like a budget clothing or shiny gadget shopper who is joined for dinner by the underpaid workers who made their purchases. Like the people of God in their promised land surrounded by the graves of those who used to live there.
These are stories usually told in more palatable form, with the inconvenient presence of the other happily passed over. For this reason Spec Ops: The Line has caused a stir among gamers. Most of the discussion however has focused on general gaming trends and missed the more pressing, and more interesting, question of what this means for the individual player (or indeed the developer).
Once we’ve finished the game and been buried under the final damning cascade of events, we are faced with a difficult decision. Can we carry on playing shooting games after experiencing all this? The answer for many will be yes, but a yes that is tempered by a greater sensitivity to gaming’s problems. It’s a question that comes back to bite Yager Development now it has let the gun-touting cat out of the bag. Surely it can’t simply go back to more mindless gun-play for its next game? Time will tell.
Whatever the result, Spec Ops: The Line continues to help gamers and developers avoid becoming glib or offhand about the violence in their entertainment. Not unlike discovering the conquest and genocide stories in the Bible, we can carry on playing but with fresh eyes. Whether you like this sort of game or not, I’d suggest it is one we should not leave out of our gaming canon.
Andy Robertson appears as a gaming expert for the BBC and runs the Family Gamer TV channel.