“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that revolves around the idea of extreme circumstances requiring extreme decisions. After your helicopter goes down in Dubai, your three-man unit decides (against their orders) to search for survivors of the missing 33rd squadron. You quickly discover that the 33rd have taken root in the city and are wreaking havoc. As you move closer to the center of Dubai in search of Konrad, the squadron’s commanding officer, you’re faced with several decisions that will make you question your morality and, eventually, your sanity.
Enormous spoiler warning: If you haven’t played Spec Ops: The Line yet and intend to do so at some point, do not read what follows. Spec Ops: The Line might be a military shooter, but it’s heavy on narrative, and the story is just as important to the experience as the shooty-shooty action. So go and play it, spend a week huddled under a pile of blankets, and then come back. I’ll wait.
If you’ve already completed the game, have no intention of playing it, or you’re just back from your terrifying existential crisis, read on!
How many civilians is a soldier worth?
Gould, a CIA agent who holds the promise of more information about the situation, is taken prisoner by the 33rd. Unfortunately, they also have a group of civilians as prisoners, and they’re threatening to kill them if Gould doesn’t talk.
You can try to save Gould by shooting the soldiers that are holding him at gunpoint, but that means that the civilians will die. On the other hand, if you elect to stealthily dispatch the soldiers to save the civilians, Gould is strangled to death while you’re busy.
This leaves you with the age-old question: How many civilian deaths does it take to equal the death of a soldier? What if that soldier could potentially be the key to preventing future deaths? If that information turns out to be crucial to your mission, does that justify the death of civilians? Or is it your responsibility to save these people, even at the risk of losing that potentially-crucial intelligence? You’d better decide quick, because this interrogation doesn’t last long.
The thief or the executioner
Since water is a pretty big deal out in the desert, especially when a city is thrown into chaos, the 33rd is hoarding several truckloads of water for their own use. When a civilian tries to steal some from them, his entire family is murdered as punishment. Harsh.
The running theme of the game is the question of morality. Konrad drives this point home by offering you a choice: he hangs a civilian and a soldier from an archway, and leaves it to you who to punish. One is a thief. The other is a killer. Both have snipers aiming at them while you think over your decision; if you take too long to decide, they both die.
If you wait too long, or don’t pick anyone, is their blood still on your hands even though you didn’t pull the trigger? Are you obligated to kill one in order to save the other?
Neither of them asked to be in this situation, but one of them always knew that it was a possibility, and the other entered it by breaking the rules. But is that enough to condemn them to death through inaction? And is it enough to kill one of them, to spare the other? It’s up to you.
The line in the sand
Is there a certain point that someone can cross to justify revenge? That’s what you have to determine when a mob of angry Dubai citizens capture and hang one of your squadmates. You try to save him, but you’re too late. CPR isn’t working, but you keep trying anyway. As you try to resuscitate him, the angry civilians crowd around you, shouting and waving their makeshift weapons.
They aren’t attacking you outright, but some of them are throwing rocks or garbage at you while you struggle to save your dying friend. Do you fire into the crowd to disperse them? Before, it’s always been a decision between a soldier and a bystander: Now, these people have killed someone. And not just anyone, but your teammate, your friend. But does his death justify theirs?
This decision offers you a bit of an out, allowing you to fire into the air to disperse the crowd. But while they’re pushing and shouting, surging closer while you kneel over the lifeless body of your fellow soldier, you want to shoot them. You want to pay them back for what they’ve done. And if this wasn’t just a game, could you stop yourself from doing it? Would that be enough – for you – to justify revenge?
While ostensibly the most difficult choice you have to make in the game, this one isn’t really a choice at all. In the military, there’s this thing called “completely voluntary,” which means that you’re choosing to do something completely of your own free will because someone told you that you had to. Choosing to drop white phosphorous on a camp of soldiers is “completely voluntary.”
You discover that an entire outpost of soldiers stands between you and your objective. You also find a drone that you can use to drop white phosphorous on the camp. In case you don’t know what white phosphorous is, it’s a substance that burns extremely hot when ignited. It’s typically used for illumination or smoke cover; it is not allowed to be dropped directly on enemy forces. If it doesn’t kill you by burning you alive, it can also be absorbed through your skin and cause your organs to fail.
One of your squadmates is, obviously, in opposition to getting through by burning dozens of people alive. You respond that you don’t have a choice. He says “There’s always a choice!” You say “No, there really isn’t.”
Your words hold true, because although there is technically a choice to not use the phosphorous, it involves shooting never-ending soldiers until you eventually run out of ammo and die. You have to make the “completely voluntary” choice to use the weapon to inflict horrible suffering not only on the soldiers, but also a large group of civilians being evacuated.
Who takes the blame?
As you reach the final moments of the game, you discover Konrad’s hideout. You approach him, listening to his final, dramatic super-villain monologue, ready to finally cut the head off the snake and put an end to this insane situation. Finally, you’re able to justify all those deaths, all that madness.
You turn his chair around to find nothing but a corpse. Konrad has already shot himself, and has been dead for the entire duration of your mission. Everything that he made you do was nothing but a traumatic hallucination.
“Konrad” explains that you always knew that you could stop at any time, but you didn’t; you wanted to be a hero, to save the 33rd and rescue the city. After you “voluntarily” dropped the phosphorus, you needed some way to justify all those decisions that you made. What better than an evil mastermind, someone who was clearly behind everything, that you needed to stop?
The vision of Konrad points a gun at you, and asks you who’s really to blame for everything that’s happened. He’ll give you until the count of five to decide. Were you just a victim of circumstance, or was everything really your fault? Do you shoot him, and try to continue to justify everything that’s happened, or do you let him shoot you (or shoot yourself)?
The final decision you make in Spec Ops: The Line is an interesting one to ponder.
Even within the confines of a video game, where we’re given clear direction and instructions, everything is propagated by the actions of the main character. You never had to make any of those decisions; you could have simply put down the controller and stopped playing the game.
Just like your main character, after a lifetime of training in how something (in this case, video games) works, it probably never occurred to you to just stop. Because that would be crazy! You have a clear goal, and you have the means to obtain it. At what point would just walking away seem like a viable option?
It’s easy to think “this guy is clearly crazy, what an asshole,” but maybe just by finishing Spec Ops: The Line, I’ve demonstrated that I would have done exactly the same thing had I been confronted by such questions in real life. In its own way, Spec Ops: The Line says just as much about the nature of choice as Bioshock, perhaps more so; because while Irrational’s game flouted convention to make a point about the lack of choice and narrative conventions in the medium, Yager Development’s game makes a point about our own morality. In Spec Ops: The Line, you do have a choice – simply to walk away, to not cross that line in the sand. That so many players didn’t even consider that, instead choosing simply to submit, to follow orders like a good little soldier, is one of the more chilling statements of player behavior of recent memory.
Spec Ops: The Line was criminally overlooked upon its release. Despite reviewing well, and despite some occasionally clumsy mechanics and an utterly pointless multiplayer mode (the existence of which was dictated by the publisher simply to put on the back of the box as a feature), the game failed to shift in significant numbers – eclipsed by other games released the same year. But it deserved to do a lot better. Simply put, Spec Ops: The Line had one of the finest narratives in gaming, at a time when most other military shooters were content with just throwing generic terrorists at you and asking you to pull the trigger. Yager’s game is the very antithesis of the gung-ho jingoism seen in game’s like Call of Duty, and it’s to Yager’s credit that they didn’t simply follow in the footsteps of their peers.