I remember when I was younger, enrolled in an AP Literature course in high school. Every week there was a new work to read, whether it was Hamlet, Things Fall Apart or Beloved. But one work in particular always stood out to me, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The day I started reading it was my grandfather's birthday. We were at a park setting up a barbeque, but I climbed up a nearby tree and as soon as I settled onto my branch I started to read. One hour later, I was four pages in. It was dense, there were people laughing and playing outside. But I shook it off and kept reading, another hour later and I was immersed in one of the greatest stories ever written.
It wasn't until later in my early college years when I saw Coppola's Apocalypse Now, a film that used Heart of Darkness as its source material. And suddenly, one of the most harrowing stories I had read was brought to life on the screen. No longer a tale of European men in search of Kurtz in the African interior, Apocalypse Now became a tale of American men in search of a rogue Colonel Kurtz as they sailed across Vietnam. But there was something more to Apocalypse Now, the imagery was romanticized. Every bit of it seemed surreal. Initially I wondered if it was because the characters believed they were sent out for a just cause, that they somehow believed what they were doing was right. But the mind always returns to that famous line, "The horror. The horror." By the movie's end, I knew, just as I knew when I finished Conrad's work, I knew the horror.
Later in 2012, there were murmurs amongst the community of a game that used the same source material. It was something that I ignored completely. This, Spec Ops: The Line, looked like any other military shooter and I have been of the belief that a videogame story is inconsequential. Characters may work, certainly, but never has a gaming story ever affected me in the way that cinema or literature have ever done. I suppose at this moment it is worth giving praise to Telltale Games and their Walking Dead game for bringing me to tears and raising emotions in me that no game has ever done before. Because of that game I chose to play Spec Ops: The Line. And it started off safe at first. The game was a cover-based shooter. It played similarly to Gears of War and featured soldiers who were always busy cracking one-liners and jokes. That was the first level at least. I wondered what the praise was for but kept on trudging. And then within the second level Yager Studios and, thanks in large part to their writer, Walt Williams, who has managed to craft one of the most gripping narratives that could only be possible through an interactive medium, created a surreal moment. And as my team barged through that sand-filled building and we heard the voice of a DJ or someone of that sort, it was impossible to tell so soon, talking down to us, I knew there was a chance for things to get interesting.
They did. Where Spec Ops: The Line starts and where it ends are worlds apart. When you begin you feel like a hero. You blaze through a trail of enemies, mowing them down and saving innocents that were clearly going to be murdered by these people. You quickly begin the hunt for a Colonel Konrad in the deserts of Dubai. You are Delta and you need to stop this man and the Damned 33rd. The setup is entertaining; the explosions are typical and expected but help provide excitement as you continue to fight. But as you reach the final act, one of the greatest presented in an interactive medium, you tire of it. This is not meant to be a criticism of the game. This is pure, unabashed praise for Spec Ops: The Line. You no longer want to kill a human being. You feel the weight of each death. You begin to question why you are wantonly destroying, why you are marching forward on a manhunt and you realize that our medium has desensitized us to death. Our modern games no longer penalize us for dying, they spawn us where we died or moments before it and we continue slaughtering again. But Spec Ops: The Line makes you feel again. It makes you feel horror that no horror game has or can ever make you feel. It raises the point that killing is murder, regardless of whether you do it for yourself or your government. It is a game that through violence shows you how war can affect the soldiers fighting on the ground. And the third person perspective helps, as you make your way through hell, literally a hell, there is no other way to describe the battlefields but the planes of hell, as it scars and breaks and tears you and your team, as it takes you each to the edge.
Never before has a game made me pause and put so much thought into the choices that it asked me to make. The choices are not there to dramatically change the experience, but what you are asked to do hold weight. And at times you are terrified of the choices you have to make. The game makes you feel dread, this is not what we have come to expect from the rabid jingoism of our military shooters, and it hits hard. And as you hunker behind cover, fighting more and more enemies, you tire, just as the characters do. They no longer want to kill just as you as a game player, you as an individual, and you as a human being no longer want to kill. But I went forward. Perhaps because I was trained that way, to see my games through to the end, particularly if I thought they were interesting. And Spec Ops held on to my interest. Normally if I were to tire of killing in a shooter I would simply stop, due to boredom. But Spec Ops was different. I wanted to stop because it was scratching at something in me. There was the same romanticized lighting from Apocalypse Now, and even then I still couldn't wrap my head around the horror. It was only nagging at me from the second act on, and by the time the third act came I wanted no more violence. I had realized what the horror was.
But it got to me. It opened up feelings I had never experienced playing a game, just as The Walking Dead did. And I stood there, with angry civilians, unarmed, standing before me. They had figurines of Konrad, who they believed to be a savior. And yet I crossed the desert to find him. I saw the atrocities he committed. I knew he had to be stopped. They only expressed hatred towards me, and what I wanted was to liberate them, to save them. Instead, I watched them hang an innocent man. They barred my way and I did what I never thought I could do, I opened fire on civilians. I was not forced to, instead there was a sense of numbness that came over me and out of my own feelings, because of what I believed needed to be done I opened fire. And like that, I was broken. I stopped and had to reflect. I had to breathe. I was broken by a game.
Spec Ops: The Line takes Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and uses them as inspiration as it sets a new standard in gaming. No military shooter should ever be judged the same way again. No military shooter should be praised the same way again. Stories in our games need to make us question our own decisions. They need to make us question what we are being told. They need to make us question the protagonists we are controlling. Spec Ops: The Line proves that just because a game is a shooter, does not mean it has to be a power fantasy. But maybe thats the lure of the game? It starts as one, and then, an image of hell is burned in your eyes as you walk through heaps of dead civilian bodies, as you look at the melting flesh of a mother trying to protect her child from the horror that Joseph Conrad first wrote about. The same words I read as a child in high school, sitting in that tree while families played together.