Remember when I talked about games often saying something, even if the creator doesn’t mean to? Well, Spec Ops: The Line is not an example of that. The team that put this game together wanted to say something, and Jesus did they ever say it.
On the surface, The Line presents itself as your run of the mill modern military shooter, but it’s not. It’s a complete upending of expectations, an indictment of the genre, and it twists every trope that goes with it. Not being much of a fan of that genre in the first place, I can’t say how well the game works in that context. What I can comment on is how it affected me, and that is pretty easy to describe: It made my skin crawl.
The most profound thing that The Line does is force you to confront the results of your actions — actions that, in any other game of its ilk, would be “fun” gameplay. It shows you, in unbearable detail, the gruesome aftermath of your firefights, your airstrikes, your… need to be the hero. You see the civilians who suffer and die because of the jingoistic hero complex of your main characters. You walk through flaming rubble as your enemies lay maimed, burning to death, and scream for help.
This is a horrific game that I don’t ever want to play again — but I can’t ignore how it changed the way I look at games. Before The Line I didn’t really think that much about who I was shooting or why. I didn’t consider what it means to put humans in your game that serve only to be mowed down by the player. And I would never say we shouldn’t make violent videogames, but I do think it’s interesting that our standards for violence in games are so much higher than in other forms of entertainment; I think it’s worth wondering why there is so much killing.
It has its place, don’t get me wrong: that violence. Killing demons or aliens or robots is one thing. Stylized violence is a heck of a lot of fun. But as games become more realistic and characters more human; as real conflicts are seeping into games and it’s easy to paint the enemy as some real-world other; let’s all just, as an industry… think a tiny bit more than not at all about what we’re doing as creators.