The unreliable narrator. The plot twist. The good guy is really the bad guy. These are all gaming cliches. Some games have employed them well, but for every “Would you kindly?” and nuke sequence, there are hundreds of games which fail in their attempt to make even one of them work.
So what happens when a game manages to employ all three of these cliches to perfection? You get Spec Ops: The Line, a game which set a whole new standard for storytelling in modern shooters. This is “Why We Game.”
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead
This article is going to get into the specifics of what makes the story for Spec Ops so memorable. If you have not played the game, PLEASE do not read this article.
Let’s Not Start at the Beginning
In media res: the phrase literally means “in the midst of things.” While many games start you out in the middle of events, few I have played start at one of the most intense sequences in the game and then send you back to where it all started. That’s exactly what Spec Ops does.
Why is that important, you ask? Why did Yager Development feel it was important to start you off in a helicopter flying through a ruined Dubai, trying to shoot down the other helicopters while wondering just how in the world you and your team were going to get out of this? The easy answer would be that the team knew you needed to see just how messed up things were going to get to push you through the first part of the game, and there is some validity to that argument. As it turns out, there is more to it that that, but we will get to that later.
So after flying through Dubai, you end up in a dust storm and head for what you can only expect to be a serious crash. Next thing you know, you are in an apartment high up in a skyscraper, and you meet the main character of the game: Captain Martin Walker, leader of a Delta Force recon squad being sent into a Dubai ruined by the worst series of dust storms in history. Communication with the city is spotty at best thanks to a massive dust wall, and Walker’s mission is to carry out reconnaissance and determine what happened to Colonel Joseph Konrad and his 33rd battalion, which had volunteered to aide in the evacuation. The last communication from Konrad stated the evacuation was a complete failure.
At least, that was the plan. It does not take long for Walker and his two teammates, Lieutenant Alphonse Adams and Staff Sergeant John Lugo, to realize things are much worse than they ever would have expected. The first set of survivors they run across start shooting at them, and it does not take long for them to get caught in a fierce battle with refugees, warring factions within the 33rd and the CIA. With everything around him falling apart, Walker takes it upon himself to figure out what happened and locate Konrad, whom he feels he knows from serving with him in the past. While you tend to not catch this part on your first playthru, Walker makes this decision without ever contacting his superiors. This should have been the first sign Yager was setting him up as a less than reliable narrator, but it is easy to lose that in the midst of all the shooting.
From Bad to… What the Heck?
As you play the game, the situation in Dubai continues to look more and more grim. The team is not happy about both firing upon survivors and US Soldiers, but Walker insists they have no choice. The hopelessness of the situation begins to take its toll on the team both physically and emotionally, and Yager does a fantastic job of showing this both through dialogue and through degrading their appearance in the game.
The situation only gets worse when the team finds itself approaching an area called The Gate. There is a large contingent of the 33rd standing between them and this area, and Walker believes they need to get there to figure out what is happening. One of the other team members points out the controls for mortar containing white phosphorus, and though Walker has already seen the horrors this chemical can cause earlier in the game, he chooses to use it to wipe out the unit in front of him… once again without checking with his superiors.
As the team makes its way through the wreckage left after using the mortar, they run across a soldier badly burned and barely alive. He asks what they have done, and Walker makes some offhand comment like “What we had to.”
“But we were trying to rescue them,” the soldier manages to say just before surrendering to death.
It is at this point the team realizes The Gate was not some sort of military outpost to be taken. It was a refugee camp, and Captain Walker (and buy extension, you) has just wiped them out.
This scene is one of the most powerful I have experienced in any game. Walker focuses in on a mother holding her child. Both are dead, badly burned by the chemicals he chose to launch into the camp without truly knowing what was happening. Adams and Lugo are arguing over what just happened and what to do next, but the audio starts to fade out as Walker continues to focus on the tableau in front of him. Finally, he rises from his knees and states they will press on. He vows to make Konrad and the 33rd pay for what they have done.
The problem is, they have not done this. Walker has. You have. I remember even saying that aloud while I was playing. I also had to put the controller down and walk away from the game for the night at that point. I had to process what I had just done.
After all, it was now clear Walker and his team were no longer the good guys.
Descent into Madness
The white phosphorous scene creates an actual breaking point in the game. The toll the events are having on the team become even more evident, as you watch guys who, if not friends, were at least comrades start to almost turn on each other. Orders and battle commentary move from business like to screamed obscenities. The team starts to slowly dissolve around you as you continue to play.
That is not all that dissolves. You begin to watch Walker’s mental state crumble as he presses on, though this change is more subtle than that of the team. Walker, Adams and Lugo come upon a room where Konrad’s command staff has been executed for trying to stand up against his orders. While there, Walker finds a small radio, and before he knows what is happening, he is having an ongoing conversation with Konrad himself. The Colonel continues to question his judgement, argue he is going well above and beyond his orders and generally harass him. This adds tension to the rest of the story, but there is one problem with it which does not even occur to most people while they are playing it. Communication is spotty within Dubai, as I mentioned before. There are times when Walker is separated from the members of his unit, and it can be difficult during those times to communicate with them.
So how is Konrad managing to carry on this conversation with Walker on a small radio?
The team presses on, coming to a bridge where two men are hanging. Konrad tells Walker that one of the men stole water, an offense punishable by death under his regime, as drinkable water is hard to come by with Dubai in ruins. The other is the soldier Konrad sent to deal with the issue, who crossed the line by killing the man’s entire family. He gives Walker the choice of whom to kill. Adams and Lugo seem confused, trying to figure out just what Walker is doing standing there, looking at these two men. No matter what you choose, including two options not even listed (attacking the snipers in the area or just pressing forward, ignoring the choice), you end up in an intense firefight with members of the 33rd.
As you progress further into the game, you can see more and more examples of Walker’s fragile mental state. He starts having hallucinations, which grow more intense as you move closer to the end. You also notice Adams and Lugo seem less willing to follow his orders, consistently questioning the fact he seems unable to focus on anything other than getting to Konrad.
Eventually, you find yourself back in that same Blackhawk helicopter you were in at the start fo the game. As the events start to match that of the game’s opening, Walker makes a rather odd comment about having been here before. If you haven’t picked up on the other signs, this comment is a clear sign that something is wrong. It only gets worse when the helicopter crashes, separating the team. Adams and Lugo both end up dying shortly thereafter, leaving Walker to face Konrad on his own.
It’s Not What You Think
I remember wondering what I was going to find as Walker took the elevator up to the penthouse where Konrad was. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw, however. There was Konrad in the middle of the room painting a picture. The picture was of the mother holding her daughter after the white phosphorous attack. I remember thinking “But he wasn’t there. He could not have seen that.”
I was right. He had not seen that. It does not take long to find Konrad’s body; he had taken his own life, and from the state of the body, it was not something he had done recently.
Walker stands there in utter disbelief, as the voice in his head he has come to think of as Konrad starts to explain what has actually been happening. You see flashbacks to events that happened earlier, but this time you see the truth behind the events. The radio Walker found was broken, unable to receive any transmissions. The men hanging from the bridge were both already dead, and that is the reason Adams and Lugo could not understand why Walker had stopped. It becomes clear that Walker has attempted to rewrite his memories of the events after the white phosphorous attack, and now that part of his psyche is confronting him.
This is the twist, and I for one never saw it coming, even though the signs were all there. Yager reinforced this by providing intel throughout the game that contradicted the events you saw through Walker’s eyes. I knew before I reached “Konrad” that Walker was an unreliable narrator, but I had no clue just how far he had descended into madness.
After Konrad has set the record straight, he starts to countdown, pointing a gun at Walker. If you do nothing, he pulls the trigger, and Walker commits suicide. Same occurs if you shoot at the reflection of Walker in front of you. The only way to progress past this is to shoot the reflection of Konrad, thus breaking down the final barriers and allowing Walker to come back to the real world.
One other thing about this sequence. When I played the game a second time, I realized the apartment from the beginning of the game is the same one that you enter to confront Konrad. In other words, the scene where you are introduced to Walker and given the background of the mission is the start of Walker trying to rewrite his memories. Yager did a fantastic job of bringing everything full circle.
Can You Really Go Back Home?
If you chose to kill Konrad, he tells Walker he can still go home as he fades away. Walker uses Konrad’s radio to call for a pick up, and the credits roll.
This is not quite the end of the game, however. After the credits, the unit Walker called shows up. Walker is waiting for them, dressed in Konrad’s gear and holding a combat shotgun. The soldiers yell at him to drop the weapon. From here, three different endings await:
- If you start firing on the soldiers and die, Walker thinks back to a conversation he had with Konrad during the War in Afghanistan. You hear him make a comment about going home, and Konrad responds, “”Home? We can’t go home. There’s a line men like us have to cross. If we’re lucky, we do what’s necessary, and then we die. No… all I really want, Captain, is peace.”
- If you manage to kill all of the soldiers, Walker picks up the patrol’s radio and says, “Gentlemen, welcome to Dubai.” As the camera pans over the ruined city, you are left with the impression Walker has not taken Konrad’s place.
- If you drop your weapon, Walker wearily steps into the Humvee. As the vehicle pulls away, one of the soldiers states they have been looking through the entire city trying to find him. He asks Walker how he survived the horrors of what Dubai has become. Walker quietly replies, “Who said I did?”
These are all fitting endings to one of the best stories I have ever played in a game. Spec Ops: The Line forever changed the way I will look at modern shooters. Yager’s attention to the details of this amazing story is just another example of why I love this hobby of mine.