As a Christian, I find there are references to the Gospel story in a lot of other stories. Sometimes these references are very apparent and obvious, as they are in say CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Other times, you have to dig a little bit further into the story to see the parallels. That’s exactly what I’m going to do with a rather unlikely game, the modern military shooter Spec Ops: The Line.
Now some of you are probably wondering where I am going with this. After all, Spec Ops probably doesn’t strike you as the typical game somebody would use when drawing parallels with the Gospel. I believe there is a lot you can take from this game, though, that does parallel different things we should be learning from Scripture. You may disagree with me, and that’s fine. I’m not here to absolutely validate my point with everyone. I do want to present a different take on the story and see if maybe it gets you thinking about what else you could gather from it, even if you don’t necessarily agree with my Gospel comparison.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at just what we can pull out of Spec Ops in comparison to the gospel message.
While this should go without saying, there is no way I’m going to be able to discuss how Spec Ops and the Gospel compare with each other without discussing some spoilers. If you have not played Spec Ops and you plan on doing so, I would highly recommend that you do that before you read this article. There are a few events that occur within the game that I will need to discuss here, and I don’t want to ruin the experience for you. So if you choose to read this without having played the game, just remember: you have been warned.
Where did it all go wrong?
Spec Ops: The Line is a rather intense modern military shooter. When I say intense, I’m not talking as much about the action within the game itself. Sure there are plenty of harrowing action sequences, and there are a lot of enemies you have to deal with. But that’s not really what sets this game apart. Almost everyone who played the game and enjoyed it points to the same thing; it’s the story behind this game that really sets it apart from the rest of this genre.
So let’s take a little bit of a look at that story and see how we can draw comparisons with the Gospel message. In the story, you take control of Captain Walker, who is sent into a Dubai that is been torn apart by sandstorms. Your Delta Force team has been sent in to assess the situation and report back to headquarters for further instructions. It does not take long, however, to see that things are not what they should be. In fact, not long after setting foot in the war zone that is now Dubai, you and your team are attacked by the refugees you’ve been sent there to help. Your teammates are questioning what’s going on and why this is all happening. When you order your teammates to open fire on the refugees, arguing that you have to do it because they’re firing on you, they follow your orders, if the little reluctantly. It doesn’t take long to find out that you’re in over your head, and Dubai is in much worse shape than those who sent you here could ever have imagined.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game about choices, or at least it seems that way at face value. You do of course later find out that your choices really don’t mean a lot, but the game does a good job of hiding that at least it first. And even though many of the choices you will make throughout the game won’t affect the final outcome, they will make you think about your moral standing. One choice in particular could really show you just the kind of person you are. It’s one of the brilliant things about this game.
Yet there’s one decision that Walker makes early on that just kind of goes right over your head. You don’t even really think about the importance of it until you’re confronted with it in the endgame. Walker’s mission was not to go in and do everything he could to help out those trapped in Dubai. His mission was to go in find out what happened to the 33rd regiment that had been sent in to assist them and then report back to headquarters. Think about it. Why would they send a three-man team in to rescue a group of refugees when an entire regiment had gone in and pretty much vanished without a trace or at least without contact? It was never the responsibility of Captain Walker and his team to try and rescue the refugees.
Yet that’s exactly what Walker decides to try to do, and the results are disastrous.
What have I done?
There are two words that anyone who is played Spec Ops: The Line will never forget: white phosphorus. These two words are all anyone needs to mention to to be reminded of the images of the most horrific event in this game. I go into full detail on this in my article “Why We Game: What Have I Just Done?” As such, I won’t go into full details here; after all, anyone who’s played the game knows this scene very well. What I do want to address here, however, is how this all could have been avoided.
I already mentioned the fact that Walker was acting well beyond the bounds of his initial mission when he set out to be the hero. This choice left them in a position where he was killing both armed refugees and members of the 33rd Battalion. It also leads him to work with the CIA to try and stop whatever the 33rd Battalion is planning. After the CIA operative is killed, Walker pushes on to The Gate, not really having any clue why the CIA was interested in this area. When he gets there, he sees a group of the 33rd Battalion, and he and at least one other member of his team decide the only way to deal with them is to use mortars filled with white phosphorus.
By this time, you’ve already seen what white phosphorus does to people; it is horrific, yet that doesn’t stop Walker form not only giving the order to use it but also taking control of where the mortar shells will be dropped. As you are wiping out the soldiers below you, you see a reflection of Walker’s face on the tablet he is using for targeting. Walker looks almost detached, like he has judged the soldiers below him and determined this horrible death was what they deserve.
Nothing could be further from the truth. These soldiers were trying to help the survivors, and Walker and his team have not just killed them; they have killed numerous innocent people who were camped out at The Gate.
This is the point in the game where most players realize Walker has really overstepped his assigned role, but as I mentioned, it started much earlier. This is more or less the culmination of the choices he has made to continue to take on a mission that was never his. The player realizes this, but Walker does not. Staring at the badly burned bodies of a dead mother clutching her child, he decides to push on, stating he is going to make the 33rd pay for what they did. The problem is, they did not do this. He did.
The lengths we go to justify ourselves
For most gamers, there can be no justification for killing innocent people just because you did not get enough info to determine what was happening. Despite the fact gathering info was his job, Walker takes it upon himself to play judge, jury and executioner. Interestingly enough, it is Konrad, the leader of the 33rd, who really begins to question Walker’s true intent. Not long after the white phosphorous scene, Walker finds a radio that allows him to speak directly with Konrad, and what transpires after that can only be described as on man’s attempt to justify what he has done while questioning another’s motives.
So who is questioning whose motives, you ask? Really, both Konrad and Walker are questioning each other’s. Walker tries to hold the moral high ground, but that becomes harder to do as he makes mistake after mistake. His trust of the other CIA operative leads to the loss of the main water supply for the city, meaning that the remaining survivors are almost certainly doomed to die. His rash actions lead to the deaths of both his teammates, and, depending on player choice, the deaths of some of the survivors who hung one of them. In the end, he is becoming the very person he claims to be fighting against.
Yet there is one moment, one point where Walker seems to get an inkling that something is truly wrong. While trying to escape by helicopter, he is hit with an odd sense of deja vu, being unable to shake the idea that he has gone through this before. As the player, you recognize this scene, as this was where Spec Ops opened before taking you back to just before Walker and his team headed into Dubai.
At least , you thought it was before then. Things change dramatically when you finally reach the place where Konrad is held up just to find he committed suicide quite a while back. This is when the truth begins to set in, and the player is treated to flashbacks of what really happened after the white phosphorus attack: the broken radio that Walker picked up, the fact that a hand radio would never have been able to allow him to communicate with Konrad in the midst of the dust storms, the delusion of the moral dilemmas Konrad was presenting him….
It turns out Walker has suffered a breakdown, and in an attempt to justify his actions, he created a villain to take the blame. When he is faced with the truth that he is to blame, the player must choose to kill himself or kill the villain he created.
One interesting thing I picked up on my second playthrough of the game helped bring this home even more. After the opening of the game but before Walker and his team head into Dubai, Walker is seen pacing in an apartment, reviewing his orders for this mission. The first time I played, I thought that scene was taking place in Walker’s apartment before he left for Dubai. On my second playthrough, I realized it is the same penthouse where he finds Konrad’s body. The entire narrative you play through from there on out is the story Walker is trying to weave to justify his actions.
Where does this tie into The Gospel?
Most people who play Spec Ops: The Line agree it is a masterfully told story about how one man’s mistakes can lead him to a complete mental breakdown. The game borrows very heavily from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, even tipping the cap with the name of the leader of the 33rd.
When I look at the game’s narrative, I see all of that, but I also see some strong parallels with the Gospel message. These parallels can be broken down into a few separate areas:
- Man cannot save himself: Walker’s team was not sent into Dubai to save it. Walker was supposed to get in, find out what happened to the 33rd Battalion, and report back to his superiors. The minute he and his team ran across survivors who were shooting at them, he should have pulled out to where he could contact his superiors and advised them of the situation. Instead, he takes it upon himself to try and save Dubai, causing more harm in his time there than Konrad and the 33rd ever did. Likewise, we often try to fix ourselves and fall short. Paul addresses this in Philippians 3:2-11, stating that even though he was blameless under the law, his ultimate righteousness was found in Christ. There are numerous other verses that point to the fact salvation is not something we earn in any way (Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 5:17 among them). Just as Walker and his team were not going to be able to rescue Dubai, we cannot save ourselves from the punishment of sin.
- Man will do almost anything to hide or justify his sin: Look no further than the story of David and Bathsheba to see this in scripture (2 Samuel 11). The length that David, a man described as being after God’s own heart, went through to try and hide his sin was beyond deplorable. Likewise, Walker invents a villain to blame for his failure to carry out his duty, and he even tries to re-invent the past in his mind to make it fit.
- At some point, Man will be pay for his sin: For David, it happened when he lost his first child born of Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12). For Walker, it happens over and over again, starting the moment he decides he knows better than his superiors and tries to take on a mission that was never his. It eventually leads to the death of many innocents, the likely death of thousands more due to lack of water, the loss of his team, a complete mental breakdown and, depending on the choices the player makes, his own life. If nothing else, Spec Ops: The Line is a fantastic look at what one person’s hubris can cost everyone around him.
There is one other way to compare the story of Spec Ops with that of The Gospel, and it revolves around the ending. After Walker finally realizes the truth, he is faced with a reflection of Konrad in front of him threatening him with a pistol, the very one Walker had taken with him up to the penthouse to kill Konrad. If you do nothing or shoot your own reflection, you end up committing suicide. If you shoot Konrad, you survive, and the credits roll.
After the credits, an armored Humvee arrives at the penthouse, filled with soldiers responding to the S.O.S. call Walker’s team was able to get through the dust wall. Captain Walker stands at the steps, dressed in Konrad’s gear and holding a combat shotgun. The soldiers instruct him to put the gun down, and you are left with one final choice: take on all the surrounding soldiers in one of the hardest fights in the game and take Konrad’s place, or lower your weapon and leave with your comrades in the Humvee.
If you choose the latter, one of the soldiers looks at the ruined city around him and asks Walker how he survived. Walker just replies “Who said I did?”
Walker, after facing the horror of his own mistake (sin), surrenders to authority and, in essence, dies to his old self. If that right there is not an opening to talk about the Gospel message, I am not sure what is.