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Games for Adults: ‘Spec Ops: The Line’ Makes You Feel Like a War Criminal

Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.

What needs to happen in a game for you to feel guilty? Is killing a digital avatar that resembles a person enough to make you feel bad? What if that fake person has a fake name and a fake family to care for? What if you find out the person you killed wasn’t a “bad guy” at all?

Most games care more about whether or not you’re having fun than whether you’re fully aware of the emotional impact your actions have. If it’s all just lines of code tricking your eyes into seeing things that aren’t really there, can you truly be at fault for what happens? Can you feel bad?

That question pulses at the core of Spec Ops: The Line, a military shooter set in Dubai months after an apocalyptically massive sandstorm that buried the city to the peaks of its many skyscrapers. At first glance it’s just another dumb war game, but it’s driven by a narrative that uses the interactive nature of games to tell a unique version of Joseph Conrad’s ~1900 novel Heart of Darkness. Released in 2012, it’s not a new game, but it’s one that shows very well exactly what this medium is capable of.



At some point, the illusion of the game ends and the reality of your emotions begins. When a game is speaking directly to you—to you, the player, not your character—the line gets even blurrier. When a game blames you for the actions of its protagonist, well, that’s something else entirely.

And the actions of Spec Ops’ protagonist, a grizzled soldier named Martin Walker, are even more disturbing than your average video game hero’s murderous escapades. In one pivotal scene, he launches deadly white phosphorous bombs at an enemy camp that, unknown to him, is full of civilians—including children. And yet through much of the game, Walker continues to believe he’s doing the right thing—at least, until he doesn’t, when his grip on reality starts to deteriorate and you begin to question what’s real.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game that encourages you to look at Walker and his actions and how he, through you, is slowly losing his mind. The game’s lead writer, Walt Williams, and his team want to remind you that you can stop playing at any time—but the fact that you don’t, and that you enjoy it, speaks volumes about what we find entertaining.

A lot of people play games to experience a type of escapism. They pick up the controller or power on the computer monitor to enjoy the opportunity of living in another world and experiencing the rush of interacting in a fresh environment.

Being a hero can be fun, too. The thought of saving people through your skill and courage can cause even the most cynical of people to swell with pride, or even to just have simple dumb fun. So many video games exist purely as vehicles of entertainment, so playing them to just travel through a theme park of thrills is surely expected. But none of that really applies to Spec Ops: The Line. “We wanted the player to feel like the game was being hostile,” Williams told me. “We wanted to force the player to confront themselves and live with their conscience and the choices that they made.” This isn’t an idyllic paradise ready to embrace your sense of escapism. It’s not trying to win your affection.

There is no joy in murdering countless digital soldiers on your screen in Spec Ops: The Line. As a matter of fact, it makes you feel guilty. It’s a game that makes you think and forces you to reflect on your actions, rather than revel in the violence.

“Most games want the player’s approval,” Williams says. “But instead, we wanted our game to look you in the face and say, ‘Fuck you.’”

During the game’s half decade of development, the industry underwent a series of dramatic shifts. Back in 2007, Walt Williams was part of the team working on the original Bioshock, a game that set the bar for video game narratives higher than it had ever been before. Williams helped reshape games as a medium, which is why BioShock and Spec Ops publisher 2K Games put him in charge of The Line. They wanted to create something different.

“At the time, a lot of games were founded upon the simple premise of ‘You’re the hero, he’s the bad guy, go kill him,’ and that’s about as deep as the story got,” Williams explains. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had just released that same year as well and established a new standard for military shooters. By the time the Spec Ops project had really picked up steam, several more shooters were already trying to capture that same Call of Duty magic.

“The military shooter genre had been fairly well-defined for years at that point and we didn’t want to try and be the Call of Duty-killers, we wanted to do something they wouldn’t,” says Williams. “Saying ‘this is the way things are done right now’ is the perfect reason to try something different.”



Spec Ops: The Line wouldn’t actually hit store shelves for another five years, though. As is the case with a high number of blockbuster game projects, there were changes in staff, concern about the game’s direction, technical issues, and just good old fashioned disagreements to contend with as well. “In a way, it’s almost as if the game’s narrative began to mirror the game’s production itself, and vice versa,” says Williams. “We all sort of lost our minds a bit on this project, but I think we ultimately ended up with something we are really proud of. Once I was brought on as the Lead Writer, I asked myself, ‘If this is the only triple-A thing that I ever get to write, what do I want to say?’”

As a result, Spec Ops isn’t a game about a generic terrorist threat from “The Middle East”—in fact, no one in the game uses that term at all. There are no global stakes, there is no political commentary—it’s a game about the horrors of war and how far someone will go to do what they think is right. “There is no difference between what is right and what is necessary,” the game tells you in a loading screen—bargaining with your conscience as a form of justification. But is that really true? Eventually, even the game seems to doubt it: “This is all your fault,” reads a later loading screen message.

“Games that have violence for no reason other than the sake of violence are meaningless,” contends Williams. “With every scene and piece of dialogue in the game, we wanted to ask ourselves, ‘Is this truly necessary to what we are trying to say?’ We didn’t want to create a world of immature darkness.” As a result, during the game’s darkest moments, the impact of violence is amplified by its plausibility.

Why do we enjoy the act of “fake murder” (as Williams calls it)? “You think it’s fine because it isn’t real, but your brain still wonders ‘Why is this fun?’ We wanted to make a game that attempts to get to the heart of that. It makes you uncomfortable for a reason,” says Williams. A game doesn’t have to be a visually stunning masterpiece or a triumphant examination of the human experience—games can show the dark side of humanity as well.


“Games need to matter during the bad times because that’s where honesty comes from,” says Williams. “That’s approaching enlightenment. In order to understand your fellow man, you have to be able to accept the truth of who we are as a race during the absolute worst of days.” Williams doesn’t want to go so far as to say that Spec Ops can teach you to be a better person, but rather that it’s perfectly acceptable to put the controller down and walk away if you’re feeling uncomfortable. You have the option to stop playing.

At the end of the game, a character tells you that, “You’re here because you wanted to feel like something that you’re not: a hero.” But I think there’s more value in playing games than that. They can teach us about life itself. “The most important choice you make in life is the next choice,” says Williams. “It’s never too late to change your path.”

David is a freelance writer and full-time nerd. His favorite game franchise is ‘The Legend of Zelda.’ He also has an unhealthy obsession with buying games during Steam sales that he never actually plays. It’s dangerous to go alone, so follow him on Twitter @David_Jagneaux.

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