Context-Sensitive Spec Ops


I was ecstatic to learn that an old high school friend of mine, R., had recently picked up Spec Ops: The Line, and was playing it over Steam just a scant couple days after my own play-through. After leaving high school, R. went into the Marine Corps–he served two tours in Iraq before returning to California to pursue a degree, where we got to reconnect over IM.

R.’s been very open about sharing some of his war experiences with me for my research on an upcoming project, as well as lending his perspective on films and articles I’ve shared with him. (For instance, I linked him W.’s “Call of Apathy” to see whether it jived at all with his own impressions about his fellow vets, or even himself– he said that it didn’t, but he did agree that the most destructive force to reckon with during a tour like his or W.’s is the long stretches of boredom.)

On the subject of war-themed videogames, he and I have generally agreed that they’re horseshit. But having now put Spec Ops: The Line behind me, I was interested what an actual veteran thought of its depiction of war in the Middle East and some would say critical message. So naturally once I learned he’d picked it up I bugged the hell out of him about it.

What follows are a few spoilers for the game. R. isn’t a professional writer so a few of you might be a little disappointed by the brevity of his impressions, but I think he brings a unique take to things, especially since he (as of this writing) hasn’t been exposed to Spec Ops‘ source material either.


Saving Gould:

R.: All that shit I went through to save Gould, and the bastard dies anyway. This motherfucking game.
R.: I get the impression that I will end up really loving this game, but at the moment it’s infuriating. And sometimes for the right reasons.

White Phosphorus:

R.: and now I’m dropping white phosphorus on friendlies.
Kris: did you immediately give the order for that?
Kris: I tried holding out
R.: I had a choice?
Kris: technically, but the enemies infinitely respawn, and you have no means to refill ammo
R.: And now I have to walk slowly though the wreckage and wounded from my WP attack. Fanfuckingtastic.
Kris: oh wait till you get to the underpass of the bridge where you bombed that last humvee
R.: And I murdered civilians. FEEL GOOD GAME OF THE CENTURY!
Kris: I know!

In which R. discovers the bulk of Videogame Criticism:

R.: What they’ve done? WHAT THEY HAVE FUCKING DONE! I’m the one going around indiscriminately murdering before taking accurate assessments of the situation.
Kris: But you haaaaad to do it there was no other way
Kris: In the strict sense, the game doesn’t allow you to proceed unless you do
R.: I want a game where shit like this is the consequence for CHOOSING to be the murdering bastard, not getting railroaded into it.
R.: Actually I just want morality systems in games to grow the fuck up. I’m tired of binary choices that have little impact on the actual game. I want a game where, taking this scenario as an example, I could have used the WP, and then discovered the civilians. or I could have slogged through that army, and maybe saved them, maybe the army would have started killing them when they realized I was coming.

In which R. predicts, well, everything:

R.: My character keeps saying that he’s been forced into being a murderous bastard, but it doesn’t really feel that way.
R.: …there’s no one on the other end of that radio, is there? It’s all in this crazy bastards head. if there was someone there, the other two would react, instead of being confused.
R.: This guy just guesses shit and then passes it to his team as fact.

Design Notes!

R.: I feel there’s a pun in the fact that everytime I crash somewhere, I start with just a Desert Eagle.
Kris: I thought it was just one of the few pistols most laymen recognized
R.: You start the game with an M9, but everytime you crash, it gives you a Desert Eagle. From nowhere.
Kris: Huh, they don’t start you with a Desert Eagle for your off weapon? I never noticed that.
Kris: Maybe he hides it in his trousers like Solid Snake
R.: I think it’s just one more jab by the developers.

Reaching the final chapter:

R.: No Colonel Klink, I do not feel like a hero. I think Captain Insano might think he is, but I don’t feel that way. This game has a weird disconnect between the player and the character.

R.: Claiming to be as sane as Captain insano is not a good claim to make.

R.: So I shot the ghost of Colonel klink.
Kris: ghost, huh?
R.: don’t know a better term off the top of my head.
R.: Poor Lugo. The only one who made any sense throughout all this.
Kris: he was my favorite
Kris: I mean, Adams brought plenty of “wtf is wrong with you”
Kris: but Lugo sure didn’t deserve what happened to him
R.: Adams was all about abandoning Dubai and carrying out the original mission of leaving the city. Lugo followed his commander, and tried to complete the insane objectives, but still raised his objections where he felt it was wrong.

R.: Alright…let me try to think about this game for a minute.
Kris: still on the credits? Or did you reach the epilogue?
R.: still on credits. If I beat a game I don’t skip the credits.
Kris: good man. Well, you can’t skip them and access the epilogue anyhow
R.: Walker has some serious issues. But for most of the game he thinks he’s in the right and his actions have a chance of standing up as self-defence. As the narrative progresses they move farther from justifiable, and into a massacre. Adams seems unwilling to put up with Walkers bullshit, but he’s still the one that suggested the WP mortars. Lugo is more willing to put up with Walker and follow orders, even when he has problems with them which is what I expected out of a Sergeant.

The epilogue:

R.: So I surrendered my weapon in the epilogue.
R.: Shooting them didn’t seem like it would fit with what had happened. Walker still blames the Colonel, but he recognized that it was done.
R.: Although the fact that he’s wearing the colonel’s uniform, and the line “Who said I did” seems to imply that he’s become the colonel in his mind.?
R.: at least in my playthrough, Walker continued to blame Konrad
R.: I think at least part of Walker thinks he is konrad. And that’s the part he blames for all this.


Final thoughts:

Kris: So, overall, worth the time spent playing? You did guess the twist pretty early on
R.: Even figuring out the twist, yeah, still worth playing.
Kris: All my Twitter friends are dying to know your technical nitpicks
R.: Oh there was a bunch wrong. M16’s are not fully automatic, teams tend to be 4 people, not 3, a sniper would have a spotter, a captain would not be leading a team, and said team would not have a lieutenant in it. .50cal barrels do overheat with a sustained rate of fire, but need to be replaced afterwards. The US Military doesn’t use P90’s, or FAMAS, and the shotguns used are Berelli [Benelli] 12 gauge
Kris: I think there was a scene where Lugo served as a spotter while Walker had a sniper rifle. I found that weird seeing as, apparently, Lugo was the team sniper
Kris: I do wonder why they opted for a team of 3 rather than 4
Kris: Apart from making it easier to kill the squaddies off in a timely manner
R.: Oh also, the 33rd seems to have several thousand more people than a battalion would actually have.
Kris: and incredibly well-organized. And fashionable, with all those fedoras.
R.: And the entire premise of a Colonel leading his entire battalion rogue is just wrong.
Kris: that’s pretty much where Apocalypse Now goes as well, hah

Kris: So, I had another question, and it’s really broad and maybe not fair, so take it in whatever direction you like
Kris: but a lot of critics have read Spec Ops as antiwar. It didn’t really read that way to me–more the tale of individuals pushed past a psychological breaking point where war is the setting. That’s sort of a leitmotif in both Vietnam War and Iraq War films
R.: I didn’t see anti-war in it
Kris: do you think it had a few critical things to say about war, or how the American military operates?
Kris: Which again, like you said, the way it portrays its American servicemen is a bit fantastical to begin with.
R.: I think it was critical in dealing with the psychological stress war inflicts, both on servicemen and civilians.
R.: It also gave you some of the perspective of both those in charge and those following

R.: “Freedom is what you do with whats been done to you” Loading screen tip I just got. I like it.

ADDENDUM (12/27/2012): R. had the chance to revisit Spec Ops recently and elected to send me some more long-form impressions.

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  • Vire093  On 12.04.12 at 10:03 pm

    Just putting this out there – you can, in fact, skip the credits and see the epilogue. Just letting people know, for those of us who are never going to remember even one name of the 20 min scrolling names (I appreciate everyone who creates videogames for me, but i’m never going to take anything away from a credit roll).

  • Frencho  On 01.09.13 at 2:24 pm

    The presence of FAMAS & P90 makes a lot of sense actually. Dubai is in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are mainly supplied & trained by French Armament and France has several bases there. Their main tank is the Leclerc, Their standard issue Rifle must be the older FAMAS F1 that France sold to get rid of the older stocks when the FAMAS G2 entered service. The FN P90 is a Belgian weapon highly popular for spec ops and is used a lot by the Saudi Arabia’s Special Emergency Force, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was found in Dubai. The only part I think the game should have focused more is on presenting a bit the UAE army or police, they are inexistent, why? In a crisis a nation’s army is always present.

  • joe  On 01.13.13 at 11:38 pm

    I just Finished the line. I just had to go online and see if people loved this game as much as I did and came across this. I myself am a veteran. I served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and I have a few issues with your marine buddies interpretation of this game. First asking a marine about army structure is a mistake. DELTA operates in what ever group size is needed. From solo missions to however many are needed. Next, I though it was the 33rd brigade not battalion ( I could be wrong about this) a brigade consist of 3-4 battalions each with an average of 4 companies consisting of 4-5 platoons each. You vary well could be looking at upward of 2000 infantry soldiers alone plus all your support soldiers ie Como,logistics,medics etc. Also there where foreign forces mixed in with the us soldiers of how ever many survivors from Dubai its self. I am going to replay and try to keep a count and see how many enemies I go through. The m4-a1 is a full auto weapon. As far as I could tell all the weapons in the game would be used in that area of the world by trained military units. A full bird would be leading a brigade as well. These are just a few flaws in your friends diagnosis of the game. I for one found it refreshing to see a game take this psychological path. Sometimes in combat there is no good choice. Some times you have to choose between bad and worse. Sometimes you don’t come back from those choices mentally. One of my good friends is an example of that. His choice being the better of the options got 3 of his men killed in Afghanistan. He never mentally recovered from that. As for three men going against thousands and conquering well I know I didn’t beat the game without dying multiple times. Unless your buddy did on the hardest difficulty you can’t hold that against the game.

  • Sterling  On 06.04.13 at 10:17 pm

    Joe’s comment is fucking outstanding, and you should update the post for accuracy. Don’t tell me that you, Kris, didn’t notice that the standard rifle is the M4A1 rather than the M16 after you’ve seen the name of the rifle pop up on your screen through the game’s entirety. This is sloppy, even irresponsible writing.

    • Kris Ligman  On 06.04.13 at 10:27 pm

      No, I don’t have to update the post for accuracy. The post is a conversation with my friend, who was writing off-the-cuff, and certainly made a few mistakes, which have been noted here in the comments and elsewhere. Editing his words would be the irresponsible thing. I’m not out to misrepresent anyone, even favorably.

      The only sloppy act here is your reading comprehension, if you can’t parse the difference between a chatlog and a journalistic article. Joe’s comments are welcome and all the correction to the record necessary.


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  • By Space & Times on 01.20.13 at 11:31 am

    […] Take One In the first take he points out issues in general with games that implement decision-making systems. He also figures out the twist early on (and to be honest, it is a maybe overused plot device) – if I’d figured it out that early, I think that would have ruined a lot of the weight of the decisions that followed. They would have felt arbitrary and meaningless, as it would be apparent that Walker was careening toward his own inevitable destruction. For this game to be successful, the player needs to be as much in the dark as Walker – Walker, in his state after the white phosphorus incident, is mentally incapable of seeing the truth of his situation. You – the player – have to think you’re doing the sensible, rational thing just as much as Walker does, so that your realization of (self-)deception is just as damning as Walker’s. According to Walt Williams, lead writer of the game, one of your final choices is to just stop playing (that is, to let your Konrad hallucination count to five and kill you). In this light, this choice can be interpreted in a lot of ways – Walker finally giving up, or the player refusing to cross his or her “line” and play along with these disturbing decisions. […]

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