SPEC OPS: THE LINE: How Violence and Storytelling Can Coexist

On June 30, 2014, former creative director and co-founder of Irrational Games Ken Levine sat with the cast of NPR’s All Things Considered to discuss the 2013 smash hit Bioshock: Infinite and the criticisms surrounding the violence of the game. Many of the criticisms cropping up around Bioshock: Infinite was the belief that the game’s over-the-top gory violence-an aspect that the game doesn’t seem to be lacking especially with the buzz-saw kill moves they employ-actually detracted from the overall narrative and lessened the impact of the plot on the viewer.

The subject of whether or not Bioshock: Infinite was an overtly violent title has been a point that has been more or less beaten to death since its release. However, what Levine noted was that people had asked: “Could they have done it without violence?” He goes on to discuss the nature of why exactly he made Bioshock: Infinite the way he did and then he mentions something interesting: “I think the reaction to the violence is more an expression of people building confidence in the industry’s ability to express itself in more diverse fashions.”

Violence and action

Certainly, no arguments here. As games like Journey and The Stanley Parable have taught us, video games can be more than just senseless violence and gratuitous action.

Looking back, though, I kept thinking about that one question Levine had always received. That one piece of criticism that had hung over Infinite like a sultry rain cloud: “Could they have done it without violence?” It was an odd question, one that I pondered for a while. If the game’s overtly-violent nature had detracted from the overall experience of Bioshock: Infinite, than how could have they made it work and, if so, are there any examples of games with a propensity to violence that also give the player an engaging experience?

For that question, only one answer will suffice: Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line, a title that is perhaps one of the greatest examples of game-driven narratives expressed through violence out on the market.

Released in 2012 and published under 2K Games, Spec Ops: The Line received wide critical acclaim from the game journalism industry for its brutal vindication against the modern-military FPS genre as whole. I don’t really want to go into any more detail about the finer points of the game because, much like the portrayal of violence in Levine’s Infinite, it is a topic that has been beaten to death by now.

In essence, what The Line does right with this hyper over-the-top action sequences is that it was developed, in a sense, around this violence rather than just have it crowbared in there for the sake of adhering to the typical stylings of the FPS genre. In The Line the violence is a central element of the narrative and is key to the point that the game itself is trying to make on the genre it initially tries to mimic.

Ben Kerns’s “Video Game Violence and Narrative Dissonance” editorial for The Artifice does a pretty good job at outlining some of the faults in Bioshock: Infinite‘s use of violence as well as lists off several examples of how gaming’s favorite form of expressing outward aggression can be used correctly. In his article he outlines three main points that should be followed in order to give characters a more realistic feel when it comes to facing the violent nature of their respective game worlds.

Give the player more to do than murder

Where The Last of Us shined, Bioshock: Infinite had failed was in giving the player the choice to take on any challenges that may lie ahead. Rather than offering the player an opportunity to stealth past that group of racist law-enforcers, Infinite was very much comfortable with throwing you into the veritable storm of lead surging around you.

In essence, what Kerns argues is that the protagonist has to play LIKE he was his own separate individual and not just some puppet that we, the player, merely inhabit. Looking at Infinite, one can certainly argue the case that Booker, a man who supposedly regretted his sordid past, is the victim of ludonarrative dissonance when he so casually guns down a legion of leering racists, blood-soaked buzzsaw in hand.

Spec Ops: The Line isn’t much different from Levine’s Bioshock, in a sense. Aside from the typical modern FPS setting — wherein you are set up in some foreign country and you are sent to destabilize the situation with your macho pecks and manly lead-spitting bullet-hoses — Cpt. Martin Walker is a man who, according to the narrative, descended into the sandstorm-desecrated ruins of Dubai to look for survivors yet with every given moment he has no qualms with gunning down thousands of these said survivors with the half-hearted excuse of “self-defense.”

There isn’t much else to do besides murder, kill, and maim any unfortunate foe who happens to wander into your crosshairs. In fact, the game itself is very insistent on highlighting those more gorier details with head-exploding headshots and brain-rending executions.

It’s almost surreal, the killing. So far removed from reality, so insistent on playing itself off as some cheap Call of Duty knockoff that the player becomes jaded to the experience of another poorly made FPS playing out before them.

But perhaps that’s the point, to get you into that certain mindset only to pull the rug out from under you later in the game. As you descend deeper and deeper into the pits of Walker’s own personal hell, his character model becomes more and more beaten and burned. By the end of this baptism of fire and flame, Walker isn’t the man that we recognize anymore. His uniform torn, his flesh seared, those two blue eyes creased into a permanent scowl.

All you do is murder, but in that choice Walker has become the maker of his own nightmare in the sand-laden pits of Dubai.

Give the player a choice and make the choice matter

It’s as simple as that: Have your player make choices and have those choices make a lasting impact on the gameplay.

Rather than have a poorly implemented ‘moral choice’ system that is as cut-and-dry as black and white that only change the ending you receive à la the original Bioshock, Kerns argues that games should give players more of a choice in the matter of how exactly they want to play and have those different play styles ultimately result in a different experience for the player.

You know, something along the lines of Deus Ex: The Human Revolution, a game that is often praised for the wide array of choices it offers the player. Kerns argues that how the player plays in the context of the game world affects what happens later on in the narrative whether it be as simple as extra credits in the player inventory to more enemies scouring the map the next time you happen to pass through a certain area.

For a game whose base mechanic is centered around “shoot the thing,” one can be forgiven for thinking Spec Ops: The Line, a title based off of the typical linear modern FPS, would have little to no choice involved and for the most part you’d be right. Yes there are a few choices here and there to enforce that sort of ‘moral dilemma’ in the player mindset but they don’t change much in terms of gameplay.

All you do is shoot. The gun in Walker’s hand is pretty much the closest thing to our involvement in this apocalyptic Dubai. Yet despite this it asks you a lot of questions that many shooters seem content to ignore.

“Am I right in shooting these people?”

Walker seems content with clinging to that belief that those that are set before him are the enemy and nothing more. But the player, on the other hand, feels guilt for the actions he commits, leaving them with another poignant question.

“Am I in control of Walker?”

The third-person perspective was a rather clever design choice on the part of the developers for it only enforces that idea that we are simply some vestige of rationality in the mind of this depraved individual.

We see a side of the human psyche that we often choose to ignore, the fact that, despite everything, we always adhere to our ideologies and beliefs regardless of any evidence to the contrary. So stubborn was Walker on his keen insistence to become the hero of his own make-believe world, that he failed to see the piles of bodies that began to pile up around him. An eerie and unsettling parallel, one that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.

Make killing matter

Give your character justification for the ceaseless slaughter of the countless enemies set before him and have that killing have a deep and lasting impact on the character.

Kerns cites the popular indie title Papers, Please as a prime example of this point at work. Set in the fictional dystopian communist regime of Arstotzka, you play as a border guard whose final choice of “Approved” or “Denied” can be a veritably life changing event for that randomly generated assortment of pixels that is set before you. It’s essentially a game whose center mechanic revolves around bureaucracy, a subject that is oft ignored in the action-packed halls of gaming.

However, rather uniquely for a game about sorting paperwork, it presents the player with constant moral choices: you could let through the man who attempted to smuggle in medicine for his dying mother or you could have him arrested and tortured/killed for a little extra cash on the side to take care of your family. It’s hard to be a good person within the grim dark world of Arstotzka.

Spec Ops: The Line, on the other hand, seems content with setting you against countless hoards of gun-toting baddies with nary a sense of consequence hanging about the game. To Walker, the enemies are just that, enemies. Not humans with dreams or aspirations, just faceless, dull enemies to be set against you like cannon fodder. There is no consequence for Walker for their unmitigated slaughter, just ammo and the occasional good weapon.

Yet of the three criterion outlined by Kerns in his article, Spec OpsThe Line is perhaps one of the best examples of this principle at work. Despite Walker’s clouded judgement, the enemies that he is killing are, in fact, people. People who dream of escaping the apocalyptic abyss that this once shimmering city had become.

A rather gripping scene had two enemy soldiers discuss their lives outside of Dubai and of hopes to once again return to those lives before Walker nonchalantly caps them both in the face.

But the real punch comes later on in the narrative in what is arguably one of the most defining moments in video games. I won’t say anymore of the scene because of spoiler reasons aside from that it is perhaps one of the most morally reprehensible, detestable, wretched, vile acts that a game has ever forced me to commit. A scene that would ultimately force me to reassess my enjoyment of the modern-military genre.



How Spec Ops makes it work

In the realm of the ‘modern military FPS’ it’s easy to feel that there are only two major competitors duking it out for the grand prize — Call of Duty and Battlefield — and due to the sheer ubiquity of both of these titles, many other titles attempt to ‘copy’ their success with little to no avail.

Looking at the box art for Spec Ops: The Line one can be forgiven for believing that its simply one of the many in a long line of victims who has fallen to the ‘modern FPS’ craze, even the shooting and gameplay feel like dated variants of those two monoliths of the genre. But that’s exactly the sort of mentality the developers want the player to have going into their game. You go into it expecting some sort of hackneyed Call of Duty clone, but Spec Ops: The Line is so much more than that. Extra Credits even went so far as to call it “the harshest indictment of modern-military shooter games” that they had ever seen.

It plays upon those typical tropes of the modern-military FPS to provide an experience unique from the ones you would usually get from Call of Duty or Battlefield. It is an attempt to deconstruct the genre, to show its player how divorced from reality our psychotic killing sprees are, but most of all it asks us: “Do you feel like a hero yet?”. In that mad rush to vindicate ourselves in this virtual realm through trials of lead and fire, we wade through the darkest depths of the human psyche and ask ourselves:

“Why do they have to die?” Because they were the enemy? Because it’s a game, and that’s what I’m supposed to do? Because I had to further the plot?

I see a sort of wisdom in the gratuitously violent world of Spec Ops: The Line, a sense of self-awareness that scant many games or even developers are capable of. It is a game that will drag you through a veritable nightmare of your own making. It is a game that will force you to confront your consequences in an uncaring world. Above all, it is a game that will strike you with such intensity that you will feel gutted emotionally for the experience.

Final Thoughts

In terms of recommendation, Spec Ops: The Line is a title that I cannot recommend any higher. It stands as a shining example of a game that attempts to redefine a genre, a much-needed self-reflection for an industry that has become obsessed with this incessant habit of ‘follow the leader’.

Cited as one of the nine signs that gaming, as a medium, had grown up during the year of 2012, Evan Narcisse wrote of The Line leaving the player “Wrung out. A lot more like real war — and real life — than other action games.”

Despite the violence and conflict meshed within the world of The Line, the player doesn’t feel any less engaged for it. Oddly enough the gratuitous death and brutal nature of the genre itself add to the overall experience. Where it not for the fact that Yager Development had worked within the realm of the modern FPS for this latest installment in the Spec Ops franchise, The Line may have been a different game entirely.

In the end, it’s not a question of whether or not violence detracts from the overall narrative experience, a matter of how it’s integrated into the game itself and the context wherein that violence is applied. Through its use of typical modern FPS action and hyper-militaristic violence, The Line weaves a compelling narrative whereas something like Bioshock: Infinite simply feels lessened for the sake of it.

Whatever the case, I’m certain that most, if not all, of us can agree that video games as a medium are created solely for the experience, whether it be for fun or for . They take us to worlds far removed from our own and set us against challenges that our normal lives could scarcely imagine.

Cover image via


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One Comment on “SPEC OPS: THE LINE: How Violence and Storytelling Can Coexist”

  1. 09/10/2014 at 9:08 PM #

    One of my favorite shooters of the last gen consoles. I enjoyed the Heart of Darkness references. The story was top notch and the combat was so great being third persona and all.

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