Spoiler Warning: This article will contain spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line. Do not read if you’re playing it or plan to in the near future.
It’s rare that a shooter doubles up as a criticism of itself, and a judge of the audience. Typically in these games you go into an area, shoot some bad guys and move on, never forced to think on your actions. You are a soldier, a hero or a god, and your actions in such games are always justified. You’re the good guy, following the orders to get rid of the bad guys. It’s what we have been conditioned to believe in the majority of the games we play.
Spec Ops The Line begins with that familiar introduction, once again painting the three-man Delta squad as heroes sent in to find survivors, and bring them out from the sand stricken ruins of Dubai. You’re also tasked with finding out what happened to the Damned 33rd, an army unit that ignored orders to abandon Dubai. Almost immediately things turn sour as the locals try to kill you, but you shoot back because you’re the good guy and you’re here to help.
From Delta’s perspective this is a justified action. After all, they were fired upon first, and the enemy side is unknown. Fighting back to survive is justified, there’s nothing wrong with that. For all you know these guys could be a death squad, killing any survivors still in the city, and Delta are here to save them. As the mission goes on though, more and more things go wrong but Walker, Delta squad’s leader, is sure his choices are just and serve the greater good.
Perhaps the biggest moment in the story involves white phosphorus and an encampment full of soldiers. It’s here where the real brutality of war is shown; killing dozens with a horrible chemical weapon to save the lives of others others. It highlights how drastic choices are taken in the heat of battle, and how they aren’t always good choices.
This event causes splinters in Delta squad, with Walker claiming the 33rd forced him to use the phosphorus and Lugo saying there was a choice. Walker still sees himself as the hero, someone who has a mission to complete, and he accepts the losses as collateral in pursuit of the greater objective of saving thousands.
Adams and Lugo, however, start to question the leadership of Walker as he marches them into even more dangerous situations. However, they obey the hierarchy of their unit, even when things don’t go how they want them to. It almost serves as a parallel to how we as players obey the paths set for us in games, blindly accepting it’s what we have to do to advance.
Eventually Walker’s actions lead to the deaths of both Adams and Lugo, because he could not let go of the mission even when failure was clearly imminent. Hundreds have died because of the three, but Walker sees himself as the hero right up to the point it is revealed that he has been suffering from his own disorder and hallucinations during the fight. He was never fit to lead, but he did anyway.
Though Walker’s own demise is interesting in its own right, there are other perspectives to view the Dubai situation from. These include the CIA, the Damned 33rd, and the citizens of the once oasis of the desert. Each group has their own view on the Delta situation, and the fall of Dubai itself.
The 33rd are the main antagonists of the story, though can you really paint them as the bad guys at all? When the order to retreat from Dubai and leave the population behind they chose to stay, being cast as traitors in the process. They try to escort the survivors of the storms out but are pushed back into the city, so they do what they can to maintain order and keep the people safe. Are atrocities committed? Yes they are, when war breaks out due to the CIA infiltrating the city and riling up insurgents to fight against the 33rd.
The CIA has one mission in Dubai and that’s to make sure that news of what happened after the storms never gets out. The only way to ensure that is to kill off the entire group of survivors. They can easily be classed as the bad guys, but the CIA has its own greater good target. This sacrifice must be made to avoid an all out war with the powerful Middle East nations, a war that would see the US lose out economically. A war with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would see a huge oil crisis occur in America, due to supplies being cut off by the Arab states. The CIA tries to end the 33rd’s rule to stop even more bloodshed occurring, probably even averting World War Three. [drop]
And then you have the forgotten citizens of Dubai, those caught in the middle of the warring factions. These people have lost everything, most of it buried beneath the sands of the desert. So when an American occupation force and an American agency go to war in their own home some of them may choose to fight back. After all neither American side had to be there, but both appeared and furthered the bloodshed. Then Delta arrived and hundreds more died because of them.
The Dubai citizens are almost the forgotten victims in this tale of war. Their home is destroyed by a mixture of natural disaster and foreign incursion. With the opposing American sides going to war in their home, the Dubai citizenry are not consulted on how they want to proceed forward. Instead they are pawns in another superpower’s game, used as bargaining chips and controlled by the most powerful group of the time.
Spec Ops: The Line is one game that really forces you to think about what you’re doing when pulling the trigger on your controller. Every game gives you an objective that you must follow, but very few judge you for the actions you take and make you question what you’re doing.
After all, there’s always a choice.