Eric Tells Liz What Happened In “Spec Ops: The Line” (Part 3)

Dear Frank,

What a fun genocidal journey we’ve been on, huh? But now, it’s time for Eric Miller‘s thrilling conclusion to the video game “Spec Ops: The Line.”

Love,
Liz

Dear Liz,

Spec_Ops_The_Line_cover…nice long kitten break. Back to Dubai!

Something that I should make clear to you, Liz, is that Spec Ops is not the best game I’ve ever played. At the moment, that title belongs to Mass Effect 2 (with some grumblings about how many of the problems with ME3 can be traced back to ME1 and 2 over promising…). It wasn’t even my favorite game of last year, which goes to… Mass Effect 3, because of everything that happened before those last 15 minutes…

Point is, the game’s not perfect. There’s clear padding in areas, Act 1 goes on too long (it’s almost half the game), I hate the In Medias Res beginning (hence why I didn’t mention it at the start), and the fact that there’s no way to progress in the White Phosphorous attack without using it and killing all the civilians undercuts the message a bit in the end (although many disagree).

Compared to Apocalypse Now, Spec Ops isn’t even close. Apocalypse Now is just about perfect, the writing, the directing, the cinematography. Really, the only problem is that the early battle scenes are too exciting and entertaining, and thus make it easy to miss the point of them.

But what Spec Ops does well? It does phenomenally well.

We left off on the scary looking image last time… but it was just a dream sequence, brought on by dehydration, sleep depravation, the crash and probably a few other things. Still, it’s haunting as you see Lugo get dragged off into the sands… what could that mean?

Anywho, Walker wakes up, looking even worse off than before, and finds himself alone, separated from his team.

Still, he manages to find Adams after a bit, the man hit and pinned down by what part of the Damned 33rd that you HAVEN’T killed, and after you rescue him, you two set off to find Lugo… after a fair bit of arguments (and a few more action beats because video game).

Adams blames Walker for everything that’s happened, and… really, at this point? It’s kinda become clear that the man just wants it all to end, one way or another, but not if it means leaving someone else to die… which is what makes what happens next so heartbreaking.

Lugo’s arm was broken in the crash, leaving him largely defenseless. He’s had to hide from the 33rd and everyone else, and as you get nearer to him, he gets cut off, panicked, because someone found him, and by the time you get there…

image 24

image 25

image 26

…the people of Dubai, blaming him for this hell that’s been unleashed upon them, lynch him. Walker tries to revive him, but he can’t, all the while Adams has his machine gun pointed at the civilians who are still there, yelling at you, and then comes the other war crime you can commit.

The civilians aren’t leaving, they’re throwing things at you, you’ve just seen this wholly likeable guy get killed by them, and you have a gun. No instructions are given to you. For my part, after all of the hell that I had been through? I tried to walk past them, and then they hit me, and, without thinking, I clicked the button.

If you fire into the air, they run away, unharmed, and Adams holds his fire. If you did like I did, Adams opens fire with you, and… if any escape, they’re never seen again.

This is not a very fun game in the end… and it’s not over yet, because Walker and Adams keep going. They want to end this, and so they attack what’s left of the Damned 33rd. Two people head-on versus what’s left of a battalion, you have to wonder if they both want to just die.

image 27

Something I haven’t been mentioning is that Walker’s been hallucinating every so often, more and more as the game goes on. At one point, he went into a room with a bunch of mannequins, and thought they were enemy soldiers. Another time, a downed enemy was Adams, and if you hit the button prompt to Execute him, Walker would smash the guys head in repeatedly with his rifle. It strikes again in the 33rd’s base, first where the use of White Phosphorous by the enemy shows…

...you said it...

You said it…

…and again where an enemy kicks down a door, and all Walker sees is… Lugo.

"The only villain here is you, Walker. There's only you." -Phantom Lugo

“The only villain here is you, Walker. There’s only you.” -Phantom Lugo

This phantom Lugo yells out at Walker, blaming him for… everything. He’s firing real bullets, because it’s another heavy soldier that Walker’s picturing. Kill him, and a few dozen more guys, and you take the base… only to see the heavy reinforcements arrive. Adams tells Walker to run for it, shouting down any attempt by Walker to surrender. Adams would rather die here than live with everything that happened, go out with whatever honor or nobility he has left, and tells Walker to run to Konrad’s base, at the top of one of the tallest towers in Dubai.

There’s no more resistance here, thankfully. Just six soldiers who say they surrender, that Konrad’s upstairs, where he’s always been.

Something to note, Liz, is a critical advantage that video games have over film: World building. In movies and TV, set designers goes to painstaking lengths to make every piece of the world shown tell it’s own story… and it comes nowhere close to what happens in Konrad’s penthouse, because you get to explore it before you head up the stairs to finally see Konrad in person. A picture’s worth a thousand words, and being able to step into it and look around is worth even more than that.

Throughout the game, there’s been collectibles, little objects you can find in-game that trigger an audio message or an image or just say something about this world that the developers have created, and there’s two in Konrad’s apartment: A poem for his wife, and a letter to his son.

The latter you should remember from Apocalpyse Now: Kurtz’s manifesto, his message to his son, telling of what he did and why and all the madness that was no doubt in there. The question that was never asked was “What did it say exactly?”, because we didn’t need to know. We knew enough of Kurtz, there’s nothing more it could say that would surprise us.

Konrad’s letter to his son is both a parallel to that element… and also the biggest and last hint that things are not what they seem. Because we can read Konrad’s letter, and it’s quite short, and it tells us one very important thing:

image 30

Konrad isn’t meant to be Kurtz. Konrad did what he had to do. And the difference becomes even more clear when you finally do meet him.

Look familiar, Walker?

Look familiar, Walker?

Because that’s not him. That’s the voice that’s been in Walker’s head for the last half of the game, and he’s not really there. This is Colonel Konrad.

image 32

“It seems that reports of my survival have been greatly exaggerated.” -Phantom Konrad

The voice on the walkie talkie throughout the entire game was Walker imagining it all. There weren’t even any batteries in it. The White Phosphorous broke his mind, wanting to blame someone, anyone, so it blamed Konrad, and Walker deluded himself into think that he needed to fix everything, push forward, be the hero of the story… when he should have just turned around and left Dubai.

And, in the end, you should have too, because you kept playing the game, kept pushing forward yourself, kept hoping for some magic ending that would make all of this make sense, even when all signs indicated that there was going to be nothing good about it.

There’s a few branches at the ending, giving you a choice of your preferred ending, in a sense. The first? The Phantom Konrad points a gun at Walker, saying he’ll shoot Walker on the count of five… and you get to decide if you want to let him, have Walker shoot the Phantom Konrad… or turn the gun on Walker himself. It’s really a question of if Walker’s going to accept that he’s to blame, that he’s the one responsible for all the death… or if you want him to keep on denying everything.

Tyler Durden wishes he were Walker...

Tyler Durden wishes he were Walker…

If you shoot Walker… well, the game ends there, and you don’t find out what happens to the rest of Dubai… although you probably don’t have to guess. If you do keep Walker alive, he sends out a message, out past the Storm Wall, calling for the evacuation to commence.

The next line: "Survivors... one too many..."

“Survivors… one too many…” –Captain Walker

After the credits, the American troops roll into town. Two Humvees full of soldiers drive up to a shell-shocked Walker, who just stands there… holding the most powerful gun in the game… and you get one last choice.

If you choose to drop your weapon (or wait long enough), Walker hands over the shotgun, and they drive off… presumably to a court martial, with a Walker that sounds like he wanted to die. Of course, if you take the other option… then you get one last fight, Walker mowing down American soldiers that have done nothing wrong, who fire back. He says nothing during the combat, only grunting when hit, and whether this is a psychotic killing machine, or a glorified Suicide by Cop, it’s hard to say.

Win, and he picks up a dying soldier’s radio, and says one simple thing. “Gentlemen, welcome to Dubai” before walking off, leaving the dead where they fell. If you die, however, you don’t get the respawn. You see Walker in the sand, bleeding out, as Walker’s last thoughts are of Konrad… and they sum up the whole game, really.

"Home? We can't go home. There's a line men like us have to cross. If we're lucky, we do what's necessary and then we die. No... all I really want, Captain, is peace."

“Remember back in Kabul, John? Before things got bad? We were talkin’… about nothin’ really. I said somethin’ about goin’ home, and you said-“
“Home? We can’t go home. There’s a line men like us have to cross. If we’re lucky, we do what’s necessary and then we die. No… all I really want, Captain, is peace.”

I haven’t gone into a lot of the more subtle elements here. Walker gets more and more scarred and disfigured as the game goes on, his battle chatter (things the character says during combat based on stuff that just happened, like killing an enemy) gets less profession and more violent.

Or how something similar happens with the Execute command, where you can go up to an enemy that’s dying and finish them off (which nets you some bonus ammo for your guns), and the animations go from clean kills to violent, bloodthirsty assaults.

Or even how that game mechanic speaks to the “I did what I had to” aspect of the story, as it allows you to keep using your good guns longer and longer, and not have to pick up weaker ones… allowing you to do something horrible for a good cause. Or even more subtle things, like how you’re almost always going down, descending into this hell that you’re creating. Or the music that gets played throughout it having it’s own symbolic touches.

Of course, the game’s not perfect. As I’ve said, Act 1 goes on for far too long, especially since it’s really only interesting as a set-up to the White Phosphorous scene. It feels like there’s too little stuff in Act 2 and 3, too. They don’t do nearly enough with the hallucinations or Phantom-Konrad’s walkie-talkie either.

When they come up, it’s something important and impressive, and it makes you weep for the possibilities if they had spent about hour or two to develop that out more. And, which I understand and respect Yager’s (the developers) stance that the right move is to turn off the game, I don’t think that’s a good excuse for not including a “Run away and report back to base” option at the White Phosphorous bit.

Still, for all the downsides, there’s a very, very good reason I’m telling you about this.

I watched Apocalypse Now for the first time before I started to write this, Liz. And it was a masterpiece, left me shaken in the end, spoke to me about the horrors of what humanity can be like… but, in the end, I shook the darkness off in, oh, 15 minutes? 30?

When I finished Spec Ops: The Line, after putting a bullet in Walker’s head like he so richly deserved, I spent… I don’t remember how long just coming to terms with it, because, in the end? It wasn’t Walker doing all of the above horrors… it was me. I fired the White Phosphorous at the blips on the screen, without even wondering if they might not be combatants. I panicked and opened fire into the crowd. I kept playing on and on, never thought about stopping, because I had to know, how did this all end… and look at everything that I did because of that. Apocalypse Now was a punch in the gut, but this… was something altogether more.

It’s what Video Gaming can do, really, the reason why this is an art form worthy of exploration and experimentation as any other. All of those flaws of the medium, in the end, give way to one, indisputable fact: There’s no horror as terrible as the one you commit yourself.

…the horror…

Eric Miller is a video game nerd who’s somehow managed to turn a hobby of playing video games into a professional career, the poor bastard. He also occasionally blogs at Beyond the Polygons.

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About A "Liz Tells Frank" Guest Writer

I'm a guest writer for Liz Tells Frank What Happened In..., which makes me a very special breed of person, and someone Liz admires deeply! Want to become a guest writer yourself? Just reach out to Liz and ask!

Posted on October 24, 2013, in All the Spoilers, Other People Telling Liz Stuff, Spoiler Alert!, Video Games and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. For at least a week after I played Spec Ops: The Line, when I’d walk into my living room where I’d played the game, I’d get hit by this dark cloud of ‘I did horrible things here.’

  2. Oh, this was depressing, but also very interesting. I really enjoyed it. Thanks, Eric!

    By the way, I (stupidly) read all three of the 50 shades ‘books’ and the third one was by far the worst. I would so LOVE for John Ross to tell you about this abomination. Poor John, hasn’t he suffered enough? Yes, he has. I know that this is never go happen. But, hey, a girl can dream, right?

    • I’ll pass this along to Eric!

      I did actually hear from John about the 50 Shades sequels — he apparently got 75 pages into book two and gave up. His complaint? “There’s no story!” I won’t force him to suffer any further for his art. 🙂

      • I can’t blame John. He’s right: there is no plot to speak of. I applaud him for even attempting to read more after the horrible experience of reading the first book.

  3. Ugh, heartbreaking. On a much, much tinier scale, let me share a video game trauma that happened to me. First of all, I’m not a big gamer. I don’t like competitive games against other people, especially first-person shooters where I have to shoot my friends, or games set in war time. The only “battle games” I’ve ever enjoyed are Lord of the Rings (orcs aren’t people, they are the epitomy of evil!), Jurassic Park (shooting raptors in self defense!), and maybe bomber man (for some reason, blowing up your friends in 8-bit is way less traumatizing.). The games I like are things like Zoo Tycoon and Mario Kart.

    Anyway, i was playing Roller Coaster Tycoon one day, I’d been tinkering with the game for over a month, and on this day, after an hour of building my totally awesome theme park, I decided to build an observation tower. Up, up, up, I built it. Then, since it wasn’t a custom-built roller coaster or anything (the only customizable part was the height and the paint color) I just opened it for business without testing it.

    Well, the whole thing collapsed on its maiden voyage and I killed fifty people. I KILLED FIFTY PEOPLE. In a frickin’ game of Roller Coaster Tycoon!!!!!!! I didn’t even know that was possible!!!!! You can’t kill people in Roller Coaster Tycoon!! It might sound silly, but i was honest-to-goodness horrified. And, being the marshmallow that I am, I cried. I felt so terrible. I’d killed all these characters, not even knowing that that sort of outcome was a possibility. It was terrible. That was 6 years ago, and I’ve never, ever, played the game since. I just can’t.

  4. Great article. This game actually had me feeling quite disturbed. There’s a point about 2/3 through the game where you’re just killing people and you don’t know why and you actually start to think, “Should I really be doing this?” And the hallucinations are creepy. At one point, the faces of the attackers started to appear as skulls, but then I’d look again and they weren’t skulls anymore. I thought I was losing my mind.

    If they would just fix the sticky cover mechanics, this would be one of the best games ever.

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