Much has already been said of the affecting nature of Spec Ops: The Line's plot and its attempt to subvert the conventions of the ever-popular shooter. I however, feel the modern console ecosystem undermines the weight of the game's message and highlights the difficulty of attempting to tell a branching, consequence-led story within a non-linear medium.
The road to the conclusion of The Line is a torturous one in every sense. Not only are the things you see and are forced to take part in exhausting but also the actual taking part, the playing of the game, could be considered as intrinsic in creating this sense of emotional fatigue. Whether a conscious design decision to convey the horror of sustained military operations or a simple miss-calculation of when game play overstays its welcome; the combat scenarios are all protracted. The first half of the game throws too many waves into its enclosed arenas while the latter builds the environments out into cavernous temples built to honour the Gods of brutality. I was long done with shooting things by the point I reached its final assault course. Edging slowly past machinegun fire along an obviously prescribed, yet nevertheless frustrating route, it struck me; maybe this was the entire point. Having exposed me to such grueling and lengthy firefights throughout its duration, The Line had successfully merged my mind with that of its protagonist, Captain Martin Walker. The relentless violence we had endured and inflicted had clouded our judgments, preventing us from seeing the humanity being extinguished by our hand. The enemy was no longer a man, a soldier; he was now simply an obstacle to be overcome.
This bond between player and character had ensured my total investment within the hellish Dubai the game took as its home. I had initially pinned my interest on the MacGuffin of antagonist Colonel Konrad’s fate, but what if that was simply the bait to lure me into the city? A device to ensure I pressed forward until Walker and I were too assimilated with one another to distinguish any difference. Without even acknowledging it I had become as much a character in the game as Walker himself; too much had been lost, too many sacrifices made for me to do anything but press forward and discover the truth.
That truth, of course, was harrowing. Konrad was long dead and I was a pitiful shell. What began as a rescue mission had devolved, thanks to circumstance, into an exercise of self-justification. My objectification of the enemy had even darker connotations that I had though. The men falling at my feet were doing so not simply because they posed a threat, but because they helped me justify my previous victims. This cycle of remorse and attempted redemption had tarnished my actions throughout most of the journey.
With this in mind my decision should have been simple. Confronted by the Konrad in my mind, the only one I had ever been listening to, I was given the option to give up; the Colonel would absolve me of all my sins, just as he had himself, with a single bullet. This was my only path to salvation. Or was it? All would be forgiven but nothing would be rectified with my passing; Dubai would still be burning. Taking tangible control of my destiny for what could conceivable have been the first time, I shot the spectral Konrad, freeing myself from the clutches of my own mind. No longer attempting to shelter my psyche from the tragedies I had taken part in I finally accepted my terrible decisions.
BLIP. Achievement unlocked. ‘Aah, I’m playing a video game after all’, I remembered. ‘Forget it, there seems to be a prologue starting’. I easily slipped back into inhabiting Walker and continued along my path of guilt acceptance, finally attempting to do the right thing. As a group of American soldiers approach me through the carnage I myself had created the night before, I am reminded of the destruction wrought by fear. One is responsive to my blank stare and purposeless shuffle, another is quite rightly wary; what if I pose a threat to my quasi-comrades? Their arguing, deliberately reminiscent of my own disagreements earlier in the game, poses my final test; will I let fear for my own safety turn me, yet again, against my fellow countrymen or will I relent and surrender my weapon, thus ensuring everyone’s safety. I chose the latter, opting to try and mend my broken spirit. BLIP. Achievement unlocked.
Herein lies my issue with branching narratives in contemporary video games; their choices are seldom concrete and with achievements being tied to them, often fatally devalued. I know the notifications can be silenced but the shiny badges cannot be dismissed entirely. Having what amounts to a prize attached to the outcome of a decision, here one as weighty as whether or not to commit suicide, ultimately cheapens and undermines the choice entirely. Regardless of whether I was informed of their unlocking or not, the two achievements I earned finishing The Line the way I saw fit will always be there.
The fact I did see them unlock piqued my interest. My story was at its end, Walker and I had pulled through our madness and had reunited with a portion of our humanity. But what would happen if I was weak, if I submitted to the guilt as Konrad had? ‘It wouldn’t change anything to see’ I told myself, ‘my journey is over’. I opened the box. What I saw inside laid the artifice lying at the heart of all games bare for me to see. Regardless of who pulls the trigger, the Colonel or I, events play out in exactly the same manner; Walker dies, slumped atop a tower overlooking the destruction he has created. A recording from Konrad plays highlighting the frailty of man and the vanity we all pursue in the name of heroism. This ending is perfectly acceptable, especially as a counterbalance to my optimistic approach to redemption. It is perfectly understandable that Walker, and so by definition the player, could see that they had gone too far to achieve any forgiveness and instead opt for death.
I don’t even take exception with both choices having a single conclusion, simply the ability to see these things so easily. Games are not yet advanced enough to realistically provide players with more than a handful of distinct choices. It is therefore imperative that these choices are presented in a discrete way so that they appear to be as organic and naturally divergent as possible and are integrated fittingly into narrative situations. For instance, when I was offered the choice to either shoot a traitor or allow him to burn to death I was frozen with indecision. On one hand he had deceived me into perpetrating a terrible crime, on the other he was a human being and I felt too much kinship between the two of us to let him die in agony. The emotions which drove me to this act of compassion are a testament to the writing and overall characterization of the major characters within the game. That I am relating to them on very base and primal levels displays the depth with which they have been imbued a tangible humanity. To then have the achievement Friendly Fire unlock with a self congratulating BLIPis somewhat galling and destroys any pathos.
I replayed this choice and a number of others after completing the game and found myself disappointed at the lack of actual differentiation between their outcomes. Apart from the ending, the rest of my decisions resulted in short-lived and cosmetic changes which all filtered back into the overarching story. This highlights the compromise of giving the player choices; we are often allowed to make decisions but their outcomes are rarely vital to the plot’s progression. The combination of achievements and easily accessible level selectors lay these truths out for all to see. They show the player that even the most compelling and seemingly tailored narrative experience is still a product of code and polygons and computers.
In integrating social elements into games where they need not be, modern gaming ecosystems risk undermining some of the medium’s most rewarding stories. Laying bare the cold artifice behind these tales for the sake of trinkets is terribly short sighted and detrimental to the medium as a whole. We always have the means to go back in time and change events in a game; that is one of the fascinating and unique properties of gaming. We don’t always, however, need reminding of this as it often shows how transient our decisions can be; once we can alter our choices on the fly we stop taking them seriously and this leaves a game like The Line with very little left to show us.