It wasn’t because I hadn’t heard amazing things about the Spec Ops and its storyline, or because I thought, “Well, this game looks like it could be any other run of the mill shooter." And frankly, it wasn’t because of any other reason than I'd just disembarked a gut-wrenching 15-hour psychological rollercoaster and hoped (desperately hoped) I could just unplug and not deal with a deep, engaging, and engrossing story.
I was wrong. Wayyyy wrong.
Spec Ops: The Line had other plans for me; it wouldn’t simply let me melt into the ether and blast thousands of digital souls into the netherworld. No, of course not. Persistently (of course), its narrative and underlying literary framework drug me into the blazing sands of contemplation and introspection, a digital hellscape of existential self reflection I hadn't quite prepared for.
What Have I Become, My Sweetest Friend?
At its core, Spec Op: The Line is a game about insanity, but more importantly, it's one that contemplates what it means to be in such a precarious state, how one comes to such a state, and how one, perhaps by some ethereal Edisian illumination, leaps away from the proverbial edge of duality. For its reality to work, Spec Ops: The Line doles out high caliber drama under the auspices of classic literary mechanics like Man versus Man or, more aptly in this case, Man versus Human Nature. (And no, it’s not as heavy handed as your 11th grade honors lit teacher. But ... it's probably much more effective).
Throughout my journey, I couldn’t help but consider one of the most indelible and poignant explorations of the such a subject: Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Most popularized by Frances Ford Copolla’s 1979 film, Apocalypse Now, Conrad’s tale seemed, the more I delved into the world of Spec Ops: The Line, less like mere inspiration and more an authoritative re-imaging.
Ravaged by war, Spec Ops' Dubai (the visual antithesis of the lush, verdant, and mushy Congolese river basin of Conrad’s envisioning) is thematically and authorially identical to Conrad’s imaginings. The ideological motif of despair and psychic devolution innately embodies both worlds. No matter their aesthetic differences, each locale is utterly bleak and morose. The various characters mirror each other in both appearance and psyche. Simply substitute sand for water, jungle for desert, Kurtz and Marlow for Captain Martin Walker, and almost the entire paradigm of Conrad’s commentary on human emotion and psychology fits snugly into this rather obvious allegory.
Take the overall premise for example. Just as Marlow experiences a land drenched in the humidity of colonialism, so does Walker experience a land parched by the tyranny of political and cultural extremisms. When the brutally tortured and subjugated slaves of Marlow’s Congo are unabashedly re-imagined as Dubai’s propagandized, agonized, and conquered populace, they stand not only as an allegory to the horrors of war, but as commentary on our own fascination with the horrors of the military industrial complex.
Rummaging deeper into the disturbed, shattered character of Walker, you’ll find he not only embodies the grotesque philosophies of modern man, but also the ideologies of Conrad’s often enigmatic representation of extremist culture and mindset, i.e. Captain Kurtz. And in Spec Ops: The Line, Walker is Kurtz and Kurtz is Walker. Both searching for themselves ...
In the end, there is no one else. As Tyler Durden is the imaginative figment of Chuck Palhanuik’s Narrator’s fragmented psyche, Walker is that of Kurtz'. Slowly, piece by piece, Walker leaves chunks of his ego rotting in the Dubai sands, thus he morphs into the psyche, and soul, of Kurtz.
By the game’s conclusion, Walker finds Konrad dead – seemingly long dead – which brings into question his own sanity.
Suddenly, it becomes crystal clear: We haven’t been watching a hero struggle to stop a madman, but a protagonist who has jeopardized himself in the search of an ideal, a hero whose journey of misplaced loyalties and false duties has lead him into a literal Hell. We find that Walker has devolved into the depths of madness just as Kurtz had done upon digging deeper into the wilds of the Congo.
As a literati, I've always viewed good and evil not as stark black and white contrasts, but instead as varying and often shifting shades of grey. Subjectification is a powerful, dogged thing that often compromises our ability to empathize and rationalize – not that certain evils are defensible, but that good and evil are often subject when viewed through the lens of "a certain point of view."
For so much of the narrative, Spec Ops: The Line accomplishes this. Even with multiple enigmatic endings and sometimes-dubious plot points near its finale (where it sometimes falters), the themes of insanity and the duality of reality are never mere riddles, but instead deep seeded and meaningful inquiries.
There are many times you’ll question if Walker is (in)sane, dreaming, dead, or a combination of the three, but it is beautifully left to the player’s mind, his concepts of reality, and his conceptions of morality. Thankfully, the delivery of that existential answer is never ham-fisted.
Of course, Spec Ops: The Line poses other poignant questions on war, the video game market’s over indulgence with shooters (and violence), and the roles players take in games. But overall, the game calls into question the validity of right and wrong and emphasizes the very real role of chaos in our everyday lives. It calls into question our moralities, empathies, and psychic securities.
In the end, it calls into question our very own realities...
What I still can’t figure out is how all this sand got in my boots ...