If you want to know why I’m not a very good English major, it’s because I’m distracted by all kinds of narratives other than the ones in books. I know I’ve got millions of books to read, but I’ve also got a million movies to see and video games to play. And right now I have a specific game to rant about, because nothing pisses me off like people misunderstanding Spec Ops: The Line.

I have to cut some slack for the reviewers who have gotten on my nerves with this, though—The Line is easy to misunderstand without, first, being a specific kind of gamer, and, second, being willing to think about The Line beyond it’s own contextI don’t imagine that’s an easy place to be when you’re trying to evaluate a game in a review, but it’s where you need to be for this one.

In a sentence, The Line is a disturbing and soul-piercing deconstruction of the military shooter genre—a genre that has been explosively dominant in the gaming industry ever since 2007’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The Line is tailored specifically for the military shooter player both from a mechanical standpoint in that it is itself a military shooter game, and it is meant for those players conceptually in that, to be blunt here, it exposes how thoughtlessly horrible the whole genre is.

Now, I consider spoilers to be an inexcusable sin against narrative, so I stay away from them as much as I can, but in order to prove my point about how The Line is the most important game ever made, I’ll need to spoil the crap out of it. If you happen to be reading and have not played the game, and if anything I’ve said about it so far intrigues you, go play it first. You will not enjoy it, it will probably make you feel disturbed, conflicted, and maybe even sick to your stomach, but if any game ever needed to be played, it’s The Line.

For a little in-game context: The Line is set in modern day Dubai after the city is buried and cut off from the world by a constant barrage of freak sand storms. A battalion of American soldiers on their way back from Afghanistan goes in to do what they can to help out, but they end up trapped as well, and their commander imposes martial law on the city to try to maintain order as everyone fights for water and food. The player character, Captain Martin Walker, is sent with his team to find out what happened and send for help as required.

Things don’t go well. After a schism between some CIA agents working with the battalion and the battalion commander, Konrad, the battalion ended up rogue, killing the agents and becoming immediately hostile to Walker and his team, assuming they’re CIA as well.

The  escalation of fighting between Walker’s team and the American soldiers culminates into a section of the game known as the “white phosphorus bombing.” In their progress through the city, Walker and his team need to make their way past a large camp of rogue American soldiers, and the only way they can possibly pull it off is by using a computer-guided mortar cannon loaded with white phosphorus rounds—the modern day equivalent of napalm. So, with no other choice, as he says, Walker uses the infrared computer targeting system to bomb the white blobs and boxes on the screen that indicate personnel and vehicles, destroying them with barrages of incendiary shells launched by his soldiers. The challenge for the player at this point is to effectively use the shells to eliminate the white-blob enemies as quickly as possible, making sure they can’t overrun Walker and his soldiers, and the barrage ends with the targeting screen hovering over a large pack of white blobs at the far side of the camp. One shot kills all of them.

This sort of “targeting computer” section became a trope in the genre after CoD: MW’s chapter in which the player takes control of an airplane gunship’s weapons to shoot bombs at white blobs on an infrared screen. But games like CoD never make the player see the destruction they’ve caused afterwards. In this case, The Line makes you see it up close. The point was to get through the camp, after all, so Walker and his team have to walkstraight through the smouldering wreckage, seeing the contorted bodies burned to black bones, half dead and horribly burned soldiers trying to drag themselves away from chemical fires, and at the far side of the camp, there’s a soldier laying immobile on the ground with half of his face burned off. Barely able to talk, he looks up at Walker and asks why they did this.

“You brought this on yourself.” Walker answers.

“But, we were trying to help.”

Then Walker sees the far side of the camp, where the large collection of white blobs had been on the targeting computer. On the infrared screen, they looked just like all the soldiers—a bunch of white blobs. In reality, it was a camp of civilian refugees the soldiers were trying to move away from the fighting. Most of them are lying on the ground, huddled together and now charred and melted by the white phosphorus, but in the middle is the prominent figure, burned in place, of a woman holding a child to her chest.

I’ll go ahead and admit that I cried at this point. I paused the game and put down the controller and cried. Perhaps if I had seen something like this in a movie or read it in a book, and the movie or book knew how to present it in a way that really got to me, I might have cried a bit then too, but there’s no way I would have cried like I did at this scene. I hadn’t just seen this happen in a movie or read it in a book; I wasn’t detached from the tragedy as an observer. I did it myself, with hardly a thought.

The white phosphorus bombing is where some reviews have made me almost angry. Several of the ones I read or listened to complained about this part, saying that the game should have given the player a choice. They said that to make the player do something like that without giving them enough information to make an informed decision, or just another option besides the mortar cannon, was “cheap,” considering how much the rest of the game tries to make sure Walker, and you, remember the horrible things you’ve both done. I totally understand why they want to find fault with that part of the game—they don’t want to be complicit in something like that, even if it’s fictional, and they would rather place the blame on the game. But the fact remains that they, and I, did it. Maybe we “had” to do it, but we did it, and The Line is not going to let us escape the guilt.

As I said, The Line is a deconstruction of the military shooter genre, and all the subversions it pulls would take too long to list, but they all come down to the issues of personal agency in video games, moral ambiguity in warfare, and the way military shooters do a disservice to our cultural consciousness by turning warfare into a fantasy for their players.

Today’s military shooters craft the narrative so that what the player is “supposed” to do in order to advance in the game is in line with what a person is supposed to do morally. “You,” as the player character, are often “supposed to” save civilians and injured comrades, both for the sake of fulfilling moral imperative and for just getting through the game; you are the good guy fighting unambiguously evil and destructive enemies, thus preserving an easily coherent ethos between warfare and the video game representing it. Sometimes you have to do questionable things to do fulfill that moral imperative, such as the other infamously disturbing piece in military shooter history–the “No Russian” chapter of Modern Warfare 2–but it’s all for the greater good.

But what if what you’re “supposed” to do in a game is not what you’re supposed to do as a moral person? You’re “supposed” to kill enemies in a shooter so you can continue in the game, but are you supposed to kill fellow American soldiers who think you’re threatening the stability they’re trying to provide for Dubai? And, in fact, you are. By doing what you’re “supposed” to do in the game, you doom Dubai to death by dehydration in the desert. You’re “supposed” to use the white phosphorus shells to clear out the camp so you can move on, but are you supposed to sentence a bunch of unsuspecting soldiers and the dozens of civilians they’re protecting to the horrible death of being burned alive?

The further you go along in the game, the loading screen text pieces start to become strange. At the beginning, they’re just gameplay tips, like “press down on the D-pad to switch to your weapon’s alternate fire mode.” But near the end, it starts saying things like “How many Americans have you killed today?” “This is all your fault,” as in you, the player. But most importantly: “Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling of holding two opposing beliefs at the same time.” This, I believe, is what that’s referring to: the two “supposed to dos” of gaming being put at odds.

The Line exposes the childishly simplified conflict situations, presented in military shooters as “realistic” modern warfare, by transplanting military shooter philosophical assumptions and gameplay mechanics out of morally unambiguous “supposed to dos” into a much more real warfare scenario. In regular military shooters, America and its soldiers are obviously the good guys always doing the right thing in the end, and its soldiers are the heroes saving the world from the unambiguously evil threat of terrorism or Russian nationalists or something. In place of this simplified fantasy, generic military shooter protagonist Martin Walker is forced to reflect on the consequences of his, and your, actions, both in The Line and in all the other military shooters where you cut down waves of enemies with a machine gun or drop bombs on the little white blobs on your targeting screen. In the real world, when you’re in that plane dropping bombs on those blobs like a kid with a magnifying glass burning ants, you don’t always get to know which little blobs are the soldiers you’re “supposed” to kill and which ones are innocents caught in the wrong place at the wrong time—a soldier carrying a gun and a mother carrying a child look the same to an infrared camera 5,000 feet in the air. It forces you to understand that war can’t be glorified, and it’s conflicts can’t be simplified into good guys versus bad guys. If anyone ever tries to make war out to be like that, it’s not war. It’s a fantasy.

Pundits may rant against games saying they cause violence by desensitizing kids, but there’s no danger of that when the violence games depict is fake, cleaned-up, action movie military power fantasies. I can’t tell you how many shooters I’ve played, and, as I just said, I wasn’t desensitized at all when this game showed me much more real violence. The real danger is in how they train a culture to believe warfare is a matter of morally absolute good guys against bad guys, and the only deaths are the righteous killing of evildoers, the tragic loss of innocents at their hands, and the noble deaths of American soldiers sacrificing themselves for the cause. It isn’t like that, and no one should be made to believe it’s like that, even if it will sell a game.

To end this, I’ll get to why I finished the game, and what the game itself said to explain why I finished it. Walker could have just left, like he was supposed to, and I could have just turned the game off and left it alone. Everything would have been better off that way. But we “wanted to be something [we’re] not,” as Konrad says. “A hero.” The modus operandi for any game’s player character and narrative design is to make the player feel like the hero—only the player character can overcome the story’s obstacles and save the day or achieve their full potential. So, being a gamer, that’s what I was trained to do: believe in some kind of positive resolution I could achieve by finishing the game, being the hero of it all, of course. But it never happens. Everything Walker and I did just caused more pointless death and pain while trying to do all the things that other military shooters have tried to tell me are awesome and heroic. As much as the military shooter genre might try to do it, war can’t be glorified, or simplified, and no one gets to be the hero.

I like to believe that The Line caused some people making all the Battlefields and Call of Duties to stop and think about all the war-glorifying/simplifying they’ve done and have yet to do, and maybe it will change something. At the very least, The Line is the surest sign that video games are growing up and taking control of the major artistic dynamic they have over every other medium. A book or movie might have been able to tell me the same thing about the terrible damage of warfare and commented on the childish simplification that so much media tries to make of it, but they could never make me cause it myself. The kind of courage and design skill needed to do that and say the devastating and necessary statements about military shooters delivered in The Line makes this game transcend anything that’s been made before. I don’t know if I should thank The Line for realizing that potential in such a crushing way, but I’ll respect it as the most important video game that’s been made so far.

*****

For another version of this rant given with some more gamer-specifc lingo and in-depth analysis of specific parts of the game, definitely watch this video I found. Errant Signal and I basically say all the same sorts of things, but I think this is probably something that needs gameplay footage to really drive it home.

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