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Spec Ops: The Line

November 20th, 2012 | Posted by Brendan Keogh in Critical Compilation:

Depending on who you ask, Yager’s military-themed cover-shooter Spec Ops: The Line is either the most exciting game of recent time, or the most disappointing. Some argue that it is incredibly insightful and provoking, challenging many of the most rigid and ingrained conventions of videogames generally and military shooters specifically. Others argue that its own adherence to these conventions voids any insights it might make. Either way, the wealth of critical attention the game has received rightfully demonstrates that The Line is an important game

This split of the critical reception has afforded an outpouring of articles and blogs around the game covering a vast range of perspectives and opinions. Personally,  the game inspired me to try my hand at a long-form critical reading of the game called Killing is Harmless. As an appendix to this book, I compiled a Critical Compilation of posts written about the game that I will reproduce here.

Needless to say, this list is far from exhaustive, and I am sure to miss something out there on the ever-growing network of game blogs. Further, the game’s relative newness means many more conversations are likely to happen around it in the coming months. If you think a piece deserves to be here, please email me at brendankeogh86@gmail.com, and I will update it accordingly.

Welcome to Dubai

Often, some of the most succinct critical overviews of a game are made in the reviews. Edge thinks The Line has issues, but claims that it fires the first shots “in the battle for a smarter, morally cognizant shooter.” At Game Critics, Brad Gallaway applauds the game for trying to do something special, but ultimately believes that it is held back by a rigid adherence to genre conventions. In a “Second Opinion” Corey Motley agrees, and goes so far to call out The Line for “cheap, bulls**t guilt tactics”. RockPaperShotgun’s Alec Meer is largely positive about the game. Or, perhaps, is positive about how negative the game made him feel.

Unenjoyable Play

Surprisingly, where one would expect the most negative reaction, The Line receives a somewhat insightful and introspective look from Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee Croshaw. In between his obligatory crass jokes, Croshaw makes several interesting musings on whether or not a shooter has to be ‘fun’. Similarly, Penny Arcade has a two-part video review that looks in-depth at just how The Line works, what it says about PTSD, and how the mechanics intentionally make you feel uncomfortable.

Indeed, many people did feel uncomfortable when they played The Line, and many people thought it was a better game because of this. Not only does The Line make us feel terrible for what we do while we play it, but it can make every violent act we have committed in videogames up to this point feel equally terrible. Bruno Dion at Medium Difficulty looks at how The Line makes virtual killing feel bad in a way few games bother to make it feel. Nick Dinicola, meanwhile, discusses how The Line shames his happy, violent memories of videogames past, and in another post discusses The Line’s endings in more detail.  Brandon Karratti, too, retrospectively reconsidered the many virtual murders he committed once he played The Line. Richard Cobbett thinks The Line tries to make us feel guilty by association, but believes other games have done this better.

Back at Medium Difficulty, Karl Parakenings felt terrible when he played The Line for an entirely different reason: because he hated it, claiming that the game is “largely about the question of why one would spend money on a game which does its best to make you stop playing.” Parakenings is certainly not the only critic who thinks the game fails at its message. Raymond Neilson agrees, and takes issue with various things that lead writer Walt Williams has said about the game in interviews. These two video essays, too, take issue with the apparent contradiction in what The Line is saying and how it is saying it.

Playing With Conventions

At Pixels or Death, Patrick Lindsey argues that The Line can’t be profound as long as it rigidly sticks to shooter conventions. David Sadd responds to Lindsey’s piece, however, and argues that The Line works specifically because it plays with shooter conventions to tell a personal story.

Similarly, Errant Signal’s video essay on the game discusses how The Line can only deliver its messages through the most conventional mechanics, and how it plays off the player’s expectation.

On the topic of whether or not The Line is ‘won’ by not playing it, Jim Ralph decides to call The Line’s bluff by not playing it, and finds this a particularly interesting way of engaging with a game.

One interesting aspect about The Line is how the characters evolve over the entire course of the game. At The Escapist Grant Howitt looks at how this works in detail with comments from narrative designer Richard Pearsey. Blogger a_g, meanwhile, writes three posts as he plays the game, detailing his attachment (and increasing detachment) to the members of Delta squad as the game progresses.

Who’s To Blame?

On the question of just who the bad guys are in The Line, Bernardo Del Castillo doesn’t think that is the right question to ask, and thinks The Line shows that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are often just in the eye of the beholder.

Beyond its own story, The Line raises questions about just what shooters do and what our responsibilities are as the players of shooters. Tom Bissell uses The Line as a jumping off point to look at depictions of violence in recent videogames more broadly in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter”. Dan Golding notes that among all its themes, The Line is “most clearly an attack on videogames” and goes even further to say that it is “an attack on those of us who play and uncritically enjoy military shooters.” However, Sparky Clarkson wonders just how critical The Line can be of the player’s actions while simultaneously avoiding the question of just what the responsibility is of a developer that makes such games in the first place. Matthew Burns at Magical Wasteland similarly compares and contrasts The Line with Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” level, finding each wanting in the way they deliver their message to the player. Patrick Stafford, however, sees The Line as a crucial turning point for the shooter genre, and claims that The Line demands that shooters raise the bar. Anjin Anhut doesn’t compare The Line to the shooter genre broadly, but to Bioshock specifically in his journey from Rapture to Dubai.

Breaking It Down

Various other writers dissected the game in great detail, or took elements or themes of the game and discussed those at great length. At Twenty Sided, Shamus Young and some companions have several long and detailed posts looking in-depth at various aspects of The Line. The first two posts break down the entire game, bit by bit. Another post looks more generally at The Line’s themes and how it conveys them, and another post looks in-depth at The Line’s visual art style. Similarly, Cameron Kunzelman found the game wanting, but celebrates the game’s art direction.

Co-Op Critics break down The Line into a serious of thematic categories, and analyse each of these in turn. At Unwinnable, I look at The Line, Mark of the Ninja, and film Inception to look at how various videogames of late have depicted purely subjective worlds that we can never experience in any objective way.

At The Society Pages, Sarah Wanenchak looks at The Line in great detail in the third part of a three part series looking at war games, war stories, and the various ways war and culture collide. The entire series is well worth a read.

Developer Commentary

This first wave of players were so enthralled by The Line, largely, because they were surprised that such a game could possibly come to exist in the current triple-a space, where few publishers are willing to take the slightest risk. However, David Rayfield looks at how the popular conversations around The Line perhaps diluted, if not damaged, the game’s effect on the second wave of players who came to the game after the first wave raved about it.

The developers spoke to many curious outlets about the process and ideas and motivations that went into the game. Before the game was even out, journalists were intrigued by the game’s promise to channel the themes of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. At Kill Screen, Yannick Lejacq interviews producer Tarl Raney about just what the team were hoping to do with the game, giving one of the first hints that this game was going to be something different. In response to this, Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku voices his justified concerns that videogames’ fixation with Apocalypse Now might just be an excuse for artsy violence.

Russ Pitts at The Verge has perhaps the most comprehensive breakdown of the full story behind The Line, with interviews with lead writer Walt Williams, lead designer Cory Davis, and narrative designer Richard Pearsey as part of a much longer article.

Richard Pearsey writes an essay himself for Gamasutra on The Line’s narrative design. Also at Gamasutra, Brandon Sheffield interviews Cory Davis about many of the game’s themes and design decisions.

At Giant Bomb, Patrick Klepek talks to Walt Williams to get some insight into just how 2K allowed the game to be what it is. Finally, on an incredibly insightful podcast at Gamespot, Walt Williams discusses many, many aspects of the game in great depth.

Late Edition

Marc Price watches Apocalypse Now again after playing The Line to compare and contrast the two works, looking at how the two take different approaches in different media to approach similar themes.

Stephen Malone had a particularly strong reaction to the game, and writes about how he doesn’t think he can kill people in videogames any more.

Anthony Salvatore looks at The Line from a psychology perspective, using Philip Zimbardo’s “psychology of evil” model to analyse Walker’s evolution.

Our own Kris Ligman at her blog Dire Critic discusses The Line with her high school friend who has since joined the marine corps and completed two tours of Iraq. In a follow up post, Ligman’s friend returns to Dubai for a second playthrough of the game from his unique perspective, and Ligman concludes with a call for more “military criticism” within games criticism.

John Brindle looks at the binary choice of pulling the trigger or not pulling the trigger, and the elusive sensation that is to actively choose to do nothing in a game.

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