A Violent Video Game Asks: Where Do You Draw the Line?

  • Spec Ops: The Line is a video game that challenges the morality of all the killing that is part of the story. (Game screenshot)

    Spec Ops: The Line is a video game that challenges the morality of all the killing that is part of the story. (Game screenshot)

  • A screenshot from Spec Ops: The Line.

    A screenshot from Spec Ops: The Line.

  • Spec Ops: The Line is a video game that challenges the morality of all the killing that is part of the story. (Game screenshot)
  • A screenshot from Spec Ops: The Line.

There’s a point about midway through the video game Spec Ops: The Line where the player is made to commit an absolute atrocity, one that totally changes the tenor of the game. Before that moment, the game is the sort of military-style shooter that many decry as harmful to those who play it. Afterward, it takes on a new life.

The game takes the typical testosterone-heavy power fantasy and flips it on its head. The player’s grizzled, buff squad members begin to bicker, and challenge your character’s decision making. The game still forces you to kill wave after wave of enemies, but also to confront the kinds of actions you’re perpetrating.

“The truth,” a character tells you late in the story, after you’ve killed thousands in a war-ravaged Dubai, “is that you’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not: a hero.”

But you are a hero, or at least you are by the standards of so many bullet-spraying shooters. In those, you are the white knight, killing the baddies while dodging and jumping and quipping about how great you are. Enemies go down like they’re in a Whack-a-Mole game, forever regenerating, nothing more than an obstacle.

“Video games have for so long been like, ‘Look, war is when you go in and kill people who deserve to die, because they are destroying the things that you love — and have fun,’ ” Walt Williams, who wrote Spec Ops’ script, told the Ars Technica website last year, shortly after the game’s release. “It was such a strange disconnect for us going into this project that we had allowed war to become such a spectacle-based entertainment, and we wanted to make a game in our medium that spoke to the truth of war just like every other medium had done.”

Spec Ops: The Line is different from its contemporaries. Early on, it questions you. Then, after the atrocity, it condemns you.

That turning point generated a lot of controversy in the video game world upon the game’s release, and it’s worth describing what happens to show the depths the game plumbs to indict the player. It’s graphic (and spoiler-y), so read ahead at your own risk:

You and your two squad mates, after mowing down hundreds on your way to find the mysterious Col. John Konrad (Heart of Darkness allusions appear here in spades) on a supposed reconnaissance mission in a Dubai ruined by months of sandstorms, come across a big part of Konrad’s battalion. A note: Earlier, the battalion mistook you for someone else, so you’ve been killing fellow American soldiers, since early on in the game, to stay alive.

You need to get by the mass of soldiers. You see a mortar loaded with white phosphorus. You go for it.

Afterward, you realize the soldiers were there protecting Dubai residents, keeping them out of the firefights that have been going on around the city. You have killed 47 innocents.

That’s where the game begins to antagonize you, and for good reason, even though you couldn’t opt out of the attack. The game has to move forward. You have cast yourself as the hero, and you must push on.

The most explicit pushback from the game comes from the most innocuous place: the loading screen. Early on, the screens offer brief hints, tips and story summaries. Like:

“Following a distress signal, Captain Walker and his men have entered Dubai looking for survivors.”

“The M134 minigun fires an impressive 3,000 rounds per minute.”

Then, after the white phosphorus incident, and as your main character begins to grapple with hallucinations:

“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”

“How many Americans have you killed today?”

If the modern gaming audience wants grimness, it still doesn’t want to be presented with grim realities . Of the all-time top 10 selling Xbox 360 games (the console was released in 2005), seven are shooters. One of the remaining three is Grand Theft Auto IV , which draws some of the heaviest ire for its depictions of violence. Some games grapple with similar issues explored in Spec Ops , perhaps revealing the sheer carnage you’ve wrought over the course of the game, or ending on a particularly downbeat note.

But Spec Ops: The Line , which is firmly not in the top 10 best-selling games of the Xbox 360’s lifespan, is one of the few games to needle you, to hate you, for the actions you’ve carried out.

Its mission statement lit up the gaming world. Its legacy is in the space it has carved out in the small niche of games that harshly comment on themselves. It’s the kind of game that causes sharp pangs of cognitive dissonance. As far as gameplay, even story, it’s not perfect, but it is vital.

Too bad that on the Xbox 360 platform, Spec Ops: The Line , which was released in June 2012, has sold about 320,000 copies. On the same platform, the mega-hit military shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops II , which was released six months later, has sold more than 12 million.

I don’t mean to make some grand declaration on the effects of violence on the gaming population. That, believe it or not, is not the takeaway from Spec Ops: The Line. The game’s questions about violence in video games stay within the medium itself. It’s a truly harrowing experience, and one that has the audacity to ask you, as you kill wave after wave of people: What are you doing?

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.