Unbridled Cynicism

less bullshit, more often?

Killing is Harmless

I recently finished playing through Spec Ops: The Line on Steam. I can’t remember why, I probably saw a good review or positive comment and bought it on impulse. And it was on sale. I’m a fan, albeit a casual one, of shooters like Call of Duty, and The Line delivers the same sort of experience that I find enjoyable. Thumbs up, pats on the back all ‘round.

I’ll get a few things out of the way real quickly.

  • The engine seems great. There was no screwing around with video settings, it auto-selected Turn It Up To Eleven for me, and it ran well on my decidedly midrange GPU! I’m impressed.
  • It’s damned pretty. Sure it probably could look shinier, but I was not wanting for detail or fancy effects.
  • The soundtrack is great. Rather than relegating music to the background and simply ticking the box for its presence, the music elbows its way to the foreground on numerous occasions. I believe they licensed a bunch of protest-era tracks (or ones that sound like it), and they rock pretty hard.

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Caption: I like dramatic scripted scenes; shoot me.

The short version: you lead a three-man Delta Force team on a reconnaissance mission to Dubai. Dubai is now a post-apocalyctic mess after giant sandstorms came to town six months ago, and everything goes downhill from there.

That would be a very shallow way of looking at it though. If you tune out and play it as a straight military shooter, it’s pretty average. Hell I’ll admit that I zombie’d my way through a lot of the game without thinking about it, though the narrative clearly didn’t follow the usual “get to the big boss and save the world” route. No, it leaves an unfulfiled taste in your mouth, and there is more to it.

I got curious and started looking for other people’s thoughts on The Line. Then I came across Killing is Harmless, a critical reading of the game by Brendan Keogh, a fellow Aussie.

A 50,000 word essay is serious shit, I was intrigued - this is like HSC English again. I’d finished the game and replayed large chunks of it a few times to get all the unlockable achievements, so I read it. The more I read, the more I realised just how much I’d mentally glossed over in my playthrough. Wanting to see things with my own eyes, I went back and replayed certain segments, more closely scrutinising the meaning and context of certain elements.

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Caption: The Line knows how to exploit HDR and bloom effects to their fullest potential. This skyscraper-sized ad caught my eye because it was very out of place, a remnant of the time before everything went bad and turned into a struggle for survival in a damned city.

My first thought was, “is Keogh a reliable critic? Is he reading too much into the game and seeing things that aren’t really there?”; we were taught to be skeptical first if nothing else. I think the answer is no. Keogh provides countless examples of coherent intent and direction in The Line, and I firmly believe that the developers really knew what they were doing, rather than stumbling through well-executed trope after well-executed trope. Some serious thinking went into The Line - I’m impressed! Nothing is given out of obligation, every choice and action presented to the player has a purpose.

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Caption: The Line really knows how to handle its environments. Yes, you’re up a veeeery tall tower. There is a cloud layer below you, and it is pretty. The game has great vistas.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the game was really hitting me with hard questions about my own actions and motivations, and I kept replaying bits of it to see it again. To “see it for myself”, as it were, as though it wasn’t me playing on the initial runthrough.

The Line is not a “fun” game. All you’re trying to do is what’s right (whatever that means), only to have the game punch you in the gut, repeatedly, and ask you what you thought of it. Was that really okay? Was that the right thing to do at the time? Was it the right thing to have done now, after the fact? What are you even doing here? You. Player. What the fuck are you doing?

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Caption: It’s not all sand and storm though. The Radioman’s pad is a bizarre anachroism for a man stuck in his hippie heyday.

The take-home message here is that The Line is a good game, as a criticism of other shooter games. If you’re a fan of shooters, I think you should play it, but not for the usual reasons. If you want to get a bit more out of it, you should read the essay. I thought it was a very easy read, and seriously, it’s three bucks. This sort of long-form criticism of games is a good thing, I’d like to think it’ll encourage more depth in future works. If you’ve read this far, perhaps you’re considering it. Do it, it’ll be good for you. :)

Brendan Keogh’s announcement and intro to the essay is on his site at Critical Damage. You can buy it from Stolen Projects. The Line is available on Steam.

Everyone wants to do what’s right, to pass judgment,
to force their version of what’s right on others, creating horrific wrongs.
Right begets wrong begets someone trying to do right
begets violence begets violence begets violence.