We all know how Spec Ops: The Line works by now, because I’m like half a decade late to this conversation. Part of the reason I’m writing about it now is because MrBTongue recently released a video about it in which he presumed that a significant chunk of his audience would be unfamiliar with its plot, which seems weird to me even from the perspective of someone who just woke up from having been napping since November of 2016.
Spec Ops is clearly a criticism of genre conventions revolving around the portrayal of US military action in FPS games. It’s often described as additionally being a criticism of the player for continuing to do terrible things just because they can’t progress in the game otherwise. That first one is fair enough. Deconstructing genre conventions is usually interesting on its own (especially for genres whose conventions were established by mindlessly aping the style of one particularly successful work while most or all of its substance is lost in a game of telephone), and often makes the genre stronger by pushing later creators to respond with reconstructions that remove the weak spots exploited by the deconstruction in the first place.
The second one has always bugged the Hell out of me, because it only works when it happens to land in front of someone to whom its criticisms apply. Undertale is a judgmental game to the point where there is a specific hall of judgment where one of the characters judges your actions, but it bases that judgment on the player’s choices. It’s not always fully accurate, but it comes across as characters in the world making mostly fair judgments to the best of the information available to them, and uses a fourth wall breaking narrative so that it can judge a Doylist entity – the player – by their Watsonian actions, by making them part of the Watsonian narrative.
Oh, quick side note: Doylist vs. Watsonian refers to the perspectives of Arthur Conan Doyle, the real author of the Sherlock Holmes books, versus the perspective of John Watson, the in-universe author of the Sherlock Holmes books. So, the player is a Doylist entity by default, but games like Undertale add the player as a character in the narrative, making them a Watsonian entity as well.
In Spec Ops, your alleged alternative to fire bombing unseen targets who turn out to be civilians is to turn the game off and walk away. From a Watsonian perspective, this doesn’t make any sense at all, because the Spec Ops narrative does not actually break the fourth wall. The protagonist is Captain Walker, not the player controlling him. The “criticizing the player” interpretation hinges on the player as a Doylist entity being somehow culpable for the actions taken by Captain Walker in the Watsonian perspective. But they’re not, because as a purely Doylist entity, the player is only responsible for Doylist actions, and their Doylist actions are limited to altering the pattern of colored lights on a monitor or television screen and also flipping some variables around in computer code. While it’s hard to say for sure without looking at the game’s code, it’s likely that none of the civilians “killed” ever even existed as distinct entities. The game of Spec Ops: The Line itself exists as a distinct entity, even though it’s totally non-sentient, utterly incapable of any kind of thought, feeling, or problem solving. The NPCs don’t even rise to that level. They’re a fragment, an appendage of a being that can barely even be called autonomous and which has a nearly unlimited ability to regrow them if it felt the need to (which it does not, because it feels nothing, but if it did feel, it could regrow as many of its lost NPC appendages as it wanted to – indeed, it regrows all of them effortlessly any time you replay that segment of the game). From a Doylist perspective, uninstalling the game from your machine is more heinous than modifying its variables.
Worse, Spec Ops: The Line has badly failed to anticipate its target audience’s motives. Undertale correctly determines that the players who do awful things are mostly doing them to see what happens when they do. Spec Ops gives its protagonist lines about not having any other choices, and the “criticizing the player” interpretation rests on that being a representation of the player saying “I had no choice because this was the only way to finish the game!” The problem with that analogy is that it doesn’t actually track to the player’s situation. Again: The player has not been made a part of the Watsonian narrative. They are not a character in the game. Their viewpoint is allegedly being represented by the Watsonian character of Captain Walker, but the player isn’t actually Watsonian, which means Captain Walker’s course of action is to continue doing as many horrible things as it takes to try and fix things, while the player’s course of action is to continue altering the lights on a monitor in order to see where the developers are going with this. If where the developers are going with this is to call the player a bad person for sticking around to hear them out, then the developers are assholes. Judging people poorly for hearing what you have to say is bonkers nonsense. When Captain Walker says he doesn’t have any choice, he’s not voicing the player’s perspective, because at that moment the player’s perspective is very possibly one of antagonism towards Walker: “Hey, jackass, you have plenty of choices, I’m the one who’s being railroaded into piloting your dumb ass through this clusterfuck!” There’s similarities between what Walker says and that particular player reaction, but there’s also important differences.
And maybe that frustration will become so intense that the player actually does storm out halfway through, but leaving the theater because the devs are pricks is not at all the same thing as leaving a city to die because you can’t seem to do anything but make things worse. Indeed, the people most likely to stick it out to the end of Spec Ops are the ones who are interested in hearing what the devs have to say about the shooter genre. The people who just wanted a black and white narrative about America and Enemyforceistan are the ones most likely to get fed up with Spec Ops’ deconstruction and leave halfway through. If someone wants to feel like a hero, they have tons of options. They don’t have to put up with Spec Ops’ bullshit for that. The people who make it to the end of that game are most likely looking for something else, and if Spec Ops really is intended as a judgment upon the people who play it and not just the genre in general, it is a failure.