(Note: This anaylsis contains spoilers for “Spec Ops: The Line”.)
Roger Ebert, revered movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, once wrote:
“I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control”.
Ebert’s skepticism towards video games as a “high art” was not an unpopular opinion when he wrote this in 2005. However, he was short-sighted in the way user interactivity could tell stories a new way. Spec Ops: The Line puts its system and gameplay into a continual battle with the game’s narrative to create a ludonarrative dissonance, conflict between the gameplay and narrative of a game, that critiques the player and the state of the modern shooter. The game uses the input of its players and a focused narrative to create an artistic experience that exceeds Ebert’s idea of video game inferiority.
Spec Ops: The Line tells the story of the player as Captain Martin Walker, along with his squadmates Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Lugo, as they travel through a destroyed Dubai in search of Colonel John Konrad, missing commander of the 33rd Battalion. After committing atrocious acts, Walker develops dissociative disorder to cope with his actions as he falls further into insanity. The ludic elements,which are the game mechanics, do not reflect Walker’s illness. Instead, the video game has the feel of a standard modern shooter, allowing the player to aim, take cover, pick up guns, throw grenades, and command squadmates. It also starts with the frequently used backdrop of a foreign city, using generic Middle-Eastern enemies as targets. The game does not excel in any of these areas, presenting no new mechanics for the player to use and at first appears to stick to the overused formula of recent shooter narratives.
Once the play progresses further into the story, it becomes apparent that the mediocre ludic and background elements early on are meant to make the player feel comfortable with the game. As the player begins to commit atrocities within the game, the player’s actions contrast the narrative and create a ludonarrative dissonance. In one section, an angry mob forms around Walker after the lynching of a teammate. They are throwing rocks at the player which hurt but will not kill Walker. Your character pulls out his gun during this sequence, which is a telltale sign in modern shooters that a battle is beginning. The player is not given instructions to fire, however the rules of modern shooting games dictate that the player does in this situation. What the player doesn’t know that if they shoot into the air, the mob would disperse without bloodshed. Yet by containing the ludic elements of other games in its genre, players feel inclined to commit mass violence when in reality the game is letting the player choose for Walker without outright expressing so.
Walker’s search for Konrad appears as the typical heroism seen in games like Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, and other war games where the main character has to slaughter countless enemies to become the victor. The purity of Walker is sustained until the white phosphorous section of the game. Walker and his team discover the base of an enemy group in Dubai. As they sneak into the facility, they find an abandoned mortar with white phosphorus, a deadly weapon of chemical warfare, in it. The player is forced to fire it at the enemy units, who appear as white dots on Walker’s radar, a clever way by the game makers to dehumanize the people being slaughtered. The player goes to investigate the remains of the chemical bombing, and find that noncombatant civilians were also killed. A maimed soldier tells Walker that their intention was to move the civilians to safety. This is an important moment, as it is the clear break from an in-synch narrative and ludic to a ludonarrative dissonance that defines the rest of the video game. From here on out, the game is pushing the player to commit atrocities through gameplay and objectives while in the narrative punishing Walker for his chemical massacre of innocents.
The beginning of the ludonarrative dissonance also coincides with Walker’s dissociative disorder, causing himself and the player to believe that Konrad is still alive and speaking to them over the radio. Konrad begins harshly criticizing Walker for his actions, even though the player is following the rules and game mechanics that never changed since the beginning of the game. Enemies are still produced for Walker to shoot, and the player continues to cause harm to Dubai in the way the game says to. For example, in one section Walker is instructed to wipe out the city’s remaining water supply to continue through the game. The ludic elements do not give the player a way to continue the game and avoid the section, but the narrative is pushing the player to not make destructive decisions.
As the constant battle between the ludic and the narrative forces the player to commit more atrocities, the game begins to tell the player more directly that their actions are dishonorable. Spec Ops: The Line uses the loading screen for this, a place established in previous games to learn more about the story or see information about controls, to directly criticize the player. Phrases such as “Do you feel like a hero yet?” and “If you were a better person, you wouldn’t be here” taunt the player for continuing to play the game. The narrative wants the player to stop playing, yet the ludic elements never force them to quit. Objectives still appear, and enemies still spawn. When the player reaches the end of the game, they find out that Konrad has been dead the whole time. Walker was convincing himself to commit these atrocities, and used Konrad to justify it. Spec Ops: The Line parallels this with the player, by pointing out that like Walker, the player is the one who chose to cause the destruction by taking orders from someone that isn’t real. This is the high point of the dissonance, where the player followed the game’s orders and objectives in spite of a narrative that just wanted them to set the controller down and quit playing. Contrary to what all video game players have been taught, the only winning move is not to play.
The ludonarrative dissonance of Spec Ops: The Line usesthe game’s ludic elements of thoughtless destruction and the narrative idea of justifying horror to heroism to create a game that pushes the player to continue playing even though they will never reach a satisfying “You Win” screen. Contrary to Ebert’s opinion, the game would have never been able to make its point to players without giving them the freedom to fail. The liberty to allow the player to embrace expected heroism shown by the ludic elements lets the narrative succeed as a counterpoint to war shooters and the player’s apathy to the genre’s violence.