No Right Decision: An Analysis of “Spec Ops: The Line”

Walker at the beginning of the game

Walker at the beginning of the game

Of all the games that have graced the hard drive of my PC over the years (a number that I am happy to say is quite high), Spec Ops: The Line is one that impacted me most. Too often throughout the history of video games the idea of war and killing is glorified and the effects it has on those involved are entirely unrealistic.  The most prevalent perpetrator of this is the very popular Call of Duty series. It’s refreshing when a game forgoes this and paints war as what it is, a bloodbath. Soldiers and their commanding officers are forced to make impossible decisions; one’s actions have consequences and the trauma that comes from taking another’s life isn’t shrugged off. Spec Ops: The Line, published by 2K games and developed by Yager Development, is one of the few war-based video game titles that effectively shows this other side.


The Line puts the player in the shoes of Captain Martin Walker, the leader of a three-man Delta Force team sent in to perform reconnaissance in Dubai after the United States Army fails in their evacuation attempt.  As the plot of the story progresses, it becomes clear that the situation in Dubai is far more complicated. A 3-way conflict has been born from the high tension situation. The bulk of the 33rd American Army infantry battalion has split into two factions. The main force is led by Colonel John Konrad and acts as an occupying force while commiting atrocities against the civilians, while the “exiles” are a splinter faction of the 33rd who staged a coup in response to the atrocities. In addition to this, the CIA has organized insurgent forces from the shadows and directed them to attack both the 33rd and the “exiles.”



Screenshot of the result of Walker’s transformation throughout the events in Dubai

As Walker leads his troops through the storyline, the player is forced to make terrible choices and commit atrocities of necessity to survive.  Much of the combat in the game consists of fighting and killing fellow American soldiers. Some of the choices the player must make consist of: choosing between saving innocent civilians or a fellow soldier with valuable information, choosing between killing a man who stole water for his family or killing the American soldier who was ordered to kill the former’s family in response to the theft, and choosing to shoot or spare the civilian mob who you find after they have lynched one of your squad mates. These choices influence the story in a way similar to that of hypertext, each one leading to a different outcome to the situation; albeit, all outcomes leave little hope and there is no “right” choice.


Walker upon finding the civillains he ordered slaughtered


The Line also uses the literary strategy of an unreliable narrator. Throughout the story the player character Walker is shown to hallucinate, a result of his PTSD from his former service. These hallucinations grow steadily worse as the plot progresses and Walker is forced to commit greater atrocities. At one point he is forced to fire a white phosphorus mortar when he believes his squad is hopelessly outnumbered only to find that, after the smoke clears, he was firing on a group of the 33rd who were sheltering civilians, civilians that the mortar killed down to the last one. In the end, having lost both of his squadmates, Walker’s mental state has become so unhinged that nothing is as it seems. It turns out that Konrad and some of the 33rd were just hallucinations. After this reveal, the player then chooses how to end the story. One can choose to kill himself (Walker) or attempt to kill Konrad.  If one does kill Konrad, evac will come for Walker and the final decision of the game is presented: go home, tormented by inner demons, or kill the evac squad.


Spec Ops: The Line is one of the strongest examples in recent history for why video games can be viewed as literature. It sparked much debate in gaming society and even lead critic Brendan Keogh to write a book length review of his playthrough. Its story and execution serve as an homage to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in a new medium that can accomplish more by putting the audience directly into the character’s shoes instead of witnessing it from the outside.  

Link to the game’s Steam page

Link to the game’s wikipedia article

Link to an excerpt from “Killing is Harmless” Brendan Keogh’s book length review of the game

Link to the publisher’s page

Link to the developer’s page

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