An entreaty

(Spoiler-level: as low as I could keep it)

Speaking to you as someone who plays games, I entreat you to play Spec Ops: The Line.

If you are the sort of person who also plays games, you may already be aware of Spec Ops. But that probably depends on the sort of game-playing-person you are.

Perhaps you play video games regularly, but aren't immersed in the culture - you play your shooters, or puzzle games, or real-time-strategy, but you mostly stick to one or two genres. I believe that many of the younger crowd at my church fall into this category.

Maybe you're more like me in your gamer-ness - you have played many games over the years, and are nowadays less interested in specific games or game types than the nature of games themselves. You talk to your friends about the games that you've played, not just because you have something to say about the game, but because it lets you wrap your brain around the experience the game gave you.

Maybe you enjoy talking about games because the conversations give you a context to understand the culture that surrounds them, or because you're fascinated by the different things people saw as they played those games themselves - which weapons were the most satisfying, which plot hooks caught their interest, which characters they most enjoyed interacting with, and how difficult the game was for them to beat. What does that mean in the light of your years/decades/lifetime of playing other games? A good portion of my coworkers fall into this latter group of game-players.

Now, I could use this space to try to convince some of my non-gaming friends of the relevance of these experiences, and why I think they should matter to anyone interested in creating things, communicating with others, or the human condition in general - but that's a different treatise. Today, I am speaking mostly to the people who fall somewhere on the spectrum of people who have engaged with games (video or otherwise) multiple times throughout their lives.

You should play Spec Ops: The Line! If you're in the second group I defined, it's quite possible you've already heard this - you might have heard that some critics have raved about it, for some reason, even though it has a mediocre Metacritic score. You may have caught some mild-to-large spoilers already, about something something guilt blah blah judging the player something shooters. Maybe it caught your interest, and you thought that you should check it out at some point when it wasn't so expensive.

I'm keeping this post spoiler-free because right now, at least for a while longer, there are gamers who are unaware of the details of what Spec Ops has done. I believe that over the next decade, SO:TL will continue to seep into the culture of games, and players will have at the very least, a general idea of what the game set out to do, and may even form opinions about how well it accomplished its goals (much as I already have a good idea of how much I'll enjoy the new James Bond movie without having actually watched it yet).

People who critique or make games will continue to talk about it. Eventually, some games will probably even reference it directly. It will become one of the influential works of the gaming medium, even for those who thought it was flawed or poorly done. But you, reading this in 2013ish, have a chance to play the game before this cycle runs its course, and you should! I don't recommend this game just because it's some classic that you should check out because a classic.

I heard Citizen Kane referenced as a classic for many years before I ever got around to watching it. I thought it was pretty good. I didn't regret watching it, anyway. But SO:TL is not just something to play because people will be talking about it for a while, I think it is a game that is masterfully done in many respects, and deserves to be played because it succeeds so well in areas where games typically fail.

Many reviews note, almost with a sense of obligation, that the shooting mechanics are not polished to the heavily-lacquered shine of the modern AAA military shooter. Which is true. But whether you have ever played one of the moving-puzzles known as a first-person shooter or not, I think the game succeeds - your skill will be tested, the settings are varied, and succeeding at the task of gunning down your enemies feels sufficiently satisfying, as far as it goes.

Any perceived flaws in the gunplay are mitigated by the excellent pacing of the game. Playing through the campaign will take you 5-7 hours, and they are not wasted. The story steps well from chapter to chapter, with both characters and settings being skillfully established, developed, and broken down.

Even the implementation of the trite excuses for narrative that are shoehorned into so many shooters - the collectible audio logs - are worth experiencing. One of my biggest regrets from my playthrough is that I didn't pick these up and listen to them from the start of the game. While you can experience the story without their help, they flesh out the game's story in a manner well above what FPS storytelling has taught me to expect.

While many games would have used the desert setting as an excuse to settle for a lighter shade of brown, SO:TL uses consistently vibrant colors.

Where most player-driven character interaction (i.e., the things the characters say to each other when they see or shoot a weapon or enemy) in games does nothing more than fill up the emptiness in the your ear-holes, in Spec Ops they reflect the development of the characters.

In fact, virtually every mechanic that we are used to from the "genre" of the shooter is taken and used to do what such games never do: reflect the character and world development that would take place if a game like this was consistent in its storytelling.

You should play Spec Ops: The Line not because of the story it tells, but because I don't remember ever playing a game that told a story quite so effectively. I've seen a lot of games, and I just haven't seen many (any?) story-based games that were this well-executed.

So, if the execution is the reason I'm telling you to play the game, why am I telling you to play it now, before the game's narrative has sunk into the collective conscience of gaming culture? Well... it's because the narrative is also so very worth experiencing.

Citizen Kane was appreciated primarily because it broke ground in the mechanics of story-telling with film, not because its story was a tale for the ages (though such a position is quite arguable I am sure). The Sixth Sense was appreciated not just because of its setpieces or execution, but because the arc of its story and characters was so memorable to those who experienced it without knowing what to expect.

Spec Ops is notable because it pulls off its storytelling using the same mechanics that every other shooting-based game has been using for over a decade, but tells a story of a quality greater than any I've ever played in such a shooter, with a message like Saving Private Ryan's, and a twist like Sixth Sense's.

Since its release at the end of the 90s, The Sixth Sense has worked its way into popular culture, to the point where the movie's twist has itself become a cliché for referring to plot twists in movies. Don't wait to experience Spec Ops: The Line's mechanics until it's too late to enjoy the story's twists.

Get the game here on Steam.


Spec Ops: The Line is a game about killing people and shouldn't be played by, or in front of, anyone who can't handle that theme.

This post was written three months after my first (and so far, only) play-through. I have thought about the game at least once a week every week since I played it.

I have many more thoughts about the mechanics and story of SO:TL, which I hope to compile for a spoilerier post at some point in the future.