Just in time for the 4th, I'd like to point out something that I just learned about 2012's underappreciated (Gamespot: 6.5) gem, Spec Ops: The Line. Still free on Plus right now, did you know this game is actually based on 67th out of 100 best novels in the English language of the twentieth century (according to the Modern Library) and is considered by scholars to be part of the most influential and important body of work in Western Culture?
That novel is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Published in 1899 (you can read it here) Conrad's novella (inspired by his own experiences) is a journey into what occurs when civilization falls into savagery and the repercussions of imperialism and the racism that endows it. Conrad himself described the story as "A wild story of a journalist who becomes manager of a station in the (African) interior and makes himself worshipped by a tribe of savages." The tale was not without its detractors; Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe described the novella as dehumanizing Africans, denying them language and culture and reducing them to a metaphorical extension of the dark and dangerous jungle into which the Europeans venture," but Conrad himself declared "Heart of Darkness is experience ... pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case."
The story is more familiar than you may think. The most famous adaptation was Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which moved the tale from the African interior to Vietnam. Adapted for the screen by John Milius, who also wrote and directed Red Dawn and my personal favorite: Conan the Barbarian. This Academy Award winner sprang from Milius' idea to adapt Heart of Darkness for the Vietnam era. The film was also deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2000 and was ranked the 14th greatest film by Sight and Sound in 2012.
Spec Ops isn't the first video game adaptation of the original story; Far Cry 2 beat them to the medium by four years. (Ironically Gamespot and I flip-flopped on the scores of these two games: 6.5/8.5 for Spec Ops and 8.5/6.5 for Far Cry 2.) The likeness is very loose, however, Far Cry 2 puts you in the role of a mercenary tasked to hunt down an elusive arms dealer; not quite something that appeared in the original. In fact the most striking similarities between this game and the novella is the setting of Africa and the name of last chapter of the game: Heart of Darkness. While I found Far Cry 2 underwhelming I should mention my 6.5 score reflects the fact that I was several years late to this game. By the time I got my hands on it games had already made a noticable leap forward in graphics and gameplay, so it should be noted that I did not get to appreciate some of the more innovative features while they were still innovative. Honestly I would welcome an HD remake of this game so that I might be able to better immerse in the tale.
Spec Ops: The Line moves the setting to Dubai. In the wake of a series of freak sandstorms, the worst in recorded history, Dubai is abandoned by its politicians and wealthy elite, leaving countless Emiratis and foreign migrants behind with no way to escape. Lieutenant Colonel John Konrad, a nod to the novella's author Joseph Conrad, the commander of the fictional 33rd U.S. Infantry Battalion, volunteers his unit to assist with the evacuation but the 'Damned' 33rd deserts when U.S. Command orders them to abandon the relief efforts and the refugees along with them. As the storms only intensified the 33rd attempted to lead a caravan of survivors out of Dubai but they never made it. Officially disavowed as traitorous the 33rd is then lost along with Dubai as a whole, declared a No Man's Land by the U.A.E. travel to the entire region is forbidden. The player assumes the role of Captain Martin Walker (as voiced by Nolan North,) the commanding officer of a trio of Delta Force operatives tasked with performing reconnaissance after a weak but identifiable radio distress signal is picked up from Lt. Colonel Konrad and see if they can make contact with any survivors.
Praised for its hard-hitting, graphic depiction of the horrors of war and the breakdown of civilization, Spec Ops: The Line pulls few punches, using a shock-an-awe approach to rattle players from their COD-inspired fantasy depictions of modern warfare. As the full abomination of what has happened to the 33rd comes into focus the team's sanity begins to slip "with Walker having visual and auditory hallucinations, and his executions of enemies becoming more violent, his team orders and shouts becoming increasingly angry and ragged versus his original stern command voice and kill confirmations of enemies degrading from professional in the beginning to outright psychotic. "
Walt Williams, lead writer for the game, has called Spec Ops: The Line a "deconstruction of the shooter genre, and Call of Duty in particular, with the game mechanics, the actions available to the player, and the responses resulting from said actions contrasting pointedly with many mechanics of popular FPS games, and that the game deliberately used shooter genre cliches in order to illustrate how ludicrous they are in comparison to real warfare." He went on to state that the combat presented in The Line is not meant to be a fun experience for the player but rather serve as a critique on the genre as a whole and how, despite claims of realism to the contrary, most shooters in the tradition of COD are just "morally ambiguous escapist fantasy." Although some critics panned the game's violence as unecessary and exploitive, especially the white phosphorus scene, Williams defended it as a plot device intended to invoke anger from the players and, in addition to the 4 endings featured in the game, that a valid 5th ending was for the player to simply put the controller down and walk away.
Although closer to the novella than Far Cry 2, Spec Ops: The Line nevertheless tells its own story; a tale of the brutality that humanity turns upon itself when the rules of civilization break down and the price that all of that savagery can command from a man's fragile psyche. Overly violent? Yes, but with good reason. Like the literary classics we are forced to consume in our education, Spec Ops: The Line should be on the Required Playing list of every gamer who enjoys military shooters. It is an unflinching portrayal of the tolls of war on the minds of men and a dark expose of post traumatic stress in a genre that often depicts modern warfare as little more than a fun, competitive diversion. This game, like the novella before it, exposes that thin line that separates civilization from savagery.
Spec Ops: The Line - 8.5