Spec Ops: The Line and Theme
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development/2K Games, 2012), the third-person military shooter that forces players to confront the dark side of heroism. This essay will cover the entire storyline, including the various endings. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Content Warning: This essay contains discussion of significant spoilers that involve graphic violence, which may be upsetting to some. Those who wish to avoid this content may want to set this article aside. For those looking for an alternative study of theme, check out our Disco Elysium breakdown or our general essay on theme.
Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line is not your average military shooter. At first glance, it resembles genre stand-outs like Call of Duty (Activision) or Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (Ubisoft), but Spec Ops: The Line uses those familiar tropes to turn the genre on its head. Instead of glorifying and gamifying armed combat, Spec Ops: The Line makes a blunt statement about the horrors of war, as well as the scars war leaves on soldiers. It’s a disturbing, uncomfortable story, one that borrows from Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic masterpiece, Apocalypse Now (United Artists, 1979), as well as the novel that inspired it, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Blackwood’s Magazine, 1899). While these inspirations are apparent at every point in the narrative, Spec Ops: The Line has a unique story to tell: a story about the fallacy of heroism and the terrible deeds born from noble intentions. These themes permeate every major plot point, from the opening scenes to all four potential endings. This elegant yet methodical reinforcement drives home the story’s point without becoming didactic, making a lasting statement about both heroes and heroism.
In Spec Ops: The Line, players take on the role of Captain Martin Walker, a Delta-Force leader who recently returned from Afghanistan. When the game begins, Martin has just received word that his old mentor, Colonel John Konrad, has sent out a distress signal from the ruins of Dubai. Six months prior to the start of the story, fierce sandstorms consumed the city, condemning the remaining civilians to die. Although all U.S. military personnel were ordered to pull out, Colonel Konrad and his battalion, the Damned 33rd, defied the order to assist in civilian evacuations. Although his goals were noble, the evacuation didn’t go as planned; a growing storm cut off all communications with the outside world, and what little remained of Dubai society broke down. Months later, when a looped message from Konrad finally pierces the storm wall, the beleaguered colonel has only this to say: “This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll… too many.” It’s Captain Martin Walker’s job, along with the player’s, to enter Dubai, figure out what happened and why, and return with as many survivors as they can find—if there are any. It’s a complex yet compelling setup to a story filled with gut-wrenching turns, and each turn reinforces the initial lesson from Konrad’s insubordination: that heroism invariably leads to tragedy.
Reinforcing the Theme
Spec Ops: The Line establishes its themes right from the start. After an in medias res opening most military shooter fans will find comfortably familiar—a dogfight between helicopters in the middle of the desert—the story jumps back in time to the beginning of Walker’s mission. In this scene, Captain Martin Walker reminisces about his old army commander, Colonel John Konrad, and describes him as an unparalleled hero. This claim is backed up by a montage of medals and awards, along with photos of Konrad receiving praise from high-ranking officials. It’s clear that Walker is not the only one who sees Konrad as a hero, which is what made it so shocking when Konrad and his battalion defied orders to leave the ruins of Dubai. To Konrad, leaving Dubai was tantamount to condemning the remaining civilians to death, and he couldn’t abide that happening under his command. When faced with the choice of heroism or loyalty, he chose to be a hero—and everyone paid for his choice. The storms devoured Dubai, his senior staff mutinied, and the civilians turned on his men. His vision may have been heroic, but it resulted in a catastrophic loss of life. For the first time, but not the last time, Spec Ops: The Line asks a powerful question: would things have been better if the hero did nothing?
Captain Martin Walker is given his own opportunity to become a hero when he arrives on the outskirts of Dubai with two of his men, First Lieutenant Adams and Staff Sergeant Lugo. Walker’s initial mission is straightforward: ascertain whether any civilians have survived the destruction of the city, then radio base camp for an evacuation. The mission goes sideways when Walker and his men encounter members of the CIA, who have been sent in to clean up what’s left of Konrad’s Damned 33rd. This encounter leads Walker to believe Konrad himself is still alive, which leaves him with a difficult choice: either obey orders and return to base or journey deep into the city and rescue Konrad. It’s the same choice Konrad himself was faced with months prior, and Walker makes the same choice: heroism over loyalty. It’s a choice that ultimately damns him and his men, along with everyone still alive in Dubai.
Spec Ops: The Line’s second act forces Walker to make even more difficult choices that lead to horrifying results. While there is no shortage of small decisions with troubling outcomes, the second act revolves around two pivotal moments on Walker’s quest: the assault on the Gate, and the destruction of the 33rd’s water supply.
The first pivotal moment, the assault on the Gate, takes place at the narrative’s midpoint. At this point in the story, Walker and his men have tracked Konrad and the 33rd to a heavily guarded corridor known as the Gate. Cameras show dozens upon dozens of soldiers: too many for Walker’s team to take on alone. The only hope they have of progressing lies with the nearby cache of white phosphorus, a highly flammable chemical weapon that causes excruciating burns on contact. The decision to use white phosphorus divides the company, leading to the following exchange:
Lugo: You’re fuckin’ kiddin, right? That’s white phosphorus.
Walker: Yeah, I know what it is.
Lugo: You’ve seen what this shit does! You know we can’t use it.
Adams: We might not have a choice, Lugo.
Lugo: There’s always a choice.
Walker: No, there’s really not.
Driven by his desire to rescue Konrad, Walker completely rejects the idea that they could walk away and return to base—completing their stated mission as planned—and orders his men to use the white phosphorus. This decision results in an unmitigated disaster: not only does the white phosphorus burn through the enemy, but it also mutilates 47 civilians who were hiding in the Gate. Neither Walker nor his men had any idea civilians were present, but their ignorance can’t fix what they’ve done. Once again, Walker is faced with the results of his ‘heroic’ quest, which is proving to be less heroic by the second.
By the end of Act II, Walker has seen more than enough proof that his desire to save Colonel Konrad is causing more harm than good, but he refuses to be deterred. After receiving a series of taunting messages from Konrad himself on the radio, Walker agrees to help a stranded CIA agent named Riggs hijack the 33rd’s water supply. It’s a risky gambit, one likely to cripple what’s left of Konrad’s battalion if it succeeds, but it comes with a price Walker didn’t foresee. When Riggs hijacks the water trucks, he intentionally crashes them, guaranteeing that both the soldiers and civilians still trapped in Dubai will die. As Riggs gasps for breath beneath the burning water truck, he explains his rationale to Walker. He had to kill everyone in the area to make sure no one learned the truth about the atrocities Konrad committed to maintain order in the ruined city. If word had gotten out, the United States could have been dragged into another protracted war, costing countless more lives on both sides. In Riggs’s eyes, condemning everyone in Dubai to death wasn’t a crime; it was an act of misguided heroism, just like Konrad and Walker’s heroic atrocities.
Spec Ops: The Line drives home the high cost of heroism in its final act, when it brings Walker face-to-face with Konrad—in a manner of speaking. After losing both Lugo and Adams, along with the fleeting remains of his sanity, Walker reaches Konrad’s tower and meets his mentor in person. Colonel Konrad is charming, thoughtful, and eloquent; he’s also a figment of Walker’s imagination. The real Konrad has been dead for some time, having taken his own life shortly after sending out the distress signal. Walker’s communications with Konrad up to that point were all auditory hallucinations, mental constructs Walker created to cope with his decision to use white phosphorus on civilians. By conjuring up an image of Konrad as the ultimate enemy, Walker could abdicate any personal responsibility for his actions and continue on his ‘just’ crusade. As the hallucinatory Konrad says, “It takes a strong man to deny what’s right in front of him. And if the truth is undeniable…You create your own.” In Konrad’s view—the view from inside Walker’s head—he sought out Konrad because he wanted to be someone he wasn’t: a hero. That heroism cost the lives of hundreds, including Walker’s men. By any metric, Walker’s heroic quest was not just a failure; it was an atrocity.
Walker’s confrontation with the image of Konrad can lead to one of four potential outcomes. When the illusory Konrad pulls a gun, Walker is given a final choice: either he can let Konrad shoot, symbolically and literally committing suicide, or he can shoot first, destroying Konrad’s illusion. While the first choice brings the story to an immediate end, the second choice leads to three more branches. In each case, Walker leaves the tower and radios for help—his original mission objective—and joins up with an extraction team. At this point, Walker can choose to lay down his weapons and leave with them peacefully, or he can open fire. Should Walker go peacefully, he muses that a piece of him is still stuck in the desert; should he choose to fight, he’ll either die or triumph, ostensibly becoming the new Konrad. Although all four endings are different, the result is functionally the same. In every case, Walker’s ill-conceived attempt at heroism resulted in tragedy, both for himself and the people around him. Whether he lives or dies, he is no longer the man he was when he entered the desert. There’s no easy description for what he becomes, but the one word that doesn’t describe him is ‘hero.’
Although Spec Ops: The Line sold poorly upon release, its compelling story earned numerous accolades and awards. The narrative’s unflinching look at the high cost of heroism made it a stand-out in an overcrowded genre, one that is still well-regarded today. By reinforcing this theme at key points throughout the narrative, Spec Ops: The Line guaranteed that its message would continue to resonate with both new and returning players alike. Writers who wish to integrate complex themes in their works can look to Spec Ops: The Line for an example of both when and how to weave theme into a narrative for compelling results.
1 “Spec Ops: The Line – Reception“. Wikipedia, 2021.
* Reference Footage: Movie Edition Games. “Spec Ops: The Line – Movie Edition (1080p 60 FPS).” YouTube, 2015.
** Additional Reference Footage: Nassau Technologies. “Spec Ops: The Line – All Endings! – [SPOILER ALERT].” YouTube, 2012.