Storytelling in Spec Ops: The Line

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line

In most games,  the designers have done all they can to try to disguise the rails. Rails in this case being a metaphor for linear storytelling. Linear storytelling is not inherently bad, but often seems that way when “you”, or more accurately the character you control, are forced into a decision that the player finds to be idiotic. This breaks immersion.

Good examples of rails can be seen during the Half-Life series, where there are few points that you might feel like you’ve been forced into making a stupid decision. (Well – maybe Gordon didn’t want to jump blindly into a teleporter and go to  hostile alien Zen. But he did anyway…because he was told to).
Every step of your journey is utterly predetermined, but often this goes unnoticed or seems like emergent behaviour. This makes it all the more jarring when you are forced to jump into a prisoner transport pod that immobilizes you and you can’t control it’s direction.

Hop in! It’ll take you to a fun place filled with lightning!

A bad example is Mass Effect 2, where you don’t ever get the option to tell Cerberus to go stick their idiocy where it hurts, but instead you bumble along following the orders of a guy who you have every reason to distrust and hate.

You can’t change anything. Whatever you choose will lead to the next fight scene or set piece. Mass Effect has the worst kind of railroading, because it offers you some choices about who lives, or who you shag, but you can’t make any choice about how your character behaves in-story. Image stolen from 3 panel Soul

Spec Ops: The Line works differently. As already mentioned, most games do their best to present you with the illusion of choice, the try to disguise the rails. Spec Ops instead gives  you the illusion of having no choice, and disguises your choices. The player thinks they are on a rail, but there are many places where this can be ignored.

The one that stood out for me was the point in the game that Lugo was hanged by angry locals (angry doesn’t really do their state of mind justice – the only remaining drinking water in Dubai has been destroyed, and it is all your fault).

Lugo is down, and Walker does his best to revive him. Useless. He’s dead. Adams is surrounded by the mob, who are shouting threats, throwing rocks, getting closer and closer. Adams wants vengeance. There’s no justice; he wants to open fire and gun down the civilians. He’s begging you to make a decision and I start to worry that he’ll just start shooting if I don’t do something.

At this point I was not thinking in terms of “Shooting civilians might be a fail state”, I wasn’t worrying about the game any more. The only thing going through my head was I WILL NOT DO THIS AGAIN. I fired in the air, hoping to drive them away. It worked, and Adams and Walker could continue.

I didn’t think anything of it until I spoke to a friend who finished the game after me.
He said that he’d had to put the game down at this point, he found it too depressing that the game forced you to gun down yet more civilians.

This works heavily in the game’s favour. By disguising the fact that you ever had a choice at all, you can do what feels natural, without ever having to break immersion.

Another example of this is how you deal with the “test” that Konrad sets up. This one more obviously had a choice involved, but even here you can go off the rails – (Konrad’s rails, anyway. Konrad is the GM at this point, in a game-within a game).

Konrad asks you to choose between two prisoners.

The man on the right is a civilian, who stole water. A capital offence, as Konrad remarks. The man on the left is one of Konrad’s own men, who was sent to bring in the civilian for punishment (we all know that soldiers are extremely good at civilian crowd control). During the arrest he killed five more people: the man’s family.

I shot the sheriff soldier (but I did not shoot the deputy)

Later I found out that there were ways around this – you could have attacked the snipers instead, or shot the ropes (triggering an attack by the snipers).

When I first got to this bit, I assumed that it was just the start of a long line of “tests” that Konrad would dream up, to try and persuade you that he was right, and it was the only way to ensure the survival of as many people as possible. I was surprised  then to find that this was it, really, Konrad didn’t have any more moralising to do (well, sort of. I’ll get to that in a separate post).