The “Horror” of Spec Ops: The Line Mirrors Heart of Darkness
A shooter that actually makes you think
by Nicholas Laborde
©2012 Nicholas Laborde
Spec Ops: The Line has come out as a resounding sleeper hit of 2012, kicking the door in on the quiet lull of video game storytelling.
Not only were we presented with an intriguing narrative, but we had a completely new way of approaching video game morality.
Both tales have a lot in common, and operate on the same wavelength.
Please note that major plot points of both Heart of Darkness and Spec Ops: The Line are discussed in detail here, and those who have not completed either should be wary of the following content.
Journey into the heart of darkness
I view it the same way as I do Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter: an unnecessarily verbose tale that has more adjectives than plot development.
Underneath a veil of frivolous detail lies a tremendous tale; however, to me the entire experience is weighed down by the overuse of that detail.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the books for what they were. It’s almost the same as saying I played a game for the gameplay, and not the graphics.
Heart of Darkness follows a sailor named Marlow. He’s on a journey up the Congo river with the intention of meeting a man named Kurtz, an idealistic fellow who is talked about with near god-like reverence.
Marlow takes a job as a riverboat captain with the Company, a Belgian group organized to trade in the Congo. As he travels to Africa and then up the Congo, Marlow encounters widespread inefficiency and brutality in the Company’s stations.
The natives of the region have been forced into the Company’s service, and they suffer terribly from overwork and ill treatment at the hands of the Company’s agents. The cruelty and careless demeanor of imperial enterprise contrasts sharply with the impassive and majestic jungle that surrounds the white man’s settlements, making them appear to be tiny islands amidst a vast darkness.
Compare that with Spec Ops: The Line, a tale of Captain Martin Walker and his two squadmates, Sgt. Lugo and Lt. Adams, sent in to Dubai on a reconnaissance mission that turns into a mad rescue attempt.
Several moons ago, a war hero named John Konrad (undoubtedly a reference to Joseph Conrad) was coming home from Iraq just to find that massive sandstorms were ravaging Dubai, causing an immediate evacuation of the city.
Konrad instantly volunteered his crew – the Damned 33rd – and himself to undertake the evacuation.
Captain Walker and co. are sent into Dubai, just to discover a horrifying message: Konrad was relaying a radio transmission that sounded as if he were on his death bed, stating that the evacuation failed miserably.
The belly of the beast
His boat has been sunk, and it takes many months to find the parts for his ship.
As the wait plays out, Marlow and the men become obsessed with Kurtz, who is rumored to be ill.
After getting back on the river several months later, Marlow and his crew come across a hut with stacked firewood, together with a note saying that the wood is for them but that they should approach cautiously. Shortly after the boat has taken on the firewood, it is surrounded by a dense fog.
When the fog clears, the ship is attacked by an unseen band of natives, who fire arrows from the safety of the forest. Marlow frightens the natives away with the ship’s steam whistle.
Through a long and perilous journey, Marlow and co. eventually arrive at Kurtz’s Inner Station, thinking him dead. On the contrary, a half-crazed Russian trader assures them that Kurtz is alive and well, but has “enlarged his mind” and is no longer susceptible to typical moral judgment.
In Spec Ops: The Line, Captain Walker and the crew journey deeper into Dubai to find themselves faced with death, tragedy, unrelenting moral tests and a crazy radio announcer whose goal is to ensure their demise.
Walker’s mindset slowly narrows as he becomes desperate to find Konrad, which leads him to make darker and more unforgivable decisions along the way – all of which are decided by the player.
Fairly early on, Walker picks up a radio receiver that allows him to “tune in” to what Konrad is saying: Konrad is still alive in the city, even though circumstance says that he is dead. Walker desperately pleads with Konrad, asking him to give up, and thinking that he is the one making the bad decisions.
The goal is to save the people of Dubai – and as far as Walker can tell, Konrad is killing them off.
Mr. DJ isn’t doing anybody any favors, either: from sending enemies to you, to blaring Vietnam-era tunes through the city’s loudspeakers (a clear reference to the Vietnam War, which was treated at home and on the field with the same hatred and disgust of American soldiers due to questionable moral decisions, and also possibly a reference to the film Apocalypse Now!, a Vietnam War film which also uses Heart of Darkness for inspiration).
The people of Dubai regard Walker’s group with hatred and suspicion. Certain segments of the game have the player moving through groups of civilians, all of which are expressing their disdain for Americans, even coming to the point of physically assaulting them. It’s not hard for the rescuers to question the reason for being there.
In Heart of Darkness, the manager brings Kurtz aboard the ship. The Russian then reveals to Marlow, after swearing him to secrecy, that Kurtz had ordered the attack on the steamer to make them believe he was dead in order that they might turn back and leave him to his plans.
Marlow listens to Kurtz talk while he pilots the ship, and Kurtz entrusts Marlow with a packet of personal documents, including a pamphlet on civilizing the savages which ends with a scrawled message that says, “Exterminate all the brutes!”
The steamer breaks down causing a stop for repairs. Kurtz dies here, uttering his last words “The horror! The horror!” in the presence of a very confused Marlow.
Marlow becomes sick soon after and barely survives. Eventually he returns to Europe and goes to see Kurtz’s fiancée.
She is still in mourning, even though it has been over a year since Kurtz’s death, and she praises her beloved as the epitome of virtue and achievement. She asks what his last words were, but Marlow cannot bring himself to shatter her illusions with the truth. Instead, he tells her that Kurtz’s last word was her name.
And that’s how Heart of Darkness concludes.
Spec Ops: The Line culminates with Sgt. Lugo being hung by angry civilians, and Lt. Adams going out in a firestorm to defend your advance. This leaves Captain Walker, and the tyrannical Konrad.
Walker, exhausted, battle scarred, blood-coated and crazed, limps into the lavish “home” that Konrad has been holding up in. About a dozen remaining members of the Damned 33rd remain, saluting him as he approaches and relinquishing their status to him.
Pressing on, Walker goes upstairs to confront his foe: John Konrad. Konrad’s been living a quiet life in his tower, painting horrible images of the things he’s seen and reflecting on decisions. Through a lengthy exposition that moves around the apartment, Walker eventually moves out to the balcony to have his final talk with Konrad.
… only to find Konrad’s very long-dead body sitting in a chair, pistol still in hand.
Walker, bewildered, gets assaulted by one last monologue. Konrad plays with Walker’s mind, asking who he really is. He is responsible for untold amounts of civilian deaths. He is responsible for the deaths of his two squadmates.
“You were never meant to come here,” says Konrad.
“What happened here was out of my control!” yells Walker.
“None of this would have happened if you’d just stopped.
“The truth is, Walker, that you wanted to feel like something you’re not: a hero. I’m here because you can’t accept what you’ve done. It broke you. You needed someone to blame, so you cast it on me. A dead man.”
From this point onward, the player can make a multitude of decisions that affect the outcome of the game. They all carry a central message: the entire Konrad situation was made up by Walker to justify his actions, or that Walker was actually Konrad.
It’s an open-ended ending, and I applaud developer Yager for leaving it on such an interesting note.
Crossing the line into the darkness
Heart of Darkness is a tale of Western imperialism meddling and interfering with the lives of people that shouldn’t have to suffer from their “ideals” whose moral standing is questionable and unpopular, with the entire charade being led by a madman.
The progression down the river mirror’s the stripping back of civilization and so called civilized behavior.
Spec Ops: The Line is a wild tale of three men journeying into the heart of a ravaged city, which is ultimately subjected to even more pain and suffering because the crew kept pressing on toward a goal that its leader chose to pursue – a goal which was questionable, and unpopular, and once again, being led by a crazed man of authority.
Both tales evoke the pain, misery and suffering of those who are subjected to naive superior attitudes and meddling, even if well intended.
The longer there is proud denial of the poor decisions made, the bigger the determination to see it through, no matter the cost, the more that suffering is caused to everyone and the less morality holds sway.
The consequences of our decisions impact not only ourselves, but every one and everything around us.
Spec Ops: The Line is effective in evoking, perhaps more than Heart of Darkness (a book, and a classic, no less) or Apocalypse Now! (a film, and again, a classic), the frailty of morality and ‘righteousness’ because it is using an interactive medium where decisions come into play, versus the static, limited story that passive media tells.
When you read a story, the reader does not become the character; they follow the character on a journey. When you watch a movie, again, the viewer does not become the character; they watch the character’s journey.
When you play a game such as Spec Ops: The Line, you don’t watch Captain Walker descend into madness by making bad decision after bad decision; you become Captain Walker and choose which grim situation should be the one that suffices.
That’s pretty impressive stuff from a video game.
See our review of Spec Ops: The Line here.
Enter our Spec Ops: The Line Prize Pack here.
©2012 Nicholas Laborde
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