Spec Ops: The Line is not a fun video game. That’s not to say that YAGER Development’s first big budget game isn’t any good — in fact, it is one of the best shooters released in recent years. But it isn’t very much fun, and at times the experience of playing the game could almost be considered painful.
At the beginning it is presented as a generic modern military shooter, with the box art even looking like a half-hearted Call of Duty knockoff. The gameplay is initially reminiscent of what is normally expected with these types of games, with your American protagonist gunning down dozens of Middle Eastern combatants while traveling from one set piece to another. However, soon this all falls away, and Spec Ops: The Line begins to show its true colours. It turns into a scathing indictment of America’s actions in the Middle East, and what is perhaps the harshest critique of modern military shooters to date.
It does this by showing the player the true horrors of war, and how even killing with the best intentions is still, at its core, killing. Innocent people die, frequently — often by accident, and often by your hand. The enemies turn from insurgents to rogue American soldiers, enacting martial law on the people they were sent to protect. Even the gameplay stops being the exciting spectacle it was at the beginning, and becomes slow, difficult and frustrating. It all adds up to an uncompromisingly powerful piece of art, comparable to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Yet, because of this it isn’t very much fun to play, a detail that has caused many critics to dismiss the game entirely.
There is a prevailing idea held by many people in the video game industry that all games have to be fun. It is like an unwritten rule, one that is rarely broken, especially by high profile publishers. They believe that a game that does not use fun as its primary method of engagement will be impossible to sell, and in a way they are right. Many gamers feel that games that aren’t fun are inherently worthless, and that attempting to make them more serious will ‘ruin’ the medium. They scoff at art games that try to explore new directions, and claim that games such as Spec Ops: The Line aren’t worth playing because they fail to provide an enjoyable experience.
This is a problem unique to video games. In no other medium is there a hesitancy to make something that may not be fun, or the concern that doing so may ruin the medium in any way. Apocalypse Now could not conceivably be called a ‘fun’ movie, but very few people would claim that it isn’t worth watching — and no one in their right mind would claim that it was bad for the film industry. Filmmakers and film audiences alike understand that serious movies and fun movies can and should co-exist, and that the existence of both is beneficial for films as a whole. While there is nothing wrong with movies that simply aim to entertain, there is a need for some films to push boundaries and take risks if the medium is to advance.
While many independent game developers and a handful of bigger publishers have realized this already, the idea that games have to be fun needs to change if we are to see any significant progress in the near future. A sea of change needs to take place within the gaming community, and people are going to have to begin to accept that what was once a simple pastime is now becoming so much more. Video games are starting to grow up, and it is time for us to grow up with them.