Spec Ops: The Line is a game that’s popped up in shit I’ve read surrounded by the oohing that it’s something special. And often used in response to the grand questions “Can games be taken seriously as art?” A very lofty question that the big thinkers spend more time chewing on than is perhaps necessary.
Spec Ops: The Line aka Spec Oops: Tow the Line, a PS3 era game set in a near-future Desert Storm scenario. Everything about the marketing would have you believe it’s just another jackbooted shooter like Call of Duty or Battlefield and that all the fun will come from its tales of camaraderie and valour as you shoot hundreds of real-world guns at NPCs. But soon enough, playing Spec Ops, the game starts fucking with you. The waters get murky. And I loved how twisted it got. To explain any of the story beats would ruin it, as I do recommend it. But I will say that they recreate the military term “FUBAR” (fucked up beyond all recognition) so well. Firefights are shitshows where you haven’t got a clear clue who’s the enemy amongst the gunfire and roaring soundscape of shouting, shooting and swearing from your companions. I soon got into a mindset of shoot everything until the chaos stops. And that’s exactly the state the devs want us to be in as the narrative unfurls. I loved every fucked up moment in it. There are scenes that’d cause controversy had the game been more popular. Yet, in my eye, it made the jingoism and heroism of other games seem more offensive.
I’ve also been dipping into Call of Duty: Mobile and beyond how well it looks and plays in your hand it’s a fucking joke if you look beyond your kill stats. Flashy and garish gun skins are being pushed and promoted for personalisation. There were Super Bowl-themed guns last week and now they’re shilling Valentine’s themed skins. If that’s the game, then that’s the game. But Call of Duty likes to also veer on the pro-military side of the gun debate. I think if you’re doing that, then do that but it seems off to have these realistic simulations of guns in a game and then have them pimped out like shiny collectable stickers. But then you need to make a lot of money to be rich so I should shut up.
Spec Ops is a military shooter that wants you to shoot people while reminding you that you’re shooting people. And in the midst of it lean in and ask you with raised eyebrows “how you feel about that?” In Battlefield they liked to remind you that every soldier is a human being with a name appearing on screen with the death screen, letting us take a pensive moment to think about the family that will be getting a folded up flag soon. Then the game reloads and we start shooting again. It seems they want the game to be like the Spielberg version of the world wars. Spec Ops veers more towards the dark military themes, like fubar, misinformation, friendly fire, following dubious orders, quagmires and makes a game out of it. And I’m delighted that we have that alongside the AAA Support the Troops games. Specs Ops: The Line is well worth playing. There was a point in it where one of my companions shouted that we need to “hold the line” and I smiled because at that point in the game we had well and truly crossed the line and it was light years behind us. There are a dozen memorable moments in it that I’d never seen in a game before. As well as a great jukebox soundtrack. The controls and some of the mechanics are a bit janky I have to say but worth persevering with.
So to the question “Can games be taken seriously as art?” my answer is “Who cares” and “of course”. Firstly it makes no difference to me how games aren’t perceived by academics or high society. So I’d scratch the serious part from the question. To the “Are games art?” question the answer is a unanimous “Yes”. Anything that’s been created or made to express something is art. Is it good art? That’ll always come down to individualistic preferences. I hate what a lot of people love and a lot of people hate what I love. And, you know what, I wouldn’t have it any other way.