Morality and Choice in Spec Ops: The Line

There’s been much discussion in class of player choice, and the morality of the player as it relates to the player character. Spec Ops: The Line is one of my favorite treatises on morality in video games. While some may argue that binary moral choice systems, ala Infamous or Red Dead Redemption exemplify the finest reflections on morality in gaming, I would counter that Spec Ops‘s grim, unyielding take on morality is far more impressive.

Spec Ops rarely cares much for player choice, moreover, it explicitly puts the player in situations where they have no choice, or no preferable option. Furthermore, the game constantly critiques the player’s actions, through the other characters and the loading screens, one of which blithely reads “Do you feel like a hero yet?” This awareness of the carnage inflicted during gameplay is rarely seen in video games, many of which experience a sense of disconnect between the in-game violence and the narrative.

Therefore, while I would never argue that Spec Ops is a traditionally enjoyable video game, I still consider it to be a shining example of game morality. It is a game that shows the awareness of player actions, but also reveals the powerlessness of the player and their character, an area that few video games dare to delve into. It succeeds by leaving the player with a lasting impression of the cost of violence in video games.

5 thoughts on “Morality and Choice in Spec Ops: The Line

  1. Building off what you have written (and without spoiling anything), I think Spec Ops does a fantastic job in having choices that are not explicitly given. There are several moments in the game where you have options beyond what the game tells you, and its up to you as the player to figure out what they are..

    1. Edit: I’ve chosen this post as one of my “top choices.” I think it gives a great example of how a game deals with player with choice, and how it can sometimes be even stronger narrative-wise as a result!

  2. This is similar to how I feel about Papers, Please at times. I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place when I have to deny an innocent person entry or risk my wife dying without medicine. The first time I tried to play Papers, Please I was very lenient and denied as few people as possible, but I was very quickly thrown in debtor’s prison. I feel like this game puts me in the position of not having a choice– since the other option is to lose or have family members die (which is a choice too, I suppose). Anyway, just wondering if you would agree with this or if there are ways to be moral and live safely too in PP.

    1. Personally, I’m terrible at Papers Please. I wasn’t even trying to be lenient and still got thrown in Debtor’s Prison very quickly. On a more theoretical level, I think that lack of choice you identified in Papers Please, or the lack of a preferable choice really falls at the heart of morality in video games. The most interesting choices are those that have no clear cut right option, where all paths have consequences. This is what I admire about the choices in Spec Ops and Papers Please.

  3. Great post for a great game. I loved how Spec Ops: The Line differed from most games with morality choices in that the choices in this game are not binary and obvious; for example, some of the choices in this game appear to have a “good” or “evil” option as seen in most games, however, Spec Ops: The Line often surprises the player, as “good” choices quickly lead to “evil” effects and vice versa (Trying not to spoil anything!)

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