What can “Spec Ops: The Line” teach you about ethical decisions?

“Are your actions justifiable?” That’s the core of the question Spec Ops: The Line (from German developer Yager) is asking the player.

If that seems like an unlikely question for a video game to ask, that’s because it is – particularly a cover-based shooter set in a modern military setting. Spec Ops, a game series from the original Playstation era of the 90’s is renowned for having a cookie-cutter approach to story and certainly not one given to excessive introspection – all of which makes Spec Ops: The Line’s approach particularly effective. We’ll be getting to that soon, but first, a brief synopsis of the plot. [MAJOR SPOILER WARNING FROM HERE ON OUT]

The city of Dubai has been devastated by a series of sandstorms and is now a disaster area; the US Army has lost contact with the 33rd Infantry Battalion, which was providing emergency relief to Dubai, and this is where you, Cpt. Martin Walker of the US Army’s Delta Force, enter the game. Your mission is to perform basic reconnaissance of the area, locate survivors if possible, then leave, and report your findings.

Typically for a video game, however, Things Do Not Go To Plan.

As the game progresses, Walker strays further and further from his orders. Within the first hour or so of the game, you’ve encountered, and engaged in combat, both locals and members of the 33rd. Whilst his initial orders are clear, Walker feels compelled to stay and locate the commander of the 33rd – who appears to have gone rogue. Soon, you’re bogged down in a free-for-all between CIA operatives, the 33rd, the local populace, and your own squad. Things don’t end well.

From a cursory glance, the initial decision to disobey orders in light of the situation doesn’t seem an unreasonable one for the Cpt. Walker. It’s certainly not an unusual trope to find in a military shooter. Yet, by the end of the game, you’ve killed hundreds of people, committed at least one war crime and possibly several more, and despite the horrific cost, you’ve nothing to show for it (the “best” ending to the game features a broken Cpt. Walker being evacuated from Dubai as the sole survivor).

Which brings us back to the question: “Are your actions justifiable? Are they ethical?” – made all the more confronting by the disastrous consequences to the player’s actions in Spec Ops: The Line.

From a consequentialist perspective, the answer would have to be a resounding “no”; but from a virtue ethics or deontological perspective it’s a lot more difficult to point to any one moment in the gameplay as being a definitively “wrong” decision. On a second playthrough, the only moments where the player can say with certainty that Walker has made the wrong call are those where the player now has knowledge that Walker does not.

Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t provide any definitive answer to what constitutes ethical behaviour, for its protagonist or the player controlling him – but unlike most shooters, it definitely asks some penetrating questions on the issue, and perhaps that’s the takeaway: that the first step to behaving ethically is to properly examine one’s actions.

Simon Mattes

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