Dubai’s Heart of Darkness

A Comparison of Spec Ops: The Line and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Tea: Black tea full of Darkness

Disclaimer: Spoiler-Warning for Spec Ops: The Line and Heart of Darkness, I guess…

Spec Ops: The Line is a truly outstanding game, one that I wish to analyse further. Starting with its relation to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This novel about the consequences of Imperialism follows the journey of Marlow to find a man named Kurtz who delved deep into the Heart of Darkness of the African jungle and has not returned since. There is an obvious parallel between Colonel Konrad in Spec Ops and Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Consequently Capt. Walker must be the Marlow of this story then. And for the first 90% of the game this holds true, at least thematically. Walker journeys through Dubai and encounters horror and destruction on his search for the missing Colonel. At the end, however, the game strays far from the novel’s ending. Most notably the missing “The Horror! The Horror!” line that is so iconic for both the novel and its movie adaptation Apocalypse Now. So where exactly are the parallels and differences between the two works? That is what I intend to find out.

Spec Ops: The Line – The Journey Trailer

This trailer for Spec Ops illustrates the journey down a river with a camera moving straight through environments in the game. At the end we get a glimpse of the horror Walker will encounter in his journey. So it is safe to say that the basic premise of the two works are roughly identical. Walker/Marlow are send to find a not-yet-confirmed-rogue military operative by traveling through an environment of horror and devastation.

Marlow and Capt. Walker are not that similar, however. While Marlow throws out a lot of casual-racism Walker is actively killing others. Not foreigners, but rogue American soldiers. The natives are held in a place called “the nest” where they are constantly under military supervision. Both of them interact with “the other” (referring to natives in Marlow’s case), but Walker’s approach is far more direct and final. Either involving bullets or a boot heel to the face. Marlow simply frightens them with a boat whistle when they are attacked.

Here is maybe the first major difference between the two. Walker has to witness the effect of his horrible actions. The infamous “white phosphorus” scene is not comparable to a boat whistle. Of course, Marlow shows no guilty consciousness for scaring them away, why should he, but neither does Walker for burning innocent people. Both of them go along as if nothing happened. Walker blames others that these people died, he forces his mind to alter reality. Moulding it into a parallel version where he can still be the hero, even after bringing literal hell to 47 innocent people.


– Walker stepping out of the light like an angel into the darkness he brought about. –

Looking at the state of Mr Kurtz/Colonel Konrad there is a major difference here: In the novel Kurtz is believed to be dead for a major portion of the book. Marlow is only told later on that he is very well alive, but ‘ascended’ and no longer in a position to be morally judged by the common standard. Konrad, however, is made clear to be alive, very early on Walker finds a radio transmitter that lets him speak with the Colonel. Forcing Walker to make one horrible decision after another. Of course, at the end there is the twist of Konrad being long dead and only alive in Walker’s crumbling mind. The player is unaware of Adam’s and Lugo’s interjection, since they obviously cannot hear Konrad, but Walker alters reality once more to block out any comments that do not fit his overall narrative of the Hero-Walker. Starting at the “white phosphorus” scene we can see how the comments of his men slowly fade out becoming inaudible to Walker and the player.

From this point on we cannot trust anything Walker sees or anything his men say, or rather he perceives his men to say. Walker turns into an unreliable narrator. Hallucinations become more frequent and while his men often voice criticism it generally goes unchallenged and only leads to minor confrontations. Most notably during the second helicopter sequence when Walker decides to ‘send Konrad a message’ and violently murders soldiers and destroys an entire building out of pure bloodlust.

However, there is something in Walker’s mind that will not let him block out reality entirely and that is Konrad, or at least his version of Konrad. Guilt will creep back into Walker’s reality, be it in the form of dead Lugo attacking him or, for instance, Walker’s vision of hell.


– “Welcome to Hell, Walker. We’ve been waiting for you.” –

Walker is drawn towards Konrad and his final reckoning. No matter what sacrifice may stand in the Way, Walker will march on, no matter the cost. Losing team mates is a necessary sacrifice if it means ending the mission properly. But what is Walker’s actual mission? At this point in the game Walker has alienated both his team mates and the player as his justifications for his horrible deeds become less and less believable. “I want to see what this gun can do” is a good reason to mow down a few dozen soldiers, is it not? Walker loses all grip on reality, everything becomes a justified sacrifice towards his singular goal of finding Konrad, the man who forced him to do all the horrible things.


– 4th Wall-breaking done right. At this point both the player and Walker have forgotten.-

Having lived through hell and continuous assault both of our protagonists make it to their goal. Finally meeting Kurtz/Konrad at the end of their journey in the heart of darkness. Marlow finds out that Kurtz has become some form of religious leader and a god to the natives. He was the one that ordered the attack on their steamboat to keep them away from his campsite. Kurtz is alive, but terminally ill and slowly dying. Marlow tries to get him on the boat and bring him back, but Kurtz can escape and is trying to crawl his way back to the camp. Once again, Marlow brings him back to the boat where Kurtz entrusts him with some valuable documents, one about how to interact with the ‘savages’ of the jungle. Ending with “Exterminate all the brutes”. Kurtz ultimately dies and in his last breath utters the famous words “The Horror! The Horror!”. Marlow is now tasked to inform Kurtz’s fiancé about his death who is still convinced her would-be husband was a hero and strong idealist. But he cannot bring himself to tell her the truth and does not mention the horror Kurtz spoke about, but instead tells her that his last words where her name.

Walker finds Konrad at the end of his journey as well. Although not quite like he expected. Unlike Kurtz who did everything to make Marlow think he was dead. Konrad, or rather Walker, did everything to make the player and himself believe Konrad was still alive, but in the end, he has been dead long before the game even started. The only person you meet is a fragment of Walker’s deranged mind. The ending of Spec Ops, or rather endings, are an entirely different matter that I will look into in another article, for now, let’s focus on the parallels between game and novel.

Konrad is no religious leader. He is, however, just like Kurtz a highly respected official. Just like Marlow, Walker becomes obsessed with finding him. The difficulties Konrad encountered during his attempted evacuation of Dubai remain unclear, from what we can gather he tried to lead them out of Dubai, but failed, resulting in the death of a huge percentage of the survivors. Konrad then grouped them together with military force and established an oppressive rule that took away their freedom, but kept them alive and from murdering each other over what little water was left. The death of all the survivors is, however, only a matter of time. Konrad, with no one to blame but himself for the terrible fate of these innocents, takes the only way out he can think of: “Exterminate the brute”. Ending his life at the top of the tower Walker later finds his corpse. The Konrad we meet is truly no more susceptible to moral judgement, as he is not real. Walker, however, is very real. There is still a judgement to be made, a judgement carried out by the player at the end of the game.

Both versions of Heart of Darkness are effective at showing the consequences of clashing ideologies and the innocent that inevitably get caught in the middle. The game does this, in my opinion, more effective than the novel. Turning the protagonist into an insane war criminal not able to perceive the horrors he brings upon others. What is right and wrong crumbles away as we progress further down the river into the Heart of Darkness. Walker’s moral fades away, expertly illustrated by his commands during battle. Starting with the neutral “take down that hostile!” until at the end he is cursing and screaming at his team mates to “kill him!”.


– Is Walker telling you this, or are you telling this to yourself? –

The horror of all of this comes into play when you think about one basic thing: You are not watching Captain Walker perform these horrible deeds, you are carrying them out. Your own moral code falls to pieces as you are forced to weigh equally horrible choices against one another. But you keep on going, never turning the game off or just stopping and at the end feeling horrible about what the game made you do. Perhaps even raging against Walker for what a monster he is. In the end, there is only one to blame. There truly are no heroes in this story, neither in the game nor outside of it. It’s just a video game, right? I am supposed to keep going and whatever happens is not my fault. But just as Konrad said: “none of this would have happened if you had just stopped. But on you marched. And for what?”

Spec Ops can and should be considered a re-writing of Heart of Darkness. The games turns the perspective and gives a closer insight into the suffering caused by clashing attitudes. Walker is no Marlow who can leave the jungle more or less untouched. What he saw may have changed him, but what Walker has done weighs heavier. The connection between the player and Walker becomes much closer than the reader’s relationship with Marlow. There is always a distance between you and Marlow and one can easily judge his character and his actions afterwards. In the case of Walker this is not easily accomplished. You ARE Captain Walker, you pulled the trigger just like him and you kept going even though you had the chance to back out at any point. The game fades away as an entertainment medium and becomes your own journey down the river into the heart of darkness. Kurtz was said to be above the moral judgement of man and in a way so is Walker at the end. Who is there to judge him? His men the only witnesses to his deeds are dead. His moral judgement is handed to someone outside of the game world: the player. Now it is up to you to judge Walker and at the same time yourself. Nothing like this appears in the novel, obviously, there are no “turn to page 150 if you think Marlow should tell her Kurtz’s true last words”-passages. The novel ends and the only thing open is what Kurtz thought of in his final moments that made him utter those words. This makes the journey presented in the game all the more effective. I did not feel sick after reading Heart of Darkness. Nor did I question my own morale. It was a piece of literature that demanded interpretation. Spec Ops achieved all those things, but at the end I was certain of one thing. The only way my journey could end was this: In his final moments Walker would point the gun at this own reflection, having realised that his inhuman crimes could not be forgiven, having lost his comrades to his insatiable blood lust in chasing a phantom of his own imagination. He then pulls the trigger while whispering a final “I’m sorry” unheard by his countless victims. As the credits role I put down my controller and whisper to myself: “The horror…the horror…”

Images sources in order of appearance:


2 thoughts on “Dubai’s Heart of Darkness

  1. A truly interesting and for this genre really refreshing approach that dares to take on a critical stance and thus becomes a piece of art. The ending scene forces the player to actively overthink what (s)he/Walker has done in the course of the campaign which creates a veritable catharsis.
    For me, the whole game seemed very hectic, there wasn´t a single moment where the player had some time to rest and collect himself so that the bitter truth of Walker´s deception hits you right in the face at the end.
    A damn good game with a powerful message!


    • I am glad you agree and will not bash my head in with an assault rifle for making you sit through this game. Indeed, the player can gain his catharsis at the end, should he choose to end Walker’s life that is. We’ll see what you think about my approach to the different endings. See you next article.


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