An Interpretation of Spec Ops: The Line
Tea: Clean Green Tea
After having stated my broad opinion and its connection to Heart of Darkness the final task that remains is to clear the dust and see the story of Spec Ops as it truly is. It should go without saying, but let me issue another spoiler-warning here: Once again, the plot of Spec Ops in all its glorious details will be discussed and picked apart, turn around now if this is a journey you still wish to take.
The task at hand is not an easy one. Five different endings are to be accounted for and a lot of choices that player are open to the player throughout his journey. Can a singular interpretation exist? Yes, with a rather abstract explanation that I will try my very best to ground in reason and proof: Capt. Walker is already dead as we take control of him. He is trapped in a Limbo-like space, forever doomed to live through his own hell again and again. But we should start at the beginning. What is that we know of Captain Walker and his mission?
Captain Walker obviously has history with Konrad and is sent to Dubai to investigate. Locate any survivors and evacuate the city. An agenda that swiftly slips down the list of priorities. Walker does locate survivors pretty early, but makes no attempt to rescue them, there is only one goal for him and that is reaching Konrad. Neither he nor his men ever consider to evacuate ‘the nest’ and just leave it at that. They choose the more dangerous and non-existent mission of locating Konrad. Then, of course, the game progresses and Walker’s state of mind degenerates more and more. The witty comments from the beginning between the three are no more. Now they distrust each other and every one of them makes questionable moves themselves. Walker is drawn towards is inevitable reckoning at the hands of Konrad
– When the truth is undeniable you create your own –
There are several instances when Walker hallucinates a different reality, e.g. shooting the water thief. These scenes are highlighted via a fade to white. This has been made clear by the developers. A fade to white means Walker is hallucinating. However, if my theory should remain true, what would this mean for limbo-Walker? In my opinion Walker does indeed hallucinate, it’s just that these hallucinations happen on the same level of reality in limbo. To Walker they are no more than brief interludes of his psychological degeneration as he views his hell – Dubai – as reality. Therefore the fade to white or black is no more an indicator for the player as to which was real and which wasn’t. Rather it is representative of Walker’s state of mind at that moment. To back this up and to further illustrate my point, let us have a look at the one of the most telling scenes: The helicopter sequence:
It starts off the game with very little context other than shoot the enemy. Who is the enemy? Why are we shooting them? Who are we even playing as? Why is it so dusty all of a sudden? All of this remains unanswered. Only after finishing it and…ugh… yes, what exactly happens? Is this supposed to be taken as glimpse into the future? Does this actually happen and no one draws attention to it afterwards? No, not quite. Walker’s journey ended there the first time. This brief moment is the only sequence in which we play a Walker that is actually alive. Both he and his men crashed and died. Now Walker finds himself at the beginning of his journey without any memory or context as to how they got there, just like the player. What actually happened on their real visit to Dubai remains unknown, the only certainty is that they encountered heavy resistance, as indicated by the helicopter trying to shoot them down. Walker actually draws attention to this when the player arrives at the helicopter sequence the second time around by stating that they “[…] did this already”. Showing that Walker still has shards of memories from his waking life somewhere in his mind, but buried under the never-ending cycle of his hellish journey through Dubai.
– How did we get here again? –
Another point I would like to make is that the enemies show very little variation. Now, you might say this is a fault on the game developer’s side, but I’d like to reject that. The enemies have three or four main designs, with the cowboy hat-one being stuck in my mind the most. To Walker, or rather from Walker’s mind, very few different enemies would be born. What for? To him they almost appear faceless, simply classified under ‘hostile’, ‘threat’ or whatever you want to call them. The only people with a different model are not coincidentally also people Walker has a clear image off: Konrad, the Radioman, his men, obviously, etc. Underlined by the fact that soldiers disappear after they have been killed, serving no purpose to Walker anymore.
There are two pints where the hell-metaphor goes into overdrive and becomes rather glaring. I am talking about the Dubai-tower scene and Welcome-to-hell-Walker. Both of them are very much in line with interpretations of hell. The fire-red colour, not to mention the actual fire that is present in both scenes. The tower-scene is illustrative of a judgmental set-up. Walker being confronted with his deeds so far in the form of souls slowly dragging themselves towards him and accusing him at the same time. At the end he falls on his knees before the flaming tower while more and more people that fell to his violent impulses crawl from the ground. This gets only more drastic in the second scene mentioned. Walker, at that point, still refuses the responsibility for his actions and now the souls of the damned actively assault him. They burn him and mark him as the sinner that he is, they try to drag him into their own hell. How is this to be put into the greater context of a dead Walker? There is another thing both of these visions have in common and that is Konrad. Konrad is trying to bring Walker to terms with himself and make him accept what he has done. “We have been waiting for you” is not only a simply greeting, but a level deeper speaks about the fact that he wants him to accept his deeds and suffer for them accordingly. And this brings us to the final nail in Capt. Walker’s coffin: Konrad
– Walker confronted with his victims –
Despite hellish visions and lost comrades Walker makes it to the top of the tower and is confronted with Konrad painting a picture of his horrible deeds. Konrad speaks the truth Walker continuously tries to deny: “I never could escape the reality of what happened here. That was my downfall.” Just like Walker will never come to terms with his actions and thus he literally cannot escape this level of reality. When Walker is asked whether he likes it, the first thought jumps towards the picture, but actually this is Konrad once again confronting him with his white phosphorus episode. He is literally asking him whether he liked doing it or not? But Walker still does not realize what is really going on. He continues to attribute his actions to an external force, Konrad, no matter how many times he lives through this cycle. Ensuring that it keeps going forever. He won’t accept Konrad’s blatant statement that it was him that did this, since he is still unable to cope with the reality of what happened.
– It takes a strong man to deny what’s right in front of him –
After Konrad is revealed to have been dead a long time it becomes even more evident that he is just a representation of Walker’s consciousness. The levels of reality Walker constructed are breaking apart. He is forced to accept that his external influence was always an internal one all along. A part of Walker is thus well-aware of the crimes he has committed and won’t let him carry on like that. He goes over the entire journey again, telling him that it was his actions and decisions that lead to this disastrous state, but Walker continues to deny everything. It does not matter what choices the player made as Walker has lived through all of them and the result is always the same, it has to be the same as the cycle is already written from the moment it starts and the only true choice is at the end. No matter what actions he has taken his is still denying the very thing that keeps him trapped in this dimension. However, this cycle must end and Konrad is willing to do it himself. He pulls out the gun, Walker previously took from him, and aims through his reflection at Walker. Of course, only Walker could inhabit this position if it was a real mirror, further underlining their connection. Now Walker is split into two: Walker the character the player controlled throughout the journey and Walker’s consciousness represented by Konrad. If Walker is shot by Konrad or himself it is reasonable to assume that his story actually ends there. Being shot by Konrad symbolizes acceptance of his deeds. He was asked who will pay the price and he decides that it should be him, thus freeing him from this limbo.
– The only choice Walker ever has in this story –
If Walker should choose to shoot Konrad he is basically eliminating his consciousness. Indicated by the odd choice of words that make up Konrad’s farewell: “You can still go home.” This does not seem like something Konrad would say at this point, this is what Walker is telling himself: “You are a good man and can still go home, you have done nothing wrong.” The endings split again at this point. After giving orders to a soldier that is only briefly in existence, since Walker has still not accepted his fragmented reality a final sequence in presented to the player: Lay down your weapons and go home is the pacifistic way of ending the game. This leads to a version in which Walker actually appears to be going home. Right after this scene one could play the intro of the game again. Of course, Walker is not going home. He is still in denial at this point even about his identity. He is wearing Konrad’s uniform. Presumably some part of him cannot banish Konrad’s words out of his mind, but he must keep his hero image going. So he partially adopts the identity of a man who was a hero, a man he had served with before, a man that lead his unit to Dubai to save people. He becomes his own version of Konrad. A Konrad that didn’t kill himself, but survived his trip into the heart of darkness and emerged. Captain Walker is dead, as stated by him, but his Konrad, the hero, is still very much alive in him.
– As long as you believe it, it is true, Walker –
If Walker is killed trying to fight the soldiers the player is treated to a flashback from Walker’s time with Konrad. Here he clearly states that men like them cannot go home (contrast to Walker’s shattered-version of Konrad) and can only hope to die after they are finished. Perhaps this message will stick with Walker and in his next cycle he will let Konrad shoot him and die in peace, rather than staying behind the line and ensuring peace can never happen.
Should Walker manage to kill all the soldiers he makes it clear to the others that he will ‘defend’ Dubai against them. Convinced that this is reality and letting no one tell him otherwise. He is transformed into a hellish ruler of this distorted world after having murdered the only voice of reason in his mind. And here is where it gets really brainy: I propose that this Walker, the one killing the soldiers in the end, is the Konrad the next cycle Walker will meet at the top of the tower.
– Walker is no more –
Walker mimics his own words from the start of the game “Gentlemen, welcome to Dubai” and would thus be referring to Next-Walker and his two companions. In his mind he has already taken the position of Konrad and now adopts his appearance as well. Yet, sitting at the top of the tower and watching his own actions transforms him into the agent of Walker’s consciousness the Next-Walker will later meet. He wants to kill Walker at the end, or let him kill himself same-difference, thus ending the cycle. He knows otherwise Walker would only shoot him to rise to his position or reset the cycle, effectively bringing him back so that the entire game can play out again. Does it sound a bit complicated? Let me make it a bit clearer:
On his first mission when he was still alive Walker died in the helicopter crash that the player experiences at the start of the game, everything we play afterwards takes place in this purgatory-esque setting. Should Walker decide to end his life or let his life be ended he assumes responsibility for his actions and the cycle never resets. Should he shoot Konrad he denies his actions and either dies at the hands of the soldiers or “goes home” which both reset the cycle and erase his memory of the previous cycle. Should he actually succeed in killing all of them he takes the position that was formerly inhabited by his consciousness. Now that he sees the Walker of the next cycle carry out all of his horrible deeds he becomes not the Konrad that Walker envisioned, the one responsible for all of this, but the consciousness-Konrad that tries to get him to accept reality. Should Walker still decide to shoot him and die afterwards or go home he would reset the cycle and Walker/Konrad would be brought back into his position. If Next-Walker kills all the soldiers he replaces the current Walker/Konrad as the entity of moral judgement. This is backed up by Konrad saying “I never could escape the reality of what happened here. That was my downfall” and it is true in two ways: First, it is the reason as to why he is in the position he is in now, seeing as he shoot all the soldiers in the end and made this pseudo-reality is true reality and second, It is the reason for his change, because Walker, every single one of them, could not escape their downfalls he could never leave his position until he made Walker, or rather the Walkers, accept their actions.
– Konrad’s and Walker’s position further supports their connection –
One last argument: “Your eyes are opening for the first time. It hurts, doesn’t it?” Painting the picture and reminding Walker is surely hurting, but it is the voice of sympathy – I know how that feels – that Konrad has which further supports the theory that he lived through this himself. He may not have accepted it the first time, but watching it play out again and again opened his eyes and it must have hurt. The only question left is who will pay for Walker’s crimes? Will the cycle end or continue?
This is my interpretation of the story of Spec Ops and while some may brush it off as reading too much into it I think there is a fair share of reasonable arguments to support my theory. You may disagree or accept it as a possible reading of the events that took place in Dubai. Either way this marks the end of my journey into the heart of darkness of this game. It has been immensely fun and I can only wish for more games like this in the future.
Image sources in order of appearance:
- http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/specops/images/1/1f/SoldierCivilianChoice.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20120711082415 (Last date of access: 22.07.2015)
- https://kambyero.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/spec-ops-the-line-desert-walk.jpg (Last date of access: 22.07.2015)
- http://download.gamezone.com/uploads/image/data/1118405/SpecOpsFire.jpg (Last date of access: 22.07.2015)
- https://crotchetyoldgamer.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/spec-ops-the-line-17.jpg (Last date of access: 22.07.2015)
- http://media.tiltingatpixels.com/tilting/SpecOpsTheLine_Counttofive.jpg (Last date of access: 22.07.2015)
- http://www.zero1gaming.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/specops_story4.jpg (Last date of access: 22.07.2015)
- http://guides.gamepressure.com/specops/gfx/word/420339750.jpg (Last date of access: 22.07.2015)
- Konrad-half: http://static.giantbomb.com/uploads/original/8/82063/2254084-2012_07_03_00001.jpg (Last date of access: 22.07.2015)
- Walker-half taken screenshot from video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lauUirttVhs (Mark: 7:23) (Last date of access: 22.07.2015)