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The World Has Moved On From Spec Ops: The Line, And That’s OK

It’s more relevant, and less relevant, than ever

3:37 PM EST on January 30, 2024

A screenshot from "Spec Ops: The Line:" a soldier slides down a zipline over a destroyed Dubai of tall skyscrapers and orange sand
Yager

Spec Ops: The Line, Yager’s 2012 “what if Call of Duty but also Bioshock” shooter, has been delisted from Steam, with other online stores to follow. It’s a shame–it’s a valuable game worth preserving, and one of my favorites, even if I’m not so sure you still need to play it. 

Following the initial news, players speculated it was due to issues with the game’s licensed music. Others were holding out for a remaster, though this seems unlikely given that people who made the game didn’t seem to know why it was missing either: Spec Ops’ director, Cory Davis, tweeted, “Makes no sense - especially because the themes portrayed in [Spec Ops] are more relevant now than ever.” 2K eventually said that "several partnership licenses related to the game are expiring."

UPDATE 4:37pm-- After publishing, Game File's Stephen Totilo reported that Spec Ops: The Line will be delisted from all stores and gave 2K's reasoning. We've updated the first two paragraphs of this piece, as well as the end, to avoid confusion.

Spec Ops spoilers follow. 

In 2018, Nathan asked some of us at Kotaku what game we’d never uninstall, and my answer was Spec Ops. I played the game on my very first gaming laptop, while Hurricane Sandy raged outside my Brooklyn apartment in the fall of 2012. I knew that there was some twist to the game, but not exactly what it was. I was blown away by all of it, my jaw hanging open for its eight hour run time. Its version of Dubai felt so unique and impressive, a game world landscape I’d never had the hardware to explore before. I wrestled with its iconic white phosphorus scene. I was shocked by the reversal of its ending: the game blames protagonist Martin Walker–and by extension you, the player–for the carnage and bloodshed you’ve caused by following its objectives to their end, castigating you for enjoying it. I spent hours playing its epilogue to get all the different endings, battling guiltily through its tough fights to satiate my own bloodthirsty curiosity. 

The game felt extra relevant due to the circumstances. In the days following both Sandy and my playthrough, I volunteered to bring food to people homebound by the storm, climbing the dark towers of apartment buildings with a flashlight and bags of supplies. It felt, well, like something out of Spec Ops. The wreckage of the game’s post-sandstorm Dubai wasn’t dissimilar from what I saw around me in New York, and its questions about what it means to help bounced through my mind as I went back to my safe, above-water apartment after my volunteer shift. 

Later, I’d write one of my first games articles about that experience, now lost to time with The Border House’s archives. Even later, I’d devour Brendan Keogh’s Killing Is Harmless, awed not just by its in-depth exploration of the game, but by the fact that a video game could be serious enough to write a whole book about. The game and its discourse definitely helped me find a way into games journalism. It’s no overstatement to say Spec Ops changed the course of my life.

This is all a little cringe now–not necessarily through the fault of Spec Ops, but just because I’ve gotten older, and time has marched forward. Spec Ops’ big trick feels dated; I might not have been as impressed with it if I’d played 2007’s Bioshock before it, as opposed to years later. Questions about video game violence and harm have been raised and answered to death through Spec Ops contemporaries and subsequent games like The Last of Us, Hotline Miami, Bioshock Infinite, Hitman, and more. Player agency is no longer gaming’s hottest topic, and the idea of problematizing the war shooter feels like something best left in the Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives era of Are Games Serious. Spec Ops as an example of the “maturity” of video games feels dated next to, say, The Last of Us, which itself feels dated even in the face of its HBO adaptation. 

All of that’s fine! Like I said, time marches forward, and a game doesn’t have to be a must-play to be important. I tried to replay Spec Ops a few years ago, now on my hand-built gaming PC, and even with my love for it I didn’t get far, put off by its clunky controls and combat. I was firmly in camp “you have to play this!” in 2012; now, I’m not so sure, even if it still has a place of honor on my hard drive.

This brings me back to director Davis’ tweet that the game’s themes “are more relevant now than ever.” The idea of using white phosphorus was shocking in Spec Ops, but these days, we’re watching Israel deploy it on civilians in real time. As game designer Mathew Kumar seemed to joke on Twitter, “As the international community have recently decided that it’s fine to use white phosphorus on civilians this game no longer makes sense and it has been delisted as a result I guess.” Clearly, it’s unlikely the game was delisted from Steam for its content, but the point stands: Spec Ops’ specific war crime is less shocking when we’re witnessing it right now, in real life, though Spec Ops would be right at home with that juxtaposition. Were I to replay it today, I’d have a different kind of discomfort than I did playing it during Sandy. I don’t need it to ask me about my complicity in violence; I just have to look at where my tax dollars are going for that.

Beyond the game’s plot points, I’d argue the thing it does as a whole is a regular feature of daily life now. Today, I’m far more aware of the politics of my media consumption than I was in 2012. Interrogating the morals and implications of things I like is a sometimes healthy/sometimes not undertaking of anything I read, watch, play, listen to, or buy. We live in the world of milkshake duck and “that thing you like is bad, actually,” a world of JK Rowling and problematic faves. In a way, the whole world feels like Spec Ops’s mirror turn now; it can get in line behind thinkpieces, randos on social media, and my own personal growth. Today, the game is both more relevant than ever, and drowned out by everything else that’s asking me its same questions.

If you're interested in the game but never bought it, you might want to act fast. I don’t know that I’d insist you play it, but you’d gain something positive watching a YouTube playthrough and reading Brendan’s book. It’s still a good game, and it’s valuable as a time capsule of a period of gaming. It might not change your life these days the way it did mine, but maybe that’s OK. It doesn’t need to anymore.

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