Moments: “White Phosphorus” In Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that routinely takes your expectations and blasts them to pieces. A simple and straightforward military shooter on the outside, the game’s exterior is hiding a spot-on critique of military shooters and what it means to be a “hero” in a violent scenario where the line between right and wrong is blurred.
No other moment showcases this better than the now infamous white phosphorus scene. Playing as Captain Walker, you quickly discover there is much more going on in Spec Ops: The Line than first meets the eye. A rogue battalion of U.S. Army soldiers are at war with armed members of the surviving civilian population of a sandstorm-swept Dubai, civilians armed and led by CIA agents hoping to eliminate all knowledge of the incident. You lead your Delta Force squad to an area known as “The Gate” and find the area to be heavily guarded by the renegade troops, which you believe have kidnapped civilians of the city and are holding them prisoner beyond the gate.
You sneak into the area, the soldiers unaware of your presence, and find a weapon that could turn the tide of battle in your favor – white phosphorus, and incendiary munition that burns anything and everything. Your squad-mate Lugo objects to its use. Your other squadmate Adams says you might not have a choice. “There's always a choice,” Lugo insists.
Walker responds. “No, there's really not.” You launch a drone into the sky, open up the targeting computer, and proceed to rain fire from above onto the soldiers from behind the safety of a computer screen. While you use the targeting laptop to drop firebombs onto the enemy, you can see the reflection of Walker's face on the computer screen. He is emotionless, even stoic, as he kills dozens of Americans in one of the most horrifying ways possible.
What follows is a scene of utter devastation. The white-phosphorus shells leave the entire area a scorched wasteland. Heaps of dead bodies, men cooked alive, litter the landscape. Some of the men, barely among the living, crawl toward you and beg for mercy. You and your squad march on, reaching a survivor covered in burns but who can still somehow manage to speak. He asks “Why?” Walker responds that the soldiers brought this all upon themselves, but when soldier responds with “We were helping” before breathing his last breath, you begin to sense something is wrong. You turn and proceed forward.
And there, around the corner, are the dozens of civilians you sought to save, their bodies still smoking from the white-phosphorus bath you gave them. You focus in on a mother and a child embracing one another in death. You squad begins to shout in anger and frustration, but you can barely hear them. You can only stare at the consequences of your actions. But Walker refuses to accept the action as his own. He blames his enemies and vows revenge on them for forcing him and his squad to resort to such a barbaric act of warfare.
This moment hits hard and perfectly sums up what makes Spec Ops: The Line so special. An act like this in other military shooters would be completely par for the course. We've all played the levels in Call of Duty and other shooters where we pilot drones or shoot unsuspecting victims from the sky in an AC-130. We never get to see the carnage and collateral damage on the ground, however. We never get to see the toll it takes on the player characters either. Walker's refusal to accept the consequences of his actions is what many real people would do. He blames others. He blames his enemies. He blames anything and everything except for himself because he is the hero. He is supposed to be the good guy, coming in to help innocent people and save the day. But war is never so black and white, and after this moment Spec Ops: The Line doesn't let you forget it.