In this fourth installment of How Games Tell Tales, I will discuss how games portray unreliable narration. Using Spec Ops: The Line as an example, I will show that the hyperreality of video games influences how an unreliable story can be experienced. I will also discuss the criticism this game has of military entertainment.

Spoiler Warning: this article will spoil the most important parts of the story of Spec Ops: The Line, if you are at all interested in playing this game, then do so before reading on.

It has been some time since the last installment of my series of articles on How Games Tell Tales, sorry about that! Previously, I have discussed several ways in which video games tell stories: ideas such as Intended Play, Historical Simulation, and Hyperreality. Today, I will extend on the latter somewhat, by exploring how games uniquely portray unreliable narration. As an example of this, I will use Spec Ops: The Line. While much has been written on what unreliable narration is, the discourse lacks an insight of how games handle this type of storytelling. 

Spec Ops: The Line is a war game, and one which does not shy away from showing the consequences of war, I will not include any of the more gore-related images of the game within this post, but I will describe parts of what happens. If that is something you wish to stay far away from, then this post might not be for you. 

Spec Ops; The Line’s launch trailer

Unreliability in War

As mentioned, a lot has been written about what an unreliable narrator is. If you want to know some more about that discussion, you can click the spoiler tag below. An exact definition is not necessary for the rest of this article.

About Unreliability in Literature

The paper “(Un)Reliability in Narrative Discourse: A Comprehensive Overview” is close to 200 pages long. It is safe to say that the definition of unreliability is….complicated. 

If you are looking for a simple definition of unreliable narration, Booth’s definition from 1961 is as follows: ‘“For lack of better terms, I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not”. This leaves out the audience’s perspective, or authors whose norms are not clear, and on and on and on. 

To give an idea of how the more complex but comprehensive definitions work, one that is easy to work with is the following one that defines several ‘mechanisms’, or forms of unreliability. It is not needed to go through all of them, so I will offer three examples: 

Genetic: A bit of an odd name for unreliability, this one has to do with how a text is made, errors that come from editing, or carelessness in translating.  An example brought forward by the paper is texts being reorganised, which leads to timeline errors, where events happen before they are mentioned to happen further down in the text. Essentially, some forms of unreliability appear to us as simple mistakes in a text, from which we can derive that a text might not be of the trustworthy quality we wish it to be. 

Generic/Functional: Generic unreliability is not general or simple unreliability, it is generic in the sense of ‘genre’. Comedy, for example, can be unreliable on purpose as a joke, and unreliability can be a part of the genre itself. The paper quotes a poem with the line “I met a man who wasn’t there” to show that in poetry too, unreliability can be accepted, and par for the course. This is a type of unreliability we, as an audience, often accept as a part of the genres. This is closely tied with functional unreliability, where it is argued that the unreliability of a text or a source has a function. It could be a metaphor. As we will see with Spec Ops, the protagonist is unreliable, but it serves a function: To criticise military entertainment, and to make the player question why, in other army games, they are told they are a hero. This is a type of unreliability we can explain as having a function within a story.

Perspectival: This mechanism is very relevant to video games, as it is essentially the following: We see the world of the narrative through a different pair of eyes than our own, and we can claim that this other person is unreliable. We do so when we can no longer consider the world they present as believable, but instead as questionable, or ‘refracted’, as the paper refers to it. 

So…yeah. It gets quite complicated, quite fast, to define literary terms. And this is not even the only perspective on what unreliability is! I will leave this topic here for now. We do not need to get far into it for the game at hand, luckily.

In Spec Ops: The Line, the player is in control of Captain Walker in Dubai, where he is tasked with rescuing other soldiers after an emergency message from Colonel Konrad. Unbeknownst to Walker and the player, Konrad is already dead at the start of the game. As the player enters Dubai, the game plays out like any other war shooter tends to: combat scenarios in which Walker and his allies shoot at supposed enemy soldiers. 

So far, so reliable. But then, Captain Walker chooses to use a white phosphorous bomb, and it hits civilians. The player is now treated directly to the consequences of war, as they walk through a building of dead civilians. Walker opts to blame those he felt forced to shoot at, and from that point on, things start to change. 

Walker finds a radio through which he talks with Konrad. He becomes angrier, and the loading screens of the game start to mockingly question the motivations of the player, asking questions such as: do you feel like a hero yet? Usually, in war games, the player is supposedly the hero, after all. 

I did mention Konrad was dead, so how does Walker talk to him? The death of Konrad is revealed at the end of the game, as well as many situations being hallucinated, such as choosing which soldiers die. One of the developers suggests that Walker died in the helicopter crash, and that the rest of the game is him reliving his acts of terror in Dubai. It turns out that Konrad was not a good man, and that his regiment enforced terror on Dubai, and Walker struggles with the acceptance that he himself is a villain now as well. This struggle also extends to the player, as shown by the previously mentioned loading screens. As Walker has to confront his own evil, the player has to confront this as well: can they accept having played as someone evil?

And now that we know that Walker is unreliable, what do we, as players, do?

This hell-ish imagery is shown after the helicopter crash, with Konrad’s tower in the middle. Shortly after the crash, Walker confronts Konrad – his conscience – on whether he is a hero or not, making it likely that this is where he actually dies, as he faces himself in his final moments. (Source)

Choosing What To Believe

At the end of the game, the player is offered a choice. Walker confronts an imagined version of Konrad, who tells Walker that he is not the hero of this story. Konrad states that Walker only pushed on, committing atrocity upon Dubai, to try to prove that he is the good guy. And now, the player gets to choose: Shoot Konrad, shoot their own mirror image, or let Konrad shoot them. 

This is where hyperreality – which we discussed before – and unreliable narration come together. It is not a question of who Walker chooses to believe, whether he wants to be a hero, and shoot Konrad, or believe Konrad, and let himself be shot/shoot his own image. No, it is a question of what the player thinks of themselves at this point. Because Walker and the player, as discussed before, are one and the same. Up until this point, the unreliability of Walker had not been revealed, and I was doing what he did. Begrudgingly so, as I disagreed with his choices. But nevertheless, I shot those bombs, I messed up Dubai’s water supply, and all those other acts of terror were controlled by me too. I chose to continue. 

So what do I do? Do I believe Konrad, do I give up? Do I take control of this situation myself and choose to stop believing? Or do I aim at Konrad, do I choose to live the lie? This is a unique version of unreliable narration, one where players are not only in control of the unreliable moments, but get to choose whose version of events to believe as well. 

The ending, where Konrad (on the right) counts down to shooting Walker, and Walker can accept, shoot back, or shoot his own mirror image (on the left). (Source)

Unreliable Militainment

A final note should be made on the fact that this is a game about war. Military entertainment is a massive part of the video game industry, and Spec Ops: The Line uses its unreliable narrative as a way to be critical of this genre. 

Matthew Payne names this military entertainment “militainment” and notes that Spec Ops: The Line is explicitly critical of violence and killing in video games. Payne quotes one of the game’s developers as saying that it has become too normalised and mundane in video games to commit acts of murder. This holds especially true for war games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, in which players shoot hundreds upon hundreds of other soldiers and/or players.

While Payne notes that the loading screens of the game are critical, and the story as well – even using militainment tropes -, it should also be noted that the unreliable narrator plays right into this as well. Walker becomes unreliable because of the atrocities he commits, as he has to twist the narrative into one where he is the hero. Since other war games act like the player’s actions are heroic, Walker, as a criticism of the genre he is in, has to believe he is doing the right thing until the very end, when the player gets to judge whether games like these truly are heroic or not. 

Spec Ops: The Line is riddled with loading screens like this, which criticize the use of military force as entertainment, another example is “The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants, but this is not real, so why should you care?” (Source)

So, there we are. Spec Ops: The Line delivers a gritty story of war, in which the player controls an unreliable narrator. Whereas other shooter games will often present the player as the good guy, this game uses that to portray a protagonist who has to believe he is a hero, but has long since stopped being one. Unique to this medium, the game allows the player to choose for themselves what to believe in the story they experienced, were they a hero? Can they accept having been the villain? 

If, in the future, you find yourself playing a game in which killing is mundane and normal, perhaps it is worth asking yourself: do you feel like a hero yet?

Adding Definitions To Unreliable Narration

For those who read the previous optional bit on how to define unreliable narration, it might be good to end it with some closure after all this. In my Bachelor thesis at university, I concluded that the definition of mechanisms requires one for video games. I proposed the following: 

The Controlled Mechanism: A mechanism of unreliability that follows from the direct experience of being, or feeling like being, in control of a narrative, which is subsequently called in question by inconsistencies presented by outcomes of that control.

Perhaps with a definition like this, we will no longer have to question how to define this narrative tool within the realm of video games.

P.S. Games tell unreliable stories in a myriad of ways, such as in The Stanley Parable, or in What Remains of Edith Finch. These games were not a part of this post, mainly because I wanted to also note the topic of militainment in video games, for which Spec Ops: The Line is a perfect example.

Banner image found here. Thumbnail source found here.