The duality of humans is often a common trope in fictional media. Mostly stemming into a form of moral dualism, the classic “good vs. evil” scenario is so prevalent in modern media that it’s practically a cliché of itself at this point. Such themes have been explored for years, but perhaps the most complex and morally macabre is the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
The tale of a man sailing down the Belgian Congo during the days of colonial imperialism, Conrad’s story shows the duality of human nature and how a person can be good and evil at the same time, offering a real sense of what makes human beings morally ambiguous. It is this sort of moral complexity that boils down the perspective of the characters through their actions and reactions, breathing life into other common archetypes, such as the anti-hero and the tragic villain, most often played big to emphasize their status as characters.
Many of these themes also bleed into the descriptions of the world. Heart of Darkness contains beautiful yet dangerous landscapes; deep jungles filled with danger at every turn, yet majestic in their descriptions by the protagonist Marlow. In between are small “settlements” of camps that serve as a dark reminder of the evils of imperialism, showing the “pillaging” of the world writ large, the frank condemnation of the actions partaken in the Congo. The entire atmosphere helps sell the story, creating a sense of impending chaos as the world around Marlow grows darker and dangerous, a stark contrast to the more majestic descriptors the jungles of the Congo have during the day.
And perhaps the most important aspect is the symbolic treatment of the character of Kurtz. A man who essentially succumbs to his darkness, Kurtz fashions himself as a “god” among the natives, a man who wishes to never be found within the Congo jungles. Because of Marlow’s fascination with Kurtz, he attempts to contact him and bring him back to civilization, only to find that Kurtz, half deranged and severely ill by the novella’s end, is beyond “saving.” Uttering his famous last words before dying, Kurtz shows the complete transformation of how man can become fully savage and deranged. This, coupled with the thesis that moral ambiguity is truer to mankind, makes the Heart of Darkness a modern classic.
Of course, waxing poetic about a 115-year-old novella for a few paragraphs may seem like a strange way to open an article pertaining to a Delta Squad Captain, but without the brief description of the themes of Heart of Darkness, the rest of this episode would be mired with esoteric thoughts. The Captain in question, of course, is Martin Walker of Spec Ops: The Line, perhaps the most pretentious game I have ever played, and that is a compliment to the actual complexity the narrative attempts to showcase.
After a major sandstorm essentially cut off the city of Dubai from civilization, Walker and his Delta team are tasked with finding out what’s going on in the sand-blanched cityscape. A secondary objective is to ascertain the whereabouts of a Col. John Konrad, the man in charge of the evacuations in Dubai and former company commander whom Walker served under. At first glance, Walker and his two compatriots, Adams and Lugo, are dealing with a routine mission of search and rescue, but very quickly the situation goes south, to the point where the entire Delta Squad are soon fighting for their lives against the 33rd Battalion, an army regiment under the command of Konrad.
In a case of unfortunate circumstances, Walker and his team are essentially in the wrong place at the wrong time, at least at first. Information gleamed from random tape recordings of the “Radioman,” an eerily laid back DJ whose voice is heard throughout Dubai, showed that the 33rd occupied the city after the failed evacuation and conducted brutal atrocities, such as executions and murder, to maintain a semblance of order in the now decrepit city. Members of the 33rd rebelled and formed a group of Exiles, essentially causing a civil war to erupt within the ruins of Dubai.
Walker and his men pressed forward, attempting to stop Konrad and his iron rule within the city. Along the way, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Walker and his men are slowly becoming unhinged by the violence surrounding them. Early in the game we see them as clean cut, professional looking soldiers acting by the book and staying calm and collected, even in combat situations. By the final acts of the game, Walker and his team are ragged and disheveled, bleeding profusely from wounds and shouting expletives wantonly, almost resigning to a sense of pure enjoyment of their handiwork. The sand becomes blood soaked, and Delta team is responsible for shedding most of it.
Now Spec Ops has a lot of narrative inspirations attached to it, from the films Jacob’s Ladder and Apocalypse Now, to even the biblical story of The Tower of Babel. The game’s writers were also well versed in such themes as well; Richard Pearsey worked on the Section 8 , while Walt Williams penned the scripts for the games Mafia 2 and BioShock 2. The result is a game about the excesses of destructive violence, and the sickening desire of embracing that dark side of us, emblematic of the transformation Walker goes through throughout the game.
This is just one aspect of Spec Ops that cemented the title as something unique amongst AAA war shooters. The overall change visually during the game becomes a physical representation of the metamorphosis from light to dark. We see it in the wear and tear Walker receives while in Dubai, the demeanor of Adams and Lugo as more and more atrocities pile upon them, the shortness of their breaths, and the sweat-soaked sand strewn across their brows.
This sort of physical degradation is almost analogous to how the characters of Kurtz and Marlow begin to, or have already, eroded into a sort of “savage” version of themselves. Much like other forms of media, Walker undergoes the same metamorphosis; the degradation of his character both visually and tonally into something not heroic, but uncomfortably animalistic. Walker, in the same sense as Marlow and Kurtz before him, had embraced his darkness in a not so subtle nod to the narrative themes; the violence escalates and Walker shouts more “fuck yous” in the face of his foes as time goes on.
It is the titular “line” that Walker ultimately crosses in Spec Ops: The Line. Quoting the game himself, “there is a line men like us have to cross. If we’re lucky, we do what is necessary and then we die.” It is a phrase with a lot of weight to it, pondering the lengths a soldier must go to complete their mission, to fulfill their objective. How dangerous, how deadly will they be? These are the types of questions asked by Spec Ops and asked of Walker as he fully crosses that line.
In fact, Spec Ops: the Line is ridden with symbolism that grant Walker and his journey more weight. The opening sequence, for example, shows Walker at the helm of a helicopter gun, shooting down other copters in the sky just as a sandstorm kicks in and knocks Delta Squad into the sandy sea. It is a great action moment that offers good spectacle for sure, but it is without context—at least at first. Later, the very same scene plays out in-game, to the point where Walker has a moment of déjà vu regarding the whole scenario. By this time, however, numerous events have transpired to slowly crack at the very psyche of Walker’s state of mind, completely changing the context of the sequence once more. Of note is perhaps the game’s most chilling scene, the white phosphorus strike.
After reaching a cordoned off entrance into the inner city of Dubai dubbed “the gate,” Walker and his team find a mortar and rounds of white phosphorus, a weapon of immense mass destruction that was used against them previously in the game. Realizing that this weapon is their only option of pressing forward, Walker fires several mortars into the throng of 33rd soldiers below them. After the bombing, he and his team move slowly through the chaotic scene around them, only stopping to realize that innocent civilians were also caught in the blast and eradicated in a flash.
It really is a disturbing moment, especially since the player is complicit in the chaos as well by pulling the trigger. Walker, fixating for a moment on a woman holding a child, both burned and mangled beyond recognition while Adams and Lugo argue over their choice in firing in the background. In many ways, this is the moment that breaks Walker, that penetrates his darker nature deeply. For it was after this moment we see the signs of Walker’s physical transformation manifest fully as he tries to vainly claim that their actions were forced. “They will pay for this,” he says, even though he himself pulled the trigger.
It is also a subtle commentary on the modern shooter conventions as well. One of the more famous instances of manipulation in the Call of Duty franchise is the “No Russian” mission in Modern Warfare 2. That mission had you enter a shooting gallery of an airport and murder innocent civilians, while being complacent in the crime, while simultaneously placing the blame on “nationalist Russians” who were forcibly pulling the trigger. The mission is an attempt to reach the sort of helpless, watershed moment of the nuclear explosion of the first Modern Warfare, but it falls flat because it offers no bite with its bark; it is a mission designed to purposely shock without providing context or resonance to the destruction the player participates in, especially when seen in the context of the overall package of Modern Warfare 2’s grand spectacle.
Much like The Heart of Darkness showed the atrocities of imperialism and, in Joseph Conrad’s view, the destruction of the world for progress, Walker’s actions in Spec Ops: The Line echo thematic elements through the subversive use of common gameplay mechanics in the AAA war shooter. The spectacle of Spec Ops is gone, replaced with real death, and the game pushes that to its limit. After the white phosphorus scene, the loading screen mocks your very purpose for playing, reassuring the player sarcastically that it’s all just a game, simultaneously chastising you for playing it. It is unsettling and disturbing on purpose, much like the game’s designers intended it to be.
All of this, of course, builds up to an unforgettable finale. Jumping ahead to the game’s endings, we see Walker, battered and broken, walking weakly into the penthouse tower where Col. Conrad is stationed. His cohorts Lugo and Adams were killed, as were most of the 33rd battalion. The city itself is in shambles, and the remainder of the water supply was destroyed by the CIA, which Walker unknowingly assisted in their plans after an infiltrating CIA operative named Riggs promised that the water would be used to maintain peace within Dubai. The situation is grim, and Walker is close enough to death to be uncaring about his own fate.
Much like Kurtz in the Heart of Darkness, what Walker goes through in his meeting with Konrad is more of a reflection of his own self, rather than what he once was. After finding the body of the deceased Colonel, slumped in a chair with a self-inflicted gun wound, Walker finally realizes the truth about the whole ordeal: Konrad was not behind the events in the game at all, and that Walker himself made these events up.
The reveal shatters the expectations of what Konrad really is, and in many respects shakes the core of the player, rather than Walker. Completely unhinged, Walker learns the truth that this manifestation of Konrad is his savage side. A boogeyman created to go forward instead of going home, a chance to be a hero where there is none. Konrad was a delusion Walker falls prey to, a reason to not cast the blame of his actions on himself. We see the hallucinations mount; the moments of insanity creep up on Walker as he slowly comes to terms with who the true murderer in Dubai really is. Himself.
What is profound is that Walker, despite his behavior, shows how morally bankrupt a human can be. His actions, despite intentions, are an evil act, one that rivals the savagery that Kurtz alludes to in the Belgian Congo. Walker is essentially Kurtz, unredeemable except upon his own death in many ways, but not fully at fault of his own emotional state because of the horrors he has witnessed. He justifies it constantly, taking the fight to a phantom in Konrad, but it is futile. In most respects, this makes Walker the villain of Spec Ops, with Konrad acting as the protagonist urging Walker to turn back before he continues, only winning in Walker’s death through suicide.
Perhaps the darkest, and arguably most appropriate ending for Walker, however, is the final showdown with U.S troops called in to pick him up, provided he didn’t commit suicide at the game’s climax. In the game’s Epilogue, players can choose to go peacefully with the soldiers or shoot them dead where they stand. If the player survives the shootout, the cold expression of Walker, his face scarred by the events that lead him down this path, takes the radio of a dead soldier and utters coldly “Welcome to Dubai.” It is the moment where the change is complete, where Walker “crosses the line” into what he always was in his heart of hearts, embracing what he has done throughout the story told.
It comes full circle for Martin Walker, becoming the monster he was chasing. That transformation, both subtly and overtly, penetrates his own inner being, eschewing morality and dignity for the crimes he committed. The game is not shy at showing how vile real warfare can be, especially in a world with numerous war shooters playing on the power fantasies of many around them. Walker embraced his power fantasy, justified his actions, and was broken by it fully. In truth, it shows how even the most righteous of heroes can be delusional, unapologetic and most tragically, dangerous in their own ways if they succumb to that darkness within.
Thank you for checking out this edition of Character Select. If you have any comments or suggestions for the series, please leave them below or contact me on twitter @LinksOcarina. See you next time.