Ten years on, ‘Spec Ops: The Line’ is a terrifying premonition of the climate crisis

The sands of time

When Spec Ops: The Line launched in 2012, it was lauded for its unvarnished and unheroic portrayal of war. Whereas most military shooters at the time either handwaved or outright glorified issues like military interventionism and American exceptionalism, The Line was unafraid to portray its protagonist, Sergeant Martin Walker, as complicit in the horrors that unfold in sandstorm-wracked Dubai. Throughout his journey, Walker’s unyielding commitment to the mission leads him to commit ever more atrocious acts. Most infamously, he uses White Phosphorous mortars – a chemical weapon prohibited by the Geneva Convention – to target a unit of rogue American soldiers, accidentally killing dozens of civilians in the process.

A decade on, Spec Ops‘ critique of war and how video games represent it has lost little of its power, despite exhaustive discussion and analysis of the topic. Yet there’s another side to Spec Ops: The Line that has not only withstood the test of time, but has grown more urgent in the last decade. It is the entire reason the game’s story takes place, the elephant in Dubai. It is the storm itself, and what it represents.

Walker’s mission in Spec Ops: The Line is to determine the fate of the U.S. 33rd Infantry Battalion, which volunteered to provide relief to the citizens of Dubai following a sequence of massive dust storms, but themselves became trapped in the city by those same storms. Not only have the storms completely cut off Dubai from the rest of the world, they’ve also buried its glittering skyscrapers and curated oases in mountains of sand.

Spec Ops: The Line. Credit: Yager.
Spec Ops: The Line. Credit: Yager.

The storm acts both as a useful narrative device for Spec Ops, the plot of which borrows heavily from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, and also as a way to enhance the game’s setting. Dubai is already a city of extremes, a metropolis vast in both scale and wealth surrounded by an incredibly inhospitable landscape. Seeing towering avenues of skyscrapers turned into desert gorges by vast piles of sand makes it all the more visually striking, lending Spec Ops an otherworldly feel that complements the increasingly surreal nature of the story. But the vast storm that surrounds and entraps the inhabitants of Dubai, is not solely used for scene-setting. It also serves as an allegory for human-made climate change.

From the moment that Walker sets foot in Dubai, it’s clear that the storm is the biggest threat to everyone in the city. It’s the storm that isolates Dubai, which prevents radio signals from going out, and food and water from coming in. It’s the storm that slowly chokes Dubai’s remaining populace, burying both the city and its people under mountains of dust. Every problem that Konrad, the 33rd and Walker face is a consequence of the storm.

The sensible thing for Walker and the 33rd to do would be to work together to fathom a way out of Dubai. But this is never treated as a realistic solution, despite being the only way that everyone has a chance of getting out alive, to avoid falling victim to an unprecedented natural disaster. Instead, the remaining factions in the city squabble over what little control they can wrest from the chaos, unable to let go of their mutual suspicion of one another, and fighting to the death over the city’s dwindling supplies of food and water.

Spec Ops: The Line. Credit: Yager.
Spec Ops: The Line. Credit: Yager.

It isn’t like Walker and the 33rd are unaware of the danger the storm poses. The reality is impossible to avoid. The problem is that all parties have already decided the storm is an impossible problem to solve. The 33rd have consigned themselves to doom in Dubai, and as Walker’s humanity drains with every bullet he fires, his initial determination increasingly turns to resignation. There are only two occasions when Walker seriously grapples with the concept of the storm – when it puts him in immediate danger, or to use it as a weapon, shooting out windows and glass ceilings to bury enemies in sand.

In short, a combination of defeatism and a lack of broader perspective renders Dubai’s remaining inhabitants unable to effectively contend with the problem of the storm, and through a combination of apathy and infighting, they collectively seal their own fate. Out of everybody you cross paths with in Spec Ops: The Line, only Walker ultimately has a chance to escape the storm, and even then, he is so damaged by the events that took place in Dubai that for all intents and purposes he is still there.

Spec Ops‘ commentary on humanity’s own struggle to address the broader climate crisis is intended as a secondary theme to the more thorough exploration of war and gaming’s relationship with it. But the passage of time has made this secondary theme much more significant. Ten years ago, the idea of a Dubai buried by the desert seemed fantastical. Today, not so much.

Spec Ops: The Line. Credit: Yager.
Spec Ops: The Line. Credit: Yager.

Desertification is a growing problem in the UAE, as the country’s expanding infrastructure increases pressure on what little farmable land it has. Efforts to combat the phenomenon have been stymied by a similar short-sightedness as seen in Spec Ops, only the lack of perspective is economic in nature rather than military. In 2010, a scheme to plant one million trees was greenlit, but as of 2021, over 80 per cent of those trees have died, due to legal disputes stemming from conflicting development projects proposing to use the same land.

The problem of desertification also brings with it more immediately dangerous hazards. Climate change is directly linked to an intensification of dust storms in the Gulf, severely affecting infrastructure and general life quality. A 2022 report from Al Jazeera states that dust storms led to the suspension of operations in three major ports in Kuwait, hospitalised 1,200 people in Saudi Arabia with breathing problems, and temporarily wiped Dubai’s Burj Khalifa from the skyline.

Without fast and extensive global intervention, these storms will become both more frequent and more extreme as the planet heats up, meaning a Dubai buried by the desert is not as extreme a scenario as it may initially seem. It’s also worth noting that the problems caused by desertification and dust storms are not limited to the Middle East. Climate scientists predict that dust storms from the Sahara will increasingly cause problems in Europe and the Atlantic.

Spec Ops: The Line remains primarily an anti-war polemic. But the way the world has changed in the intervening decade has brought its themes exploring climate change into much sharper focus. Given another ten years, it may well become known primarily as a warning about our heating planet, especially if reality continues to infringe upon its fiction. In January 2021, the UAE’s neighbour Saudi Arabia announced plans for a new “smart city” with the unique attribute of being 110 miles long, but only 200 metres wide. The city, intended specifically as a solution to the climate crisis, is known simply as “The Line.”

Spec Ops: The Line is available on PC, PlayStation, and Xbox

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