On January 30, X gaming account Wario64 spotted something strange: Yager’s seminal cult classic Spec Ops: The Line had been unceremoniously removed from online storefronts without warning. Developers who made the game were just as baffled as fans. “Makes no sense,” tweeted the game’s director, Cory Davis. “Especially because the themes portrayed in Spec Ops: The Line are more relevant now than ever.”
In 2012, Spec Ops was not at the forefront of the military shooter genre, where franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield were pumping out titles yearly. It had been a decade since the last Spec Ops game, and The Line was meant to reboot the series. Set in Dubai, it follows Captain Martin Walker and his squad through the decimated city; as its story ramps up, players are faced with increasingly horrific scenarios, like deploying white phosphorus, as Walker’s grasp on reality begins to deteriorate.
Its selling point, as argued by its creators, was that the game was doing something different than its peers—tackling a story that was more Heart of Darkness than military propaganda. The game’s launch was not a commercial success, but a critical one. “It was culturally significant, tectonic in terms of how we think about creativity and critical conversations about war games,” says Mitch Dyer, a former video game critic who reviewed The Line in 2012.
“For it to just disappear overnight—it’s a little bit traumatizing for people who it meant something to or had interesting things to say about it, because now it’s inaccessible,” says Dyer. Not that it’s impossible to play—those who purchased physical copies can still experience it—but future generations won’t be able to discover it anew. Looking back at the game now, 12 years later, Dyer describes its achievements as “kind of quaint” in hindsight. “It wasn’t just the story itself. It wasn’t just the script or the words, which were all fantastic. It was the execution and presentation,” he says. “It starts asking questions that you kind of become too numb to [or] bother to think about.”
Dyer, now a games writer himself, and some of the developers who made the game believe its fingerprints still exist in the industry today. It stayed in the cultural conversation for more than a decade. Now, it’s gone. The reason for its disappearance? A licensing issue. Publisher 2K confirmed that several of those partnerships, likely ones related to music in the game, have expired. The Line isn’t coming back—and there are worries its cultural impact may disappear too.
Preservation is the issue old games face today as the industry grapples with the dilemma of waning technology and a deepening backlog. Video games disappear for a variety of reasons: shuttered online services, old tech, new console generations, damaged physical media, storefront removals, and yes, expired licensing deals. Last year, the Video Game History Foundation and the Software Preservation Network released a staggering study which found that 87 percent of classic games have been lost over the years.