Spec Ops: The Line - an Operant Condtioning Chamber
Spec Ops: The Line may be a game to break new ground in the use of Skinner box (operant conditioning chamber) techniques to manipulate users into believing, saying and doing things they otherwise would not. It is a remarkable execution. Numerous reviewers seem to have really fallen for it. A couple examples to drive it home:
The PA Report - by Ben Kuchera
The Telegraph - by Tim Martin
Kuchera's taken the bait. He doesn't grasp the blatant manipulation to get him to make that interpretation. Martin can see the walls of the box. When the execution is especially crude, as in the mortar bit, it becomes obvious enough that Martin calls it out but does not note its relationship to the game at large. Underneath the superficially 'adult' story is the reality that the game is lecturing to the player as an adult would to a child or as a pathological narcissist would to just about anyone. It's the sheer cynicism of that which provokes Space Ramblings' ire.
I think the reason critics fell for it was because they were perfectly set by the nature of their position as professional reviewers to be hooked by it. The game is (according to some, I've not played it) a poor execution on the mechanical level. The controls are poorly implemented and the game takes 'real is brown' to a ludicrous extreme. Watching footage of it on Youtube I see it's worse than the first Gears of War at its most inconveniently monochromatic. However, it's not outright bad enough to invoke Wolpaw's Law. So they finish it. As reviewers they're obliged - and they end up falling right into the trap. I don't wish to belabor the obvious but it's necessary to say it as I've seen it left unsaid where I've read on the game - there is no such thing as moral responsibility in the absence of agency. If one has no choice to do or not do a thing one is not responsible for what one does or what results from it. One would do just as well to start judging meteors or tectonic plates. By denying the player agency at key points in order to ensure that the player will do as they wish, the developers have robbed themselves of the possibility of moral critique. One cannot force someone to do a thing and then, at the same time, maintain the pretense of moral criticism by smugly lecturing them about the evil of the deeds forced upon them. It's a clever and morally dubious trick to pull on critics, who generally don't pay for the games they play. It's downright insulting to do it to someone who paid sixty hard-earned dollars for it.
If this represents the future of how games tell stories and relate to the player I'm deeply troubled. I won't play it. I won't play it and I won't give them my money. I don't have much of it to give and they seem dead set to do everything they can to not earn it. They've succeeded.