Mother of god.
I’ve been playing Black Ops for the past few days now and if one thing has become apparent, I haven’t been this disconnected with a narrative since possibly forever. It is told through non-interactive sequences of your own character moving about a room, quicktime events and general cut-scenes (some of which zoom out to third person and butcher immersion completely). Along with all of this, the player characters speaks (with Sam Worthington providing the vocals) and… boy… oh boy. To give an example, the very first lines of the game are “Fuck you!”, while my initial thinking about the situation is more calm and controlled. Over the course of the game this disconnected between the player character, me and the narrative becomes a bigger issue when I’m asked to care about characters that I’ve just been asked to construct an entire history around.
So, obviously Black Ops tells its story through age-old techniques and horrible horrible ways. The story itself is… incredible. As in, if this was an action film, it would be a Michael Bay feature with actual substance. I absolutely loved the plot twist and it’s really the only thing that kept me playing the game aside from the absolute relentless pacing that is of the Call of Duty flavour. Treyarch have outperformed last years Modern Warfare 2 with a bigger and brighter experience; but obviously sacrificing key essentials.
I won’t spoil it specifically, but just to give noise to lightning, let me say the level of how Black Ops goes about butchering the connection with the player when it comes to narrative. The plot twist involves the player character in some way, and his relationship with another character. It is very cleverly crafted, but it falls flat because Mason (whom you play) is absolutely the least relationship worthy character of them all. He doesn’t co-operate, he says thing, he yells out “Frag!” and sounds unconvincing. I do not want to play this guy. Video-games are about some form of empowerment, and the obvious signs of potential to be dis-empowered for effect, but I do not feel better playing Mason. In fact in some ways I feel worse.
You know what really, really gets under my skin? When all of this is hailed as the next big thing, Black Ops will already sell a billion copies, but for giant press networks to actually hail the story as anything note-worthy… and butcher the whole ‘interactive storytelling’ thing is a new low.
“The fuck you talking about Nathan?”
Call of Duty: Black Ops is a powerful story. The game’s missions explore a fascinating time in history, take us to places we’ve likely never been and put us in situations unusual and captivating, even for a video game. But what it does best, through both narrative and gameplay, is tell a story. As the game progressed I found myself anticipating the cut-scenes as much as I did the tightly crafted levels. Thinking back, I can easily forget whether the last absorbing moments of the game were played by me or for me. This is what video games should be, a confusion of interaction and story-telling, of graphics and camera movement, of play and parable.
Read that last one, highlighted in red.
Kotaku basically just set apart interaction and story-telling as two separate elements of a… video-game. To them there is no such thing as interactive storytelling, as it is to all of their readers now. Don’t go on about Kotaku not representing a portion of the press, that red quote up there pretty much summaries every single review I have read of Black Ops.
This clearly send a message to developers that gameplay detached from narrative is entirely fine, and you can put your narrative in everything else and it’ll all be alright.
The only thing I’ll say about the storyline is that it’s the best of the series.
No-one likes story-driven games, or story-driven interactive experiences. In fact, from the reviews Black Ops has been getting, it pretty much confirms all my worse fears. That we’ve come to expect player characters to have voices (which is fine, if they’re speaking on the players behalf) that sound and act worse than the player would. That we’ve come to expect a narrative which expects the player to care about people they’ve never met. That we’ve come to expect a medium with such potential in the field of interactive storytelling, in which we barely lift a finger to make a choice.
Thank you, Treyarch.
(Game critique corner on Black Ops player character at the weekend)