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If anything Black Ops excels at, it’s being one step ahead of Michael Bay. It pretty much is another Modern Warfare 2, except the very good design bits have been murdered in place of expanding different parts. Horrible parts. Imagine if Frankenstein was made out of sausages, it’d be hilarious, but he’d be bacon before he even set foot outside of the door. That is Black Ops, and I’ve already ranted on about how it murders interactive storytelling, now how about I rant on how it murders design storytelling. As in, through design techniques, how it makes the player feel so disconnected. Having the player character having a voice, with no choice over what to say, is step one. Having the main narrative told through non-interactive cut-scenes and quicktime events, is step two. So what is step three?
The nail in the coffin, the thing that really got under my skin more than anything else. Black Ops is the most linear told story within an interactive context I’ve probably ever seen. You literally have zero say on what happens. That’s not to say past Call of Duty games have argued for player identity and interactive storytelling; but they had progressive relationships which were in tune with the player character and the people around him. You felt in the groove, learning and waddling, the narrative in Call of Duty 4 is extremely exceptional and everything up to Modern Warfare 2 kept the whole ‘Freeman’ identity when it comes to the player. Voiceless, progressive relationships and a true empathy for the player creates a fundamental shift deeper into the immersion of the video-game. I’m not saying a voice for the player character is bad, just it appears badly designed when it’s not relevant to my interests or I have zero choice on what to say (which is why Mass Effect 2 and New Vegas are so boss).
This is where Black Ops fails, it has nil empathy for the player when it comes to the narrative. Let’s take, for example, a certain little hint that the game forces you to bear.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.
NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS ARE SPOILERS.
The game implies that you killed John F. Kennedy. It implies that you spent eight months in a Russian prison being programmed to respond to numbers. The game implies that you give a fuck about the people around you. We are not being asked what we like about these characters, we are being asked to like them. In fact, the interesting bit of Black Ops narrative which (in my opinion) would elevate it to the bravest game of all time, comes down to a simple cut-scene. Grow up. This is video-game land, not movie land. I know your main audience is people who like beer, sports and have never heard of the phrase ‘games are expressive’, but come on! Why not make me feel something other than glee at the sight of blowing a Vietnamese soldier into gibs?
There’s a gap in the player character’s narrative, which is ridiculous anyway because it jumps full years without taking progressive relationships into account. More so, during one of these jumps, it’s implied that you shot Kennedy during your time not… under… my control? Is that supposed to be symbolic or something? Meaningful? Showing how the player character lost control of his own actions? I didn’t even use the controller and now you’ve just said that I did a bad thing? Why not do something interesting, put me in 1963. Make a statement about my control over the player character, have it visually interesting and all that. Whatever button I press, Kennedy dies. Why not have something brave and powerful other than something cowardly that says “No, you can’t touch our narrative.”
It’s hard to identify with any character in the game, really. Gary Oldman’s character is alright, Ice Cube’s character is alright; they’re all just templates. The voice acting is all great and shiny, boasting a tremendous cast and all that. There’s just no substance, there’s nothing to tell me that I should be controlling this experience other than being able to shoot a guy. It takes away my control and puts me straight into a Michael Bay feature. The story itself is interesting, probably the best in the franchise, but it just has no point in existing in this sort of framework. Why couldn’t I have control over it? It would be so simple to do something so drastic with what they’ve already outlined in the narrative.
In many ways, the whole game is an overblown level of the infamous ‘No Russian’. Asking the player to take part in a monstrous, chaotic and emotionally engaging. It sort of was, until you realized it was just a big giant on the rails section. You couldn’t kill Makarov for story reasons, just automatically killing you. At the very least the game should’ve allowed me to kill Makarov to be shot down by his companions. All we got however is a bullshit “You lost your disguise, do not kill Makarov, you can’t touch our story, it’s too good.”
That’s what Black Ops is, it’s a shoddy excuse for a on the rails shooter with little player empathy and little care to the whole ‘interactive medium’ thing. Thankfully, nobody gives a flying duck about the campaign and so more than 60% of players will hop on to the multiplayer or zombie it up, without a care in the world for interactive storytelling. What a wonderful world we live in.
It’s odd that in Modern Warfare 2 we had the player character speaking, when you weren’t controlling him. It added a flavour to the narrative, that you were literally sharing the guy with the game’s story (thank you Anthony Burch/ Captain Beard). It didn’t feel forced, it felt smooth and realistic, all of my relationships progressed evenly and it all fit well into place. Black Ops has the player character always speaking, regardless of who you’re playing as. All of the stuff that ‘you’re’ saying has no relation to what I want to know or want to do. It’s funny how in YouTube commentaries of a game like Limbo, the commentator will refer to his actions as in a first person perspective. But in a game like Red Dead Redemption it’s like “John had to do this.” or “I shot those guys, now John has to talk to them.” Know what I mean?
In fact, that’s the topic of tomorrow’s first ‘game design corner’. The ‘First Person’ Shooter.