Friday, November 8, 2013

Notes on Call of Duty: Ghosts

(With thanks to my girlfriend Helen Berents, who is all over South American politics and conflicts, for helping me think through some of these ideas, and giving me the words for them.)

(I don't play Call of Duty multiplayer and am only discussion the campaign here.)

1. People remain perplexed whenever I mention my interest in Call of Duty games. They don't understand what of value one could possibly get out of a franchise that pumps out a nearly identical game every year or so. To be sure, there are all kinds of valid reasons to dismiss the Call of Duty series out of hand: the hypermasculinity, the military-entertainment complex (as the credits rolled on Ghosts, Remington Arms Company Inc. were on the list of people Activision "would like to thank"), the fact that the only way to engage with the world and others in it is by shooting them. These are all, without a doubt, valid reasons to never touch a Call of Duty game.

But there are a whole lot of other reasons often cited that, to me, highlight these uncritically accepted values at the core of games culture: the idea that Call of Duty is bad because the player has no freedom and can only do what they're told (as though the only games that are valuable are those that offer unparalleled freedom), the idea that Call of Duty is not 'innovative' enough (as though games always have to do 'something new' to be worthy). This is going to sound super weird and I fully acknowledge the irony of this statement, but I feel the measuring stick people use to dismiss Call of Duty out of hand is the same measuring stick they regularly use to sideline games by marginalised creators as 'non-games' or some kind of 'low culture'. This is not to say that Call of Duty requires the game critic's energy to defend it as much as Dys4ia, but simply that there is totally some kind of high/low culture divide being implemented by those critics who turn their noses at such a popular franchise.

Even if I didn't enjoy the core feedback loop of Call of Duty (and I would be lying to myself and to you if I tried to pretend I didn't enjoy it), as a critic I don't want to ignore those games that a huge proportion of our culture engages with. I want to understand them. I want to understand how they work. I want to understand the cultural values that emerge from them. I want to understand what is happening here and why it is happening. Dismissing a game out of hand makes it much harder to be meaningfully critical of that game.

And, yeah, I enjoy the core feedback loop.

Anyway. That is why I played Call of Duty: Ghosts.

2. Ghosts narrative is fascinatingly nonsensical. It is nothing but the condensation of North American paranoia of South Americans crossing the border. 'The Federation' (which is just all of South America as one, homogenised nation) hates America and wants to destroy it. One of the first levels, you are literally patrolling a 10-story wall to make sure no South Americans have made it into the country. Of course, the most popular media of a culture is going to highlight just who the imagined, antagonist Other is in the contemporary cultural imagining. It was Russians and then Middle Easterns as America's power spread across the word. Now, as it recedes on itself, the most terrifying enemy is the one at the front door, sneaking in to take our jobs and destroy our way of life. That is Ghosts entire story: the South Americans want to destroy us.

3. Okay, that's not the entire story. There is also one American who wants to destroy us. One American who had his own Kurtz experience in "the heart of the Amazon" where "natives" have mastered the art of torture to break a man. The South Americans have the magic voodoo power to turn Us into Them. South America is the new Africa, where its own history of colonialisation is demolished as all South Americans are branded as 'natives'. These are the two narratives of Ghosts: South Americans want to destroy us, and this American dude with Marcus Fenix's manrag wants to destroy us so we should probably kill both of them.

4. Ghosts is the first Call of Duty I've played not contextualised in a fictional version of a real-world conflict (I never played Black Ops 2). the Modern Warfare games and Black Ops didn't need a whole heap of time spent contextualising the world or politics because you already knew them. In Ghosts, nothing makes sense. America is simultaneously a post-apocalyptic ruin and a burgeoning army. One mission simultaneously deploys "our last remaining carrier" and a space shuttle launch. 'The Federation' is a homogenous evil blob with no clear commander or dictator (the Evil American's connection to this army is never fleshed out). There is no discussion of life beyond either army. No one ever mentions what the rest of the world is doing while these two continents battle it out. This is a world reduced to a battlefield between two purified armies detached from any socio-political body or nation. There is only war. The world makes no sense, and you are never given a reason to care about it or its characters.

5. "It's Call of Duty, did you really expect a good story?" Yes, actually. The Modern Warfare trilogy and Black Ops did not tell good stories per se but they told stories well. For a series derided for churning out the same thing over and over, it experiments with storytelling in a whole heap of fascinating ways. Most significantly, through the constant swapping of perspective. Loading screens aside, you are never looking at the world of a Call of Duty game from a disembodied nowhere; you are always embodied in a particular subject's point of view. Call of Duty doesn't have cut scenes; it has a small level from another character's point of view. I think this is fascinating, the confidence to just take the player out of one character and insert them into another. You can trace this historically to the early games desire to show that World War II was won by "countless men, not a few heroes" I think it was the box said. The multiple POVs are meant to give the player a sense of this networked, intersubjective military. That is gross for a whole heap of reasons, but the purely formal mechanic of only using bodies to let the player see the world is a fascinating one I would like to see more of.

Tellingly, Ghosts rarely swaps your point of view (with the exception of the end of the game). For the vast majority of the game, you are one blank slate character following his brother (his literal bro) around the battle field. Where the Modern Warfares could show a large, complex, (absurd) network of war spreading across the world, Ghosts is restrained to a boring, head-to-head conflict of the Americas and is forced to ignore the rest of the world.

Also, for all that military shooters embody this jingoistic love of American militarism, it was always refreshing to spend so much of the Modern Warfares not as an American.

So, yes, I do expect to enjoy the story of a Call of Duty, but I didn't this time.

6. The story was claustrophobic. I felt restricted being trapped inside Logan's boring body for so much of the game, on the same goddamn continent the entire time. But even interpersonally, you spend the entire game alongside your brother and your father. The army-as-family is literalised. One mission gives you the objective "Get to dad". It's weird. It's really, really weird. I don't care about this blank slate white bro family. What the hell even is this?

7. The dog. The dog is the most boring, embarrassingly forced story component ever. Special effects always have a dual spectacle, as much in games as in film: there is the spectacle of the cool thing happening in the fictional world, and the spectacle of the technology that allows that cool thing to be produced as a real thing. Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix was cool because he was following bullets, and it was cool because a camera spun in a circle. Infinity Ward are so excited about this damn dog they spent a whole lot of money on. You spend the first few levels forced to look at this dog do its dog things. You are riding a tank and its head is popped out of the manhole in front of you to force you to pay attention to its 3D many-polygon model. If someone from Infinity Ward had telephoned me once per level to remind me how they animated this dog to put in this game, it couldn't have been much more pathetic.

8. There are a few levels in the middle of the game that stand out, that made me think, okay, this is why I bother playing Call of Duty games. These are the levels that aren't just this one, constant, boring gunfight, but a well and deliberately paced script of down-time followed by up-time followed by down-time. The levels that don't feel like filler.

The first one is in Caracas (of course the capital of Evil South America is the capital of Venezuela). The level progresses from abseiling down skyscrapers to parachuting while that skyscraper is falling on you. Every moment of the level feels considered and there for a reason, like Infinity Ward actually, deliberately built this level with a certain goal in mind—like they did with most of the Modern Warfare levels.

Another one is when you are attacking... I don't know... some lab in the snow. You steal uniforms and sneak into the lab quietly. You have a massive stand-your-ground gun fight. You escape on a lift and head out the same way you came in: blending in. You are forced to walk slow through the wreckage you caused as the injured you left behind are helped. It's this seamless escalation from just walking down corridors to explosive action and back to just walking down corridors and then, to end it, you drive a jeap across a frozen ocean, sinking other jeeps with a grenade launcher, and drive your jeep onto a submarine. It's a wonderfully paced stage that hits a high level that the game never again achieves.

9. You've probably seen the video of how the intro of Ghosts uses an identical animation sequence to the end of Modern Warfare 2. It's the most explicit example of it, but the same animations and moments are used throughout Ghosts. It's either intended as laziness, apathy, or deliberate intertextuality—it functions as all three. The entire game feels like a collage of moments from the previous games. Not just the same mechanics or the same features but literally the same moments. The moment your bro looked into the distance then helped you up. The moment your bro was fighting the bad dude while you were crawling towards a gun. The moment an explosion knocked you off your feet in slow motion.

Where these because interesting is where Ghosts is clearly, deliberately using these to subvert expectations. At one point, a tank bursts out of a carpark wall to save you, exactly as it does in Modern Warfare 3. Except, instead of saving you, it gets blown up as well and you have to run for your life. At another moment you are about to breach a door like you have done a million times when your bro tackles you to the ground a moment before a hail of bullets splinters the door. There are these little snippets where the copy-pasted moments feel cleverly used.

But even if it is just laziness, I still find that fascinating. Like peeling back layers of wallpaper from an old house. I kind of like that you can see the history of this series and these studios in the game.

10. Towards the end of the game is this absurd tank level. You are driving a tank at super high speed in a battalion of tanks in a bizarre sandbox-y level. It felt like I was playing Tokyo Wars. It was weird.

11. A reason most people can't tolerate Call of Duty is a reason I can't tolerate most AAA games: because it takes itself too seriously. When you spend millions of dollars on a game and you need to make millions in return, you have to be bombastic and absurd and ridiculous. When that bombastic, absurd ridiculousness gets painted up as GRIM and SERIOUS, there is this weird jarring that doesn't always work. I am increasingly convinced that AAA games can not, and perhaps even should not, be 'serious'. At least, they can't be serious for as long as their primary goal is to just be 'fun', and they're primary goal isn't going to stop being 'fun' for as long as they need to make millions of dollars.

But I think this is exactly the reason I am able to enjoy a Call of Duty, despite everything: because they are so absurd that I don't think anyone, not even Activision, really takes them serious. Medal of Honor takes itself serious, with all its bullshit 'Lest we forget' quotes around its 'real' battles told by 'real' soldiers in a self-gratifying fellatio. Call of Duty, though, with its commercials that quite explicitly note that it only sees itself as a 'fun game', and its partnership with Eminem has me convinced that it doesn't take itself seriously. Or, perhaps more justifiably, makes it impossible for me to take serious. I don't take Call of Duty serious. I take it as I would take a Michael Bay film. I think that is how I can tolerate all the shit of each Call of Duty to explore the things I find fascinating: by only ever taking it at face value, as nothing more than a ridiculous, military-themed story for a little while.

Of course, that is not a reason to excuse or justify the many issues I've stated with the game.

12. The loading screen animations are really great.

13. Although the world has finally reached a level of technological advancement that Infinity Ward is able to animate a 3D model of a woman, there are still next to no women in the campaign, with the exception of one significant companion for a single mission towards the start of the game. Unsurprising, but still disappointing. Notably, the game's marketing was no better.

14. People like to say that Call of Duty studios just tack on the campaign as an afterthought to the multiplayer that is their main consideration. Ghosts is the first time that I am anywhere near convinced of that argument. Infinity Ward doesn't care about this story or these characters.


pk said...

Nice post. I haven't played the game but I agree with your sentiments in regards to the series.

I like your point about the story seeming incoherent. Some ingredients in the COD formula, like multiple perspectives, tend to affect you in a way that the developers may not have intended. The problem is it's hard to think about these things without being crowded out by the typically generic and half-arsed features you noted.

Personally I think the storyline of Black Ops was the most interesting, and richly evoked Cold War paranoia. I don't see the series reaching that level again.

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of surprised you haven't played Black Ops 2 since it's actually a very good demonstration of how player choice can be integrated into a singleplayer campaign while still staying true to what the series is about, and has quite a few levels which try new things (like the more freeform horseback level in Afghanistan, or the RTS levels which Treyarch has been working on since the truncated RTS segment in the original Blops).

It also has different singleplayer mechanics (more health, better hipfire accuracy, etc) which result in a more mobile game, inventory choice and multiple endings, and it has an antagonist who's both sympathetic and interesting rather than just running with a secondary antagonist who's killed like two people ever.

Your point on player choice is a strawman, though; treating the player as a disobedient actor ignores that storytelling in games should be a cooperative venture, not just a one-way bludgeoning of player with script.

When people talk about innovation they're parroting what games journalists tell them they want; they really want to see imagination. Per games like Psychonauts which are highly derivative but praised for their "innovation," they want situations which are actually familiar packaged in ways that make them seem fresh (eg the keycards puzzle in The Milkman Conspiracy). One could say that an amateur tries to make all new things, but the master makes all things new.

Anonymous said...

You also have to remember that Call of Duty was created as a reaction to the Medal of Honor series (in which you're always the same American soldier, even in the Russian levels). If you actually examine what happens in the series, you'll find it generally makes the American characters the least important, the most prone to screwing up, and those whose screwups have the worst consequences. The near-deification of Price in the MW games (a character initially included purely as a joke) would be the most obvious sign of this, but even the series title shows a desire to remove focus from the extraordinary (the Medal of Honor being awarded for "valor above and beyond the call of duty," you see).

Even in Black Ops which is closer to the jingoistic shooter most people brainlessly imagine the series to represent, you spend most of the game being tortured by the CIA and then it's implied you go on to, um, shoot Kennedy. Hooray?

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Nox Noctis said...

I understand quite a few of your points, but if life were so generalized it too would seem boring.

I believe more in the story relationship between the characters. It may seem mindless, but then again It made me stop and think; Its the same thing everywhere. The need to survive, to fight oppression, the connections you have left in a world that makes no sense.

Taking that into real life, these wars we go fight in other countries, probably have dads, brothers, sons, fighting alongside eachtother against a foreign enemy.

My favorite bit, is Survival, the games theme song. Its known, survival of the fittest, do or die, adapt to your environment, not whine until the environment adapts to you. Most players have left (Gone extinct) because they couldnt adapt their dim minds and playstyles to one that actually made them think a little bit.

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