Narrative Devices in Black Ops

I recently bought Call of Duty: Black Ops in a fit of financial centrifuge. It was something like $20 in the Humble Bundle store – not really very humble these days, and when you think about it, it’s technically not a bundle either. Anyway – so yes, I played the campaign, and it’s not the most wonderful thing in the world. There’s lots of awkward clunky quicktime moments, lots of bits where you’re not sure whether or not you should be shooting things or trying to control your character or what – it’s a bit of a hot mess. That said, there are some cool narrative things in there that’re worth picking up on – even just as a sort of barometer of the rest of the industry.

So there’s one mission where you’re in a plane flying overhead. It’s sort of like ‘Death From Above’ in COD 4 – you know, the really fun mission where you shell people and they can’t do anything about it. It’s sort of like that, except you can’t shoot anybody (which really takes all the fun out of it). Anyway, on its own it would be par for the course – the interesting thing about it is that you jump back and forth between the soldiers on the ground and the guy in the plane. Practically it doesn’t really work – it’s clunky and poorly executed – but it’s a neat idea. It’s switching perspectives in a mission – the best of both worlds, if you like. There’s potential to explore the relationship between the two roles – it doesn’t just go for soldiers and plane-guy, mind. It could function for any two roles. There’s a few hybrid games that’ve tried switching between RTS and FPS – I’m thinking Nuclear Dawn, but there are others too.

BlOps also has the stock-standard psychological trick of ‘you’re hallucinating and you don’t know it’. It’s not particularly exciting or original, but again, if nothing else, there’s a complexity to the narrative devices in this game which would’ve been unthinkable ten or twenty years ago. I’m not claiming it’s using any of these tricks well – it’s just cool that it’s using them. So yes, you follow somebody through the game, and then it turns out you were hallucinating him all along. Tricky tricky. We’ve seen hallucination before in games like Spec Ops: The Line and Silent Hill 2, and arguably the ‘it was you all along’ trope ushers in things like BioShock and Knights of the Old Republic too.

There was also a moment in one of the late missions (arguably the climactic one) where you play through a level, and then play through it again from somebody else’s perspective. That was cool. It wasn’t necessarily very well executed, because excepting perhaps the final two minutes where the paths cross, it’s basically irrelevant, but again, it’s cool to see this idea being picked up on. It’s a barometer of the sort of narrative ideas being thrown around at the highest levels of the industry. As an idea, it’s similar to the parallel narratives in the plane (above). The difference is that the two stories here can be unrelated. There’s a pair of graphic novels by Gene Luan Yang, author of American Born Chinese. They’re called Boxers and Saints, and they’re about the Boxer Rebellion – basically two kids who were born in the same village, but one (the saint) converts to Catholicism, and the other becomes a leader in the Boxer Rebellion. Their stories weave through each other and tie together near the end. In some ways, it’s a story about community – how two kids from the same village can grow up together and yet become completely different people. BlOps doesn’t have that kind of depth. The general idea is that you play through from Mason’s perspective, so you can hang out with your hallucination, and then you play through from another dude’s perspective, so you can realise Mason’s hallucinating. That’s about the extent of it.

The other thing is that basically everything you’re playing through is a memory (bar the final mission). It’s similar to games like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) in that regard. It allows for a certain level of narrative disjunction: you don’t have to move through one linear story. You can jump around, here and there, and it’s fine. You can have a mission set in Vietnam, and then jump off to Russia somewhere, and then shift back to ‘slightly later’ in Vietnam again. It’s sort of undercut by the fact that you play as several different characters (are you really still ‘remembering’ in these moments?), but it is a complex narrative structure. For all the advantages of Sands of Time, it was still fundamentally a linear game that followed a linear plot. BlOps is more choppy.

So if we assemble all of this, we’ve got time jumps, perspective jumps within one time period (both replaying a period as well as alternating simultaneous perspectives), and the ol’ unreliable narrator. That’s an impressive bag of tricks. The downside is that there’s very little thought given to the thematic function of these gimmicks. Let me give you an example: there’s a book called Dictionary of the Khazars. It’s basically an encyclopedia of these people called the Khazars – historical people, but not represented historically. The encyclopedia is split into three. It records the Khazar history from three different perspectives: that of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Each religion claims that the Khazars converted to them, and there’s various other tensions and echoes and cross-references throughout. It’s a big meditation on truth and perspective and the historical situation of different individuals – so there’s the simultaneous multiple perspectives on one event, but it’s got a purpose. It’s not just there as a gimmick, it’s got a genuine job. That’s the sort of depth that Black Ops ultimately lacks. That said, I think it should be recognised that it’s even bothered to bring these elements to the table. It might not have used them particularly well, but I imagine that’ll come with time.

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