Story vs. Gameplay in Videogames: Good Gameplay, Bad Story, Part 2

Well, here is the second part, the opposite side of the same coin. Let us get down and dirty with how a negative story can ruin a game with solid gameplay.

CALL OF DUTY: TRUTH, JUSTICE, AND THE AMERICAN WAY

Image result for American Flag

I have seen Team America: World Police, being a huge Trey Parker and Matt Stone fan. For those that do not know, the movie focuses on a group of paramilitary policemen and women who fight to both save the world and the American way of life. But what I find to be startling is that both the movie and the more recent Call of Duty videogames is that it focuses on patriotic Americans protecting a blindly unaware public from violent villains and dictators. However, where the movie and video games meet is also where they diverge. The movie’s main point was to poke fun and satirize the three categories of people previously mentioned, showing how each group can be ridiculously over-the-top and brick headed in a post-9/11 environment. It is funny, irreverent, and gross, but you cannot expect anything less from the people that invite us to come on down to South Park.

The same cannot be said for the Call of Duty series. Similar to the World War II series, the modern warfare games forgo humor and parody to make room for gritty war stories. But the problem with the post-World War II games is that their stories are so laughably bad, that what SHOULD be taken as a serious and terrifying series of events can be unintentionally interpreted as parody. And this is despite the fact that gameplay remains relatively unchanged. You still have guns, you still shoot, and you still play from a first-person perspective to make the experience all the more “real”. Then why isn’t it real, instead becoming silly?

I think this is due, in no small part, to the fact that the stories for these games have not happened. They are as fictional as a Tom Clancy novel. One would think that, since the games are focused in the present day, they would focus more on Afghanistan and Iraq. However, that is incorrect. Here is a list of the titles and the enemy in each one:

  1. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) – Russia
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II (2009)– Russia
  3. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III (2011)– Russia
  4. Call of Duty: Black Ops II (2012) – Nicaraguan man/China
  5. Call of Duty: Ghosts (2013)– South America
  6. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (2014) – World and a Private Military Company (PMC)

 

I understand why Russia would be an enemy in the games; they are a classic American enemy stemming from the Cold War and the actions of a certain Russian politician does not seem to make the country look like a great American ally. However, the games do not go into characterizations for the villains. Instead the game presents what should be a morally grey world as black and white; America is the hero and Russia is a black-hearted villain. Everyone should remember the controversy that surrounded Modern Warfare II when it was revealed the player would play a deep undercover operative in a Russian terrorist cell that takes part in an airport terminal massacre of unarmed civilians (I am NOT providing a photo for that!). And it does not stop there since most Russians are just over-the-top evil who want global domination for the glory of the mother country. They are acting similarly to the Nazis, but there is no historical context behind it, making the story seem exploitative instead of engaging.

With Black Ops II, the enemy is also possible, since China and America are economic rivals and the game centers on a possible second Cold War involving the countries. However, the game focuses on a man attempting to bring the two countries to the brink of World War III by commandeering the United States’ automated armies to launch terrorist attacks on both countries. This is because he wants revenge on the United States for killing his family.

But the realism is entire chucked out the window when Call of Duty: Ghosts has a plot where all of South America united to attack the United States by hijacking the United States’ orbital weapons satellite and firing several cities in the Southwest United States. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare then has the audacity to show war happening on every continent and America, namely a Privatized Military Company (PMC), invading to quash the war. Afterwards the PMC takes over the world and it is up to the world to unite and defeat the PMC and its boss, played by Kevin Spacey. Did I mention that the PMC has upgraded its soldiers with cybernetic appendages, literally making them akin to walking tanks?

It is now time for me to make a confession. For a long time I have told friends and family the main reason I do not like these games is because I do not like mass destruction and mass civilian casualties combined with the fact that I believed some of the scenarios could happen. While this is true (though hijacking a space satellite weapon and shooting in space is unquestionably unrealistic), my main problem mainly has to do with the underlying messages the games have taken on. In fact, there are two points of contention about the stories of these games that, in my opinion, make these games an opinion on how a bad story, even with solid gameplay, can sink a game. They are:

  1. Racism and sexism – Most, if not all of the characters that are the heroes are white. All of the people who have been main villains have been from other countries. If there are racially different characters as allies, they are most likely killed to demonstrate to the audience how powerful the threat is. The same goes for women. All of the player characters are male and even when there are female allies the women need to be saved by the player, not the other way around. This is despite the fact they are shown to be even MORE capable at fighting than the player character. While the real military still needs to work on inclusive recruiting, the games seem to enforce the traditional belief on who definitively belongs in the military.
  2. Nationalism and Xenophobia– Let me be perfectly clear, I love my country. At the same time, I do not love all that my country has done. I have the right to speak out what I believe is wrong and what I think is right. Just because I might criticize it does not make me less of an American. That being said, I find the modern warfare Call of Duty games to be extremely nationalistic and xenophobic. The fact is this; in these games you are always playing an American soldier fighting another country who is ALWAYS the villain. Even when American does something terrible, such as inadvertently kill a family, it is NOTHING compared to the surviving member trying to start World War III. Even in Advance Warfare, where the PMC is an American company, the country immediately cuts ties from it and becomes the hero, receiving no repercussions for allowing it to basically CONTROL THE WORLD! It almost feels that in this post-9/11 environment everyone but us is the bad guy; we can do no wrong. Those that do not have Bald Eagle DNA are automatically inferior to us and evil. This point, in particular, drives me up the wall. This is just simply not true. I know people that tell me to not take it seriously since “it is just a game,” but I refuse to, since this is coming from people who do not watch Disney movies because of some of the same undertones! Why?

I truly think that it is because it all comes down to gameplay. Guns continue to blaze in a frantic combat zone. The players know these are not real people dying and there is no consequence in killing the umpteenth Russian or South American soldier. They feel they are a soldier fighting for freedom and democracy. They do not care about the story, just as long as they can shoot and win the war.

CONCLUSIONS

As someone who likes context and story, the modern war games in the Call of Duty upset me. They trade what could have been intense stories that question our society in for stories that reinforce stereotypes. While the World War II games did not have extraordinary stories, at least they were engaging by providing historical and character context. And while they also demonstrated American soldiers in action, the older games took time out to show the allies as well, showing how three nations were united in one goal to defeat evil. THAT is more literate and engaging than what the modern shooters have provided. As I have said, the gameplay remains the same, line up the shot and pull the trigger in fast-paced warfare. It is only when the story becomes dreck that the games falter under its weight. But what do I know? The Call of Duty series remains a bestseller, with a new game coming out every year. I just hope that the next game may have a substantial story that overcomes the stereotypes the plague the newer titles, balancing a strong story with the gameplay. Until then, I can only hope, watch, and wait.

 

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