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

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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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Story vs. Gameplay in Videogames: Good Gameplay, Bad Story, Part 1

Last time I talked about what happens when a game developer and/or publisher creates a game with a good story and gameplay that enhances the game experience only to decide in the sequel to alienate the two elements thus creating a disjointed game that elicits more laughs than a stoned crowd watching Reefer Madness on a continuous loop. Now we will turn to the opposite side of the same coin, when gameplay mechanics can range from strong to solid, but the story prevents the game from engrossing its audience’s captivity. The closing results in being akin to an unfunny comedy, boring, painful, and not worth the price of admission.

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Now, I know that there are many games that I could use for this category, the Mass Effect series, The Elder Scrolls series, among them. But in order to demonstratethis point, I will be examining Call of Duty World War II games and the Call of Duty modern warfare games. I personally feel that the Call of Duty series has suffered from its longevity in the game market, mainly because it is the epitome of what I am trying to prove. While the core gameplay mechanics of this first-person shooter series remains solid, over time the series has succumbed to mediocre storytelling that is not only unrealistic, but, on a personal level, both offensive and jingoistic. But I will demonstrate that point when we get to that bridge. So sit back, strap yourselves in, and remember, this is just an opinion.

THE FIRST-PERSON SHOOTER

Before I begin to delve into the topics, I would like to give a little history on the First-Person Shooter genre and my opinions of it.

The First-Person Shooter (FPS) is a genre of videogames where the player sees through the eyes of the player character (first-person prospective). While games may use the first-person prospective to emphasize personal exploration or to help immerse players into the world, the FPS focuses on (you guessed it) shooting. Typically, it is your job to shoot through hordes of enemies, find the boss, and shoot him down as well. After you do, you have officially won, quite possibly saving the world/universe in the process. It is truly a simple matter of aiming your cross-hairs and shooting.

While the genre was created in the 1970s/1980s, with the first Image result for wolfenstein 3ddocumented games being Maze War and Spasim, it was not until 1992 that the genre became a part of the collective consciousness.
Wolfenstein 3D by id Software was released to significant controversy since it focused on the player character killing Nazis during World War II, displaying a first-person perspective of the player character firing a gun and people dying, often with bloodshed. However, the following year saw the release of Doom by the same company. This release improved on Wolfenstein 3D in multiple ways, including enhanced graphic and textures, which included flickering lights, and height variations,which meant that the flat one-floor environments of the previous game were replaced with multi-level rooms and allowed the player to climb stairs and ladders. What also helped in the game’s popularity was yet another controversy involving the satanic imagery that was found in the game, since you were playing as a space marine who was fighting the forces of Hell on Mars in a bloodbath. I could only make that up in my wildest of fever dreams.

Since then, more notable titles have refined the FPS experience, including Half-Life, System Shock, and Call of Duty, all of which, including Wolfenstein 3D and Doom are considered classic games and have had sequels follow suit. These sequels often enhance the gameplay while still remaining true to the FPS perspective.

However, I must admit that I am not a huge fan of FPS titles. While there are some exceptions to the rule, some consider The Elder Scrolls to be FPS games but I consider them Role-Playing Games played from a first person perspective, in general I just feel a little blasé to the genre. This is mainly due to two factors:

  1. The fact that it is a FPS means that you are the player character. I often feel conflicted about this, especially when the game tells us that we are playing as a specific character with a set personality. I feel that if I am supposed to be the soldier, it should reflect the personality that I have. I feel this way whether the player character is silent (a Gordon Freeman) OR talkative (a Duke Nukem).
  2. Stories tend to be bad. Though plots for video games have become more complex, with technological leaps comes story leaps apparently, it does not mean that stories for FPS games have become good. I have an unresearched feeling that FPS developers tend to focus on the gameplay first then build the story around it. For me, this is a HUGE disadvantage since this makes the final product seem rushed in the plot department.

Now I admit that this is my opinion and that not everyone has that opinion. Some may think that the same reasoning can be applied to third-person games. Others may feel the opposite of my opinions regarding PFS games specifically. But let us not linger on this and dive into the meat of this, shall we?

CALL OF DUTY: HONORING VETERANS

I will admit that I have always been a sucker for World War II history. It may be one of the ONLY times in history where the world was actually divided between good and evil with good triumphing in the end. It is a real example of the classic hero’s tale. This is why I enjoy videogames that are centered on World War II; for once I feel like I am a hero, especially since the events being portrayed could have happened on the battlefield.

And this is what the Call of Duty World War II games succeeded with, making sure that you were a part of this monumental occasion by pitting your character against the Nazis. What helped was the games context. The games were divided into three main chapters, each representing a different theater during the war: Europe, Africa, and Russia. Each theater opened with an introduction of the character you would be playing as, an American for the European Theater, an Englishman for the African Theater, and a Russian for the Russian Theater. The character would give their back-story, explaining why they were involved in the war, what their personal life was like before the war and what they hope to achieve after it is all over.

It is this little bit of context, combined with the historical significance, which helps create a sense of familiarity with the characters and an urgency to see that the player characters survive the war, i.e. you successfully complete the missions. You felt the importance you played in the war itself, whether you were bringing down German forces in Africa, Russia, or Europe. In essence, it was personal. It also helps that the game tries to accurately demonstrate the horrors of the war with many casualties in the trenches and battlefield and bullets whizzing by the player’s head as they charge from cover to cover. It is a World War II battleground, hectic, bloody, and sensually assaulting.

After some research, I discovered that the people you were Image result for Call of duty 1playing as were not real. The three games are a fictitious representation of major World War II battles, seen through the eyes of a person who never existed. It is akin to reading Gone With the Wind; the characters are fake, but the backdrop of the Civil War actually happened and the events that follow the character after the war are common occurrences to real life events. This being said, it could be concluded that the games, which cover battles like D-Day, Stalingrad, and the Battle of the Bulge, could be realistic representations of events, though fictionalized.

Despite my trepidation with FPS games, it is for this reason why I find the three World War II Call of Duty games to be interesting, playable, and fun. The games, while adhering to simplistic FPS gameplay, do draw the player in by engaging him or her with the story and characters. While they may be basic plots and simple characterizations, it is just enough to connect the player to the experience. For me, it is a game series where, like Silent Hill 2, the gameplay and story help enhance the game experience. However, the same cannot be said for the rest of the series, which opts for present day combat. That will be covered in the next post.

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