‘Call of Duty: Black Ops III’ Reflects the Desperate Side of Video Games
Treyarch's new shooter plays as if its makers have finally tired of their own status and grown angry at their industry and audience.
This article contains what you might consider spoilers for the single-player campaign of Black Ops III. Screenshots captured by the author.
Like L.A. Noire, like Dark Souls, like Silent Hill 2, Call of Duty: Black Ops III represents a small miracle in the gaming industry, whereby, despite presumably myriad pressures to be mainstream and financially safe, it still has personality and something to say. It managed to slip through the meat grinder. It's filled with guns, robots, suits of armour and a thousand other typical video game components, but verily, I've never played anything like it in my life.
I'd say I have two big problems with games at the moment. First, the mainstream is idiotic and unimaginative, and it's only maybe once a year you get a boxed game that's got any substance or worth. There are plenty of conversation pieces but as for big-budget titles that resonate beyond the tiny, blinkered world of video games, those are few and far between – there seems to exist a culture that prohibits Big Games from being too intelligent or too provocative.
Second, a lot of the acclaimed new wave games feel to me incredibly timid and minor. We talk about Journey, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Braid and titles like them as exemplifying how video games are becoming more astute and grown-up, how an ability and willingness to represent "issues" is overshadowing conventional desires for mechanics and fun. But these games dance around and approach in only the most superficial ways the topics they purport to confront. Beyond Eyes, Papo & Yo, Always Sometimes Monsters and dozens of other games in the beloved independent canon feel to me too affected and ethereal to be called cutting edge. I think games are largely insecure.
A lot of Black Ops III takes place inside characters' minds. There are these fantastic dream and nightmare sequences wherein the geography of the level warps, the enemies change from soldiers to monsters and the protagonists, instead of swapping information about the mission, start asking one another existential questions about whether they're really in control of their own actions. At the same time, it's produced by Treyarch and financed by Activision – it's a multi-million dollar game, made with the most powerful technology, designed to be loud, boisterous entertainment. It's never subtle. Even when you're trawling through someone's subconscious you do it with a gun and some power-ups. And that's what I like. I like Black Ops III's confidence, I like its brashness, I like its disregard for propriety.
There are plenty of pretenders but rarely do you find a games-maker that has managed to compellingly represent philosophy in its work. Black Ops III, also, is hardly edifying, or itself edified, but at least it isn't dry, or timid, or patronising. In a way that feels wholly appropriate for a franchise worth billions of dollars, Black Ops III is at ease with itself. While in the past Call of Duty's self-assuredness has made for tone-deaf, sophomoric, non-entertainment, this time around Treyarch uses its power and style to attempt to do something good, and in a way no other studio would dare.
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I don't understand how anyone could play Black Ops III's campaign and not be moved by it in some way. At the very least, it's a great illustration of video game industry excess, not just in the sense that it's loud and expensive, but because it's bizarre, febrile and unrestrained. Video games are this strange cultural grotesque, massively popular and disgustingly rich, while at the same time resistant to heterogeneity, immune to good taste and oblivious to their own obnoxiousness. Similarly, Black Ops III is a phantasmagoria of colours, numbers and people yelling – it does for video games what Full Metal Jacket's "Surfin' Bird" sequence does for the Vietnam War. It's an evocation, a mood piece. And the creators know it, they must.
I wouldn't say Black Ops III is self-effacing, since it never compromises or apologises for what it is, but the makers are definitely conscious of their own hyperbole. Whether to make a statement or just through hubris, this is what video games look like naked. If you respond to Black Ops III's campaign by calling it dull or half-hearted, I think you've been deadened.
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And the more I think about it, the more confident I am that Black Ops III's excess is deliberate, for reasons beyond showing off and meeting customer expectations. This is the first Call of Duty campaign where you design and create your protagonist (well, to some extent). At the beginning, he's implanted with a computer chip that lets him interface with his teammates and receive live information from the battlefield. Eventually, though, this chip is corrupted – a rogue AI takes it over, and begins to wipe out the protagonist's identity and replace it with its own. At the end of the game, your protagonist is reciting the AI's words, screaming them through gritted teeth as he tries to fight it off.
Your squad-mates are infected also. One of them, Taylor, asks: "Have you ever done or said something and not known why? What if it wasn't you? What if it was someone else?" He also remarks that the AI "isn't even that clever", explaining: "It doesn't know what it wants, it just grows and grows." Video game consumers want content. They want agency. They want what they want. And that's how Call of Duty has grown fat – especially when you think about the multiplayer, it's less a video game in the expressive sense and more of a service, optimised and re-calibrated year-on-year in response to popular demand. But in Black Ops III you have characters that are fighting (and mostly losing) against poisonous outside influence. They're struggling with identity. The hive mind created by their computer chips, and the AI that starts to corrupt it, pull them in different directions, changing their thoughts until they end up losing themselves entirely.
It's a sly response to Call of Duty's highly corporate identity. Given player demands and the risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars, the series is unable to move. It has to be this. It has to be that. It's a franchise so weighed down by expected and supposition, so symbiotically bound to customers and stakeholders, that like the characters in Black Ops III it struggles to retain an identity, or at least an identity that hasn't been given to it. So now you can make your own character, and he or she is mentally tied to a dozen other people, and they lose their mind to a malevolent but largely unthinking computer virus. And it's as if the makers of Black Ops III have finally tired of their own status and grown angry with the industry in which they work and the audience that they have.
How can you possibly be yourself, or do anything that you really want to do, when you're working on a game that belongs to so many people? How can you tell a story, or retain any sense of control over your work, when you're constantly battling this rogue consciousness that wants to just run around with a gun and not pay attention? Like the makers of Call of Duty – like the makers of a lot of video games, yanked in myriad directions by expectation, money and the capriciousness of players – the characters in Black Ops III are amalgamations of ideas and intelligences, losing their minds over conflicting thoughts and contradictory voices. When they scream at the AI – "Who are you? What do you want?" – they are in fact screaming at us.
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