Narrative serving violence

The experience of being the protagonist of a story, rather than simply the player of a game, became a characteristic form of engagement with videogames with the arrival of the first-person shooter, I guess. I recall reading a prediction by Gary Gygax, the co-author of Dungeons & Dragons, sometime around the mid-eighties, that role-playing games would be something we would play on computers, from a first-person perspective. The details of his speculation stayed with me, and I recognised them quite vividly the first time I played Wolfenstein 3D. Here I was, looking out through the eyes of the protagonist of a story that was not in fact that much more simplistic than many action movies.

Later games in the genre integrated extensive cinematic cut-scenes into the gameplay experience, and it was games like these, rather than those that called themselves role-playing games, that first gave me a sense of real immersion. as though I were in the story. As the technology has moved on, other genres of games have produced a similar effect, particularly 3D role-playing games and third-person action adventures. And somewhere along the line, the pleasure I take in playing videogames became more about immersion in a virtual world, or becoming the protagonist of a story, than about meeting a challenge or solving a problem. I was always going to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, because I so enjoyed the single player campaign in the game of which it is a remake, but when I began it, even on the wimpish difficulty level that I always choose these days, I discovered I barely have the patience for a first-person shooter.

I got through it, of course. The main selling-point of a game like this is not the single-player experience, but the opportunity to shoot at other players, so the story is short, and the easiest difficulty level really is pretty basic. But every time I got to a bit where I really needed to learn the correct gameplay to get through it, I found the process incredibly tedious. This is not a criticism of the game, just an observation of my changing inclinations; repeating content over and over until you get it nailed is the default loop of interactive entertainment, but I’ve now played enough games where the story alone keeps me interested that I can no longer see the point.

The story of this game is well-made. The production team are experts in what is now a very well-established industrial creative process, and the needs of an action game narrative are expertly addressed. There is much less modulation of intensity than is found in an action-adventure or a role-playing game: this is a shooting game, and the narrative is the story of a number of firefights. You’re not going to spend time kicking back in your base or chatting to your comrades. That being said, there are strong, vividly drawn, and clearly differentiated characters, and it’s easy to keep a sense of why you are shooting whoever you are shooting. The combat is, of course, brilliantly realised: it feels tactical, it feels dangerous, and it requires you to develop situational awareness, not just the twitch skills to point your gun in the right direction. It’s a challenge, with strong logic, and it feels fair to the player. It feels ‘realistic’, I suppose, although I clearly have nothing to compare it to!

The agenda in the writing was to deal more bravely with the moral ambiguities of violence, in contrast to the easy black-and-white scenario depicted in the original Modern Warfare. This didn’t really work out. There are ‘good’ Islamic freedom fighters, clearly inspired in part by the Kurds in Rojava, and there are ‘bad’ ones. There are ‘bad’ Russians, and one ‘good’ one. There are ‘bad’ strategic priorities, and ‘good’ brave soldiers on the ground. The entire scenario lacks credibility, especially in terms of the moral agency available to junior commanders in covert operations, and is constructed largely from clichés. There are earnest attempts to present the player with high-stakes moral dilemmas, but they feel frankly exploitative, rather than thoughtful. And quite honestly, what else can they be, in a narrative whose entire purpose is to provide pretexts for violence? In The Last of Us, which I finished about two days before finishing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the violence is grim and it is plentiful, but it clearly exists to serve the narrative: here it is the other way round.

I’m rubbish at videogames. So I won’t be bothering with the multiplayer elements of this game, not even the co-op missions which continue the single-player narrative: I’d only annoy my fellow players. As such, I didn’t get a great deal for my money: a short, amazingly well-rendered and tightly structured single-player campaign, and a story that I found unsatisfactory on several levels. Basically, I’m no longer the target audience for FPS games, irrespective of the great affection with which I remember series such as Wolfenstein, Doom, Marathon, and the original Halo, this will probably be the last one I play.

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