Call of Duty 4: Considering the story<ADMINNICENAME>

Posted on November 16th, 2007 in Gaming, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, News, Opinion by

After completing the single-player mode in the recently-released Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Mark and Shawn were struck by a story that had significantly more meat on its bones than the run-of-the-mill shooter, including some interesting dramatic decisions that had them reconsidering the way in-game stories have - and perhaps should be - told.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The following discussion contains spoilers. Huge, Grand Canyon-sized ones. If you haven’t finished the single-player mode in the game, we heartily recommend that you do before reading this article - first, because it’s worth experiencing, and second, because the only way to truly discuss the ramifications of the story is to dive into the details. Again - reading the following will reveal major plot points that will likely ruin the impact of the story by learning them in advance. Please do not read further if you haven’t finished the game’s campaign… but do come back afterwards.

***

Shawn Drotar: I suppose that’s enough of a warning. At least I hope it is. Mark, you’re a working actor, and as such, are well-versed in the nuances of drama. What did you think about Call of Duty 4’s single-player storytelling?

Mark Fossen: Well, it’s no secret that the strength of Call Of Duty 4 lies in it’s multiplayer suite. The vast majority of gamers are looking at this title almost purely as an online experience, but there is a single-player campaign hidden in there. It’s not the longest experience - I think I beat it in in a couple of nights’ play - but it certainly packs a lot into the experience. There’s a variety of gameplay styles, some fascinating storytelling moments, and an odd relationship to reality that I can’t be the only one to notice. Am I alone thinking that at it’s heart this game is bolting an Axis ‘n’ Allies black-and-white worldview onto an infinitely grayer moral landscape?

Shawn Drotar: I suppose so, though after playing it through in it’s entirely, it reminds me a bit more of a 60’s Bond flick. It’s obvious that the Call of Duty team was trying for something with more resonance - and it certain points in the story, it succeeds - but in the end, it’s a bit too over-the-top. Yet, in comparison to many other entries in the genre, it’s noticeably better than most. It doesn’t feel tacked on, and Infinity Ward deserves credit for that.

Mark Fossen: So, let’s get down to brass tacks: one of the most shocking events in the game has to be the death of (the player’s character,) Sgt. Paul Jackson. In traditional Call Of Duty style, you are alternating between multiple characters (of multiple nationalities and service branches) but then are faced with the reality of a nuclear explosion. I was aghast to see a nuclear explosion as a plot device, having just spent the last two months working on a play about nuclear testing and a nightly reading of a long list of those killed by fallout from those Nevada tests. I have been living in the reality of what the bombs can do to people, and to see it served up as an action sequence was shocking. I was horrified to see the explosion, but more horrified by the idea that this was simply a video game and I would simply walk away from the fireworks show at the end of the level. I’m glad to see that I wasn’t, and that there was a price paid. I thought it was an effective piece of storytelling that went beyond shock value. However, the conflict between storytelling and gameplay hit a rough patch there: is it fair to gave a gamer play out a scenario where the only option is death, where the gamer is ultimately a passive spectator but still expected to provide input?

Shawn Drotar: Well, to be fair - the gamer doesn’t know that Sgt. Jackson is going to meet his doom until mere seconds before, so I think the storytelling works. And it only works because Call of Duty 4 - like the entire series - has always had the gamer in the role of multiple soldiers in order to tell the tale from different perspectives. The plot decision, and its execution, works. It’s a bold choice, handled with surprising delicacy, and it might be unprecedented in this kind of game. I was shocked and impacted for a moment by Jackson’s loss, and that’s something to behold in a first-person shooter, where death is omnipresent - and new life is usually just a reset button away.

Mark Fossen: I agree completely that the death of Sgt. Jackson is excellent storytelling. I just don’t know it’s good gaming to “trick” a player into playing what is essentially a non-interactive sequence. It is heavy-handed, and speaks to the issue that game design still takes many cues from other media.

Shawn Drotar: I liked it - perhaps just because it was so different than what we’ve seen before. In Halo, Master Chief would would walk out of the valley of the shadow of death and dust himself off, ready for battle anew. In this case, Jackson’s all too human, and I appreciated the fact that the story wasn’t afraid to force the gamer to embrace that.

Mark Fossen: I’m not saying I didn’t like it; I don’t know that I’ve decided. It just seems like a bit of dirty pool, a “cheat” of the sort that we’re going to have to leave behind before gaming can truly grow into it’s own art form.

Shawn Drotar: Well, at least we can agree that Jackson’s demise is a step in that direction, regardless of how it came off. The first ones are always bumpy.

That said, that “grey” quality that you mentioned doesn’t appear very often in the Middle Eastern scenes. There’s good guys - Marines, and bad guys - everyone else. If only the world was so black and white as it is in the game. Although, a game like Call of Duty 4 really isn’t the forum for political exposition, and while I found the characterizations somewhat lamentable, I did not find them inherently offensive. Just simplistic - and I only found that unusual due to the high quality and surprising depth of the single-player experience.

Mark Fossen: Which is exactly my point - Infinity Ward’s storytelling style was honed on games set during World War II, where good and bad are quite easily defined and objectives are quite clear. That’s much of the reason for the plethora of WWII shooters we’ve seen over these past few years: it’s one of the few historical settings where the moral landscape is uncomplicated. I just feel that taking that style and applying it to a modern setting leaves a lot to be desired. We know the complexities of the Middle East, and to see it reduced to “White Hats and Turbans” is simply something that kept nagging at the back of my skull throughout the game.

Shawn Drotar: I believe that’s probably why the real villain was a Russian warlord bent on propping up the stereotypical Al-Asad character. But that’s also where the game’s story becomes… Bondian. One-armed crazy bad guy bent on destroying the world? Sean Connery knocked out chumps like that by the dozen.

Mark Fossen: So let’s talk about the One-Armed Man, that Neo-Blofeld. And specifically about his demise.

So, in the final moments, it’s all gone FUBAR as your character (the brilliantly named “Soap” McTavish) clings to life as the rest of his squad is eliminated. Imran Zakhaev, our Bond Villain 2.0, strides across the scene with two anonymous guards. They’ve never been introduced or highlighted, they are certainly no Oddjob or Jaws. In a slow-mo sequence, your squad leader slides you a gun in a last-ditch effort to eliminate Zakhaev. You can’t stand, can barely move, but can get off what seems to be one last shot…

And I blew it. Or at least Call Of Duty 4 thought I did. I immediately pumped three shots into Zakhaev, and was instantly killed by his bodyguards even as I saw him crumple to the ground. Which - for me - was a fine ending, but not what was supposed to happen. Replaying a section of an first-person shooter is nothing new to me, but it’s pretty odd to die on dramaturgical grounds. I died not because I wasn’t coordinated enough to kill all three, but rather because I didn’t guess the ending Infinity Ward had in mind. To me, the guards were mere cannon fodder and couldn’t be part of the climactic sequence. It needed to be that one-on-one confrontation true to the genre. I also had this strange sense that after Sgt. Jackson’s death, all bets were off, and that perhaps I was expected to achieve my objective at all costs: up to and including my own life.

Shawn Drotar: I agree completely, and I did exactly the same thing. I figured, in-character, that if I have time for only one shot, I have to take out the nuke-happy villain, right? The run-of-the-mill henchmen are totally unimportant within the framework of the story. Of course, then I immediately restart at the same cut-scene, until I dispatch all three baddies in mere seconds. Then, the final cut-scene plays, after all the life and excitement were completely sucked out of the ending.

A better way to end it might have been to give the gamer, as MacTavish, one - and only one - crack at this scene. Either give the game the (forced) airlifted-stretcher ride ending if the gamer gets all three bad guys, or something else… a hero’s funeral next to Price and Griggs, or a news report denying all of it ever happened; a cover-up… something, if the gamer did what we did - sacrificed our in-game lives to save the world from a lunatic.

Mark Fossen: Exactly … especially because I humbly submit that our ending is the better one.

Shawn Drotar: That would have been something. The goal of getting a gamer to play a role, much like an actor, and think as the character is difficult enough to achieve, but it’s what most games strive for. In this case, Call of Duty 4 had it - they had it! - and they let it slip through their fingers.

The game’s ambitious, and the effort was certainly there… but it’s a shame that the game’s frenetic inertia was stopped cold in the end just to shoehorn gamers into one particular cut-scene ending.

Mark Fossen: All that ambition comes at a cost, of course: when you try something new, you might not succeed. And speaking of not succeeding … how about that credit sequence? I couldn’t tell which was more disturbing: rolling credits as the full might of U.S. military technology rains down on scattered ground troops and pickup trucks for no discernible reason… or the audio portion of the sequence which jokes about “combos” when a sufficiently large number of enemy combatants get wasted by Death From Above.

Shawn Drotar: Ah, yes - the credits. While the gunship scene was one of the most unsettling and riveting game levels I can recall, it’s wildly inappropriate for the credits, in my opinion. “Tacky” is being nice. And the less said about the ridiculously embarrassing rap song at the end, the better. Note to game designers: It’s only a good joke if it’s funny. Instead, this tone-deaf chest-thumper made “The Super Bowl Shuffle” sound positively demure. “This the third installment, Infinity Ward s**t, don’t soil your drawers cause it’s deep and it’s hard, b**ch”? Seriously?

Mark Fossen: I will say though, that getting a completely unexpected mission at the end of all the credits shenanigans washed the bad taste out of my mouth. It was a blast, and one of the better levels in the entire game.

Shawn Drotar: Backtracking a bit, how do you feel the narrative plays within the game? The game felt claustrophobic and overwhelming most of the time, as if there was so much going on around you that if you made it through, it was half-due to blind luck. That strikes me as unnervingly realistic, and I thought that the discomfort I was feeling was probably… well… healthy.

Mark Fossen: I’ve always liked the chaos in the series, the feeling that there is simply too much going on at any one time and you are often only one small part of it. But I did feel the game was often rewarding me - no - encouraging me to be a complete fool. There are certain sections of the game where the re-spawning masses streaming in made it impossible to play tactically and cautiously. I felt that I couldn’t really clear an area, so I would charge ahead hoping to see the next “Checkpoint Reached” message.

Again, much of that comes from the tightrope act Infinity Ward’s trying to pull off here. It has all the trappings of a Tom Clancy game, yet ends up playing considerably simpler: the bastard child of Halo and Ghost Recon. I think it generally pulls of that balance well, hitting a sweet spot of realism and playability, but there were a lot of times where I got confused as to what genre I was really playing: do I think or twitch?

Shawn Drotar: I think that’s fair. And I think that it works in general, with exception of a lack of a cover mechanic. It would drive me crazy to watch my buddies slide up to a dumpster or car and “stop and pop”, realizing that I just have to stand out there like an idiot and soak up damage. It’s the one gameplay mechanic that really didn’t work for me.

Mark Fossen: I completely agree about the cover mechanic, and it’s one of the main things that kept me feeling confused about the strange balance the game was taking. I wanted to take cover - everyone else was. And I felt that I should take cover … but I couldn’t.

I think it’s going to be a wildly successful franchise extension, and the multiplayer game may finally be the long-awaited challenger to Halo’s throne. It’s definitely going to be a top seller this holiday season, and it does what it does very well. I just wish that “what it does” didn’t leave me feeling so conflicted. I think your James Bond analogy is perfect, and it the series just committed to that fully without the nod to current events, I’d embrace it wholeheartedly.

Shawn Drotar: There’s an understandable temptation to tie what’s happening in the real world to a game, but I’m not sure the medium’s evolved to a level where that can be pulled off very well yet - especially in the case of an ongoing and very real war. It may be better to dance around it. I actually think that’s why Bond works. Topical stories would became dreary. Making a bit more cartoonish, and embracing that, works as entertainment. I guess that’s it - Call of Duty 4 might have been trying to make a statement, but it’s still really an entertainment product at heart. A Real-life war and a fun-to-play game aren’t exactly chocolate and peanut butter, so it ends up - to a certain extent - being neither.

Mark Fossen: I suppose. There’s an overwhelming sense that what’s happening in Iraq isn’t fun and games - no matter your feelings about the war itself, both sides of the aisle can agree that it’s serious business. So to use it as fodder for a game whose mechanics and story are both somewhat less-than-serious… well, that’s where that itch at the back of my brain begins. It either needs to treat the situation with the gravity it demands, or leave it be.

I may sound like I’m criticizing the game a lot, but it’s only because I feel the campaign is ambitious and interesting. Halo 3 didn’t make me think about things like the place of pure narrative effects in a game, or how an first-person shooter interacts with geopolitical realities.

Shawn Drotar: Seconded. Actually, I think the single-player campaign was a triumph in general - certainly among the most memorable I’ve ever played in that genre. We criticize because we care.

8 Responses to 'Call of Duty 4: Considering the story'

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  1. Chase said,

    on November 16th, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    So a few things to add:

    1. I don’t think the killing of Jackson holds that much value, because you don’t care for the character. How you interact with the character as he dies becomes irrelevant since it almost becomes a case of “what’s the big deal?” Much like in all of the COD games, you don’t really care for any of the characters so you more are in it for the actual gameplay experience then the story elements. COD is all about putting you on that fixed path with set pieces there there and there and giving you the opportunity to experience it.

    2. If you are going to talk about the death of a character in this game, I think the president of the middle eastern country is the better one to talk about. It’s a very good way to open up the game as you can look all around you at the chaos of people being shot, fighting back, and being overrun by the new leaders — ultimately ending with you as the president receiving a bullet to the dome. A well done intro and honestly I think it holds more value as a narrative device than the Johnson death. On that same note, the gunship sequence probably has the most impact on gamers. The cold calculated video game element to death which is essentially simulated here really is true to life if you’ve ever seen any real-life military videos of these things in action. Having just fought in the insanity below and now making jokes from a mile above really makes you feel very uneasy about how inhuman it all feels.

    3. If you do look closer, the middle eastern country being overtaken is Saudi Arabia, I guess Infinity Ward just wasn’t allowed to say it. So looking a bit below the surface it does try to do that part a little more seriously, and does maybe try to make the good/evil a little less defined considering the US relations with SA.

    4. I would agree that the pacing of this particular COD tram ride is one of the best single-player experiences I’ve had this year. The set pieces are all chock full of COD goodness, and besides some few things that still carry over from the past games such as highlighted automatic objectives (why can’t I blow up a turret with a grenade, why must I shove a C4 on the glowing spot?) and the very linear path, it handles the single player in a very nice way with big highs and lows. This time around there were some more stealth and low-key missions and I think that really shows IW now more than ever gets pacing is key, and it no longer has to be one sustained massive coronary.

    5. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect your other main character to be killed if you mess up shooting the main terrorist at the end. I don’t think gamers would accept that. So while it may be a bold choice, the mass market that this game appeals to would be angered I think — having to play a whole game over just to have the one guy live and not die this time around. Plus as I mentioned above about their linear attitude, it would be completely out of character for IW to do this since they have always been very specific about planning out the exact route which they feel will be the best way to tell the story.

    6. Sorry the grammar person in me has to say this. You spell gun “jun” when talking about the final gameplay sequence…Just saying.

  2. Chase said,

    on November 16th, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    Oh yea, one last thing:

    I think while at times I felt I should be in cover, COD is all about moving and acting quick so a cover system really wouldn’t fit. Especially since the idea of being able to shoot through objects is now present, it really is all about never stopping, and instead always moving in some fashion.

  3. David said,

    on November 16th, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Those are some good points, Chase. Although, I did get somewhat attached to the characters. In the final scene where Soap watches one fellow soldier go down in slow motion, I felt some definite emotion, and when the captain is being given CPR at the end, I felt compassion.

    Also, on seeing a “user” character being killed, towards the end when Soap is down and he is pretty much in the same state Jackson was before his death (minus the nuclear effects), I said to myself, “No, not him too.” that’s just me, but I did have a feeling of not exactly knowing what was about to happen. When the captain slid his gun, that’s when things came together. What a great ending!

  4. Shawn Drotar said,

    on November 16th, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    Thanks for the typo alert, Chase - it’s fixed.

  5. Chase said,

    on November 16th, 2007 at 9:17 pm

    Yea I would definitely say there was more a connection with Soap than with Jackson, but nonetheless still didn’t grip me like it did with you I suppose.

    And no problem Shawn, I could point out one or two others if you want. :)

  6. Sean said,

    on November 20th, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    I just finished the campaign this morning, and I’d agree with most everything that has been said. The death of Jackson was a terrific narrative choice simply because player characters NEVER truly die in FPS games; they just reset. I also appreciated having to crawl out myself before dying on the street- it won’t go over as well my second time through the campaign, but it was grim viewing this go around.

    I had the same response to the ending as well, as I put the full clip into the primary target my first try before going back and doing it the way IW wanted me to.

    Just an excellent, excellent single player campaign. Far better than Halo’s (although I don’t think the multiplayer is as good).

  7. Moostache said,

    on November 20th, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    I think that COD4 is as close as a game has come to playing “like a movie”. Ironic that as Hollywood continues to adapt games into film (like the impending “Hitman” movie and the recent Resident Evil movies) that the games industry continues to move towards games like COD4 and Drake’s Fortune…eventually a hybrid form of entertainment is going to be birthed here.

  8. Nicholas Hearst said,

    on November 22nd, 2007 at 10:29 am

    That was a brilliant review. While playing Call of Duty I certainly felt an attachment to the characters and the intense battles provided an extremely involving experience. The only time I felt either distant or even irritated by the game was when I thought about the political implications.
    I have a certain level of political awareness and morality so for me it was simply a matter of recognizing where topical matters ended and adrenaline fueled entertainment began. Unfortunately it has come to light that not every gamer has this ability and after talking to some friends who also played the game it became increasingly apparent that the game has to some extent furthered Cold War tensions against Russia and post 9/11 Middle-Eastern worries.
    The obvious argument is that COD4 is ultimately just entertainment however, the game does draw a fine line. Although some scenes, such as the final nuclear launch sequence can be comical, other levels come too close to current concerns to play without treading on the player’s political beliefs.
    One of my friends who played it with me has now joined the army and although being a lovely soul lacks any kind of topical awareness. This may seem like a dangerous paradox for a future soldier to find himself in but what was even more worrying was how much of the game did not phase him. After watching the amazing yet shocking nuclear bomb scene I just made a comment on the fact that there was no mention of any civilians that might have died in the explosion, whereas later on in the game the developers decided to simulate an attack on America going into detail of the civilian casualties. My friend came away with the impression that a) majority of the Middle East want to nuke America b) all of American military forces have the worlds interests at heart and c) that Russia is just out to destroy democracy and peace.
    Now whether or not you agree with these ideas is beside the point, the fact is that although it may be just entertainment it seems to have an effect on peoples view on the world. I would argue that thats mainly due to the amount of naive and impressionable people in the world but clearly there are too many. For when I went to read reviews on the game by customers who had bought it on various sites I was faced with arguments involving extreme nationalism, racism and violence. Don’t get me wrong I love the game, as a game. It is amazing in so many respects and yet I have a disturbing image of someone playing while nodding along and saying ‘You know this stuff is happening right now’
    As blockbuster entertainment, media such as games and films shrug any moral responsibility (just look at Rambo) but once a game or film becomes too serious to now bestow some kind of political or social opinion on the viewer it becomes impossible to not address the impact it has. This is the point that was made previously, once Call of Duty becomes too serious or too topical it becomes hard to ignore the implications, and balancing between two genres is not something that it does well. The message is confused by the end, I wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate to just switch off the console and walk away by the end of the game.

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