Near-future war stories in Black Ops II
I resisted playing the Call of Duty series for a long time. From the outside, they appeared to be militaristic, gung ho, might-makes-right parables about how awesome the US military is. Last year, with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare3 a few months from release, I decided it was time to grit my teeth and find out what so many people were excited about, so I fired up Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
I am primarily a single-player gamer so I leapt into the story-driven campaign, and I was instantly hooked. Far from the chants of "USA! USA!" that I was expecting, I instead experienced a remarkably touching and occasionally heartbreaking tale of personal sacrifice, loss, and the horrors of war. It wasn't a particularly original storyline, but it was well-written, and brought to life with superb voice acting.
While I was at the Gamescom expo in Cologne, I had the chance to speak with John Rafacz, Communications Director at Treyarch, the studio making Black Ops II. We had a long and fascinating talk about the game's single-player campaign and the interesting new features it will introduce to the franchise.
I started by asking Rafacz about the unique feel of Black Ops, and how it differs from the storytelling in the Modern Warfare titles made by Infinity Ward. "The Treyarch method of storytelling is to take a period of history and weave our fiction through it," he explained. "When you play that single-player game, there are points of historical reference for the player, and you think, oh, I thought I was going here, but that's not what really happened."
After the World War 2 setting of World at War, Black Ops allowed Treyarch to take on the largely unexplored territory of the 1960s, the peak of the Cold War. Now Black Ops II has brought them to the 1980s, and the twilight of the Cold War. "A third of Black Ops II takes place in the 1980s, so we're weaving our fiction through those events too," said Rafacz.
For the first time, this game will also be taking the Call of Duty franchise into the future, the not-too-distant world of 2025, where warfare is mostly waged by automated drones, computer hackers can be as devastating as front-line soldiers, and a new Cold War has arisen between the USA and China. "Again, we wanted to make sure the game is authentic as possible, so we've talked to futurists and asked them what the world will look like ten or fifteen years from now, and we're still weaving that storyline. It's just a different way of telling that story."
The story centres around a powerful cyber-terrorist who hacks into the US military computer network and hijacks their drones, using them to attack American cities. This science fiction storyline is not so far removed from modern day fact. There have already been several drone-hacking scares in the media, and Treyarch consulted military cyber-experts when writing the storyline. Rafacz nodded, adding, "It's really about writing a story about a plausible threat."
Events in the campaign will jump back and forth between the late 1980s and the near future, bringing back several characters from the original Black Ops, and telling the story of three generations of the same family, embroiled in chains of events that span decades.
With this complex storyline concerned with real-world problems, Treyarch needed a villain to match. Raul Menendez is a multi-layered bad guy, undeniably ruthless, but also believable and even a little sympathetic. Rafacz is clearly excited about this aspect of the story. "We've been working with David S. Goyer who wrote the Dark Knight series, and he's done a great job developing this character that you may sometimes empathise with, and you get to see the events that turn him into the person he's become." Thanks to Black Ops II's multiple timelines, the player will go back and forth in time, witnessing Menendez's formative years, and seeing what makes him tick. "We didn't want to say, he's bad, just believe us!" Rafacz added.
"There's been a lot of attention to detail in telling this story, how the players go on this journey to find out what's going to happen within a branching storyline. People are going to find that they have different outcomes, so this is your Call of Duty, the player's Call of Duty, your story. You determine how it all unfolds."
One key to this branching story is the inclusion of another first for the franchise: missions that can be failed without ending the game. Previously, failure has meant dying and reloading, but some missions in Black Ops II, called Strike Force missions, can have multiple outcomes, with failure having repercussions that may take decades to become apparent.
I asked Rafacz if it was risky to give players that choice, when we are so used to winning being the focus of every game. "Actually, I think it could make things more intense for the player," he said. "If players get some idea of what the consequences will be if they fail, it could make them really focus on their objectives and be more determined to succeed. I think it will also make them feel more ownership over the story."
All this talk of consequences reminded me of one of the ongoing themes of the Call of Duty series: war sucks. Sometimes it is unavoidable, but it is always a terrible thing and never something we should wish for. Obviously it's important to make a game that's fun to play, but I is it important to Treyarch to keep in mind that in war, people die, sometimes people you care about?
"There are lots of different ways to tell a story," Rafacz explained. "You can just tell the story as a narrative, but the levels you're talking about play more to the emotional side of things. Not only are we telling a story, but we want you to be emotionally involved. Sometimes we want to ask you to do things that will make you feel uncomfortable."
I admitted that in Modern Warfare 2's notorious No Russian level, I fired into the ceiling instead of shooting civilians, and Rafacz laughed. "Exactly!" he said. "That's that moral thing, where you think, wow, what do I do? I think Call of Duty players want to be entertained, and I think levels like that draw you into a storyline, make you feel emotionally connected with what you're doing."
He smiled and added, "By firing into the ceiling, you were making an emotional choice, asking yourself what you wanted to do. I think that's a very powerful thing. This is a medium where I can draw you in, put you in a situation, and then you can act in the way that makes you feel most comfortable. No other medium can do that."