The importance of story over gameplay
This past weekend I finally managed to finish the single-player campaign for the latest COD reboot, Modern Warfare (after I was finally able to download the necessary data packs that I had already downloaded when I originally installed the disc, nice one Activision). As the credits rolled, I had plenty of time to reflect on what I had spent six hours of my life on.
Call of Duty’s campaigns have gotten pretty formulaic over the years and for all of developer Infinity Ward’s claims they were aiming to create a modern retelling of the landscape of war, it really does feel like just another Call of Duty. The main villains of this game are evil Russians and Middle Eastern terrorists. The heroes are Brits and Americans. They’re not so much leaning on series conventions as lying down next to them, blowing raspberries.
The plot puts you into the shoes of two different playable characters throughout the campaign, SAS sergeant Kyle Garrick (Gaz from the original Modern Warfare) and CIA agent Alex. They’re accompanied by Captain John Price and rebel leader Farah Karim who are there to lead the player along by their nose through the typical linear missions, which is good because half the time I had no idea where to go and having them there was the only way I was able to progress. Leaving the gameplay side of the game for a bit longer, let’s talk about the characters and the campaign’s plot itself.
The playable characters you pilot while you play are so one dimensional that they still have packing peanuts stuck in their hair from the cardboard cutout factory. Kyle has a few less peanuts in his hair, only because we start as him when most of the audience is still paying attention to the story before the mindless set pieces dull their senses until the story’s little more than the static you get when your tv aerial starts acting up.
And mindless really is the word for these “snorepieces”. The game hits the same reliable beats like a blindfolded drummer. Here’s the bit where you snipe, here’s the bit walking through the forest picking off oblivious enemies, here’s the bit where you bomb enemies on your itty bity god vision. It really represents nothing more than the holding pattern that the series has been in for years now. The moment-to-moment gameplay may have been retooled to feel weightier and more grounded, a move I actually like, but when the core gameplay loop is essentially shooting the nasty man and the nasty man falls down, it’s like polishing washers before you cover them in grease.
The plot kicks off- well, lurches to a start- with our white bread CIA operative Alex infiltrating a base to steal shipments of dangerous chemical gas before they are shipped to today’s thinly veiled representation of the Middle East, Urzikstan. However, before they can complete their objective, terrorists appear, gun down Alex’s team and steal the gas right out from under his nose. With no further provocation, possibly because the enemies called ‘no backsies’, Alex heads straight into Urzikstan and joins up with the local resistance, lead by Farah Karim. Captain Price is sent in to recover the gas and deescalate the situation with Russia because, yeah Russian forces are also in Urzikstan. Price finds Farah and Alex quickly enough and they all agree to recover the gas, get the Russians out of Urzikstan and end all terrorism in the world. I’m getting bored of reading the Wikipedia article but this isn’t Finnegans Wake here. The team saves the world, Alex sacrifices himself for some cliché reason that the game or characters barely dwell on.
The game doesn’t provide you with choices, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Well, I tell a lie, there is a choice. You can choose to keep playing the game or close the game and go do something more fulfilling like organising your sock drawer.
The gameplay itself might keep you going through the game just to see what military hardware the game will let you use but gameplay isn’t what comes back to you in quiet moments.
The developers behind one of my favourite games Spec Ops: The Line, Yaeger, understood this. The gameplay is the standard third person cover shooter stop and pop gameplay loop, so far so generic but like I said, it isn’t the gameplay that Spec Ops is remembered for, it’s the story. Throughout the game, the player character, Captain Martin Walker has a clearly defined arc that develops as he and his team of Delta operators descend into the hellscape of a ruined Dubai.
As the story progresses, the mental states of the entire team begin to unravel as they are confronted by morally challenging situations, like one moment late in the game where you have to choose between scaring off civilians by firing into the air or gunning them down. That situation highlights the difference between the two games. Modern Warfare gives you the illusion of choice and gives you a game over if you choose the ‘wrong option’. Spec Ops gives you the choices, lets you pick whatever choice you decide and move on, letting you and the characters deal with the consequences of your actions. It doesn’t whack you across the knuckles for making a choice they didn’t like - it just lets the choices develop the characters and story organically and keep the player invested.
I think the fact I had to read the Wikipedia summary of Modern Warfare’s plot shows just how generic and disconnected the plot feels. 13 years ago, the original Modern Warfare killed off the player character with a massive nuclear blast in a highly effective moment that still sticks with me all these years later. It had the confidence in their story to pull this move while the reboot Modern Warfare doesn’t even want to consider doing anything like that because that would mean giving the characters some sense of growth.
Circling back to the point of this post, a good story makes you think and exposes you to differing worldviews that you may have never considered before. It covers themes and emotions and can help start discussions about important issues like mental health. Good gameplay keeps you engaged in the moment but ultimately empty without the vibrant engine that is the story. The gameplay for both games are generic and safe but Modern Warfare’s story has nothing behind it. No choices, no character arcs, no development of characters or discussion of anything other than whether it’s better to use the M4A1 or the MP5. Spec Ops’ story forces you to make decisions in the heat of the moment and makes you live with those decisions. It gives the characters clear arcs so we can sympathise with them until we are committing horrific acts, causing us to question whether the player character and by extension the player themselves are in control of our actions. It fosters discussions about the horrors of war that games like Modern Warfare always seem to dance around in favour of gunning down more angry foreigners.
That’s the beauty of a game with an actual story. It can take a game with basic gameplay and gives it a depth and moral complexity that can lead to wider discussions about many topics that need to be discussed. That’s why I love Spec Ops. That’s why I bang on about it every chance I get. And that’s why I will continue to bang on about it every chance I get.
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