Call of Duty: Black Ops – The Most Despicable Game I Have Ever Played
At the core of many military shooters lies a lack of empathy for the enemy. It works because the nameless polygons depict inconsequential obstacles, mindless adversaries intent on nothing but villainy. Conquering them then serves to empower the player and justify their actions; but the best titles offer glimpses of understanding and empathy within the murder sprees, allowing questions to arise involving the player’s dedication to the aggressive cause.
Call of Duty: Black Ops (the seventh entry in the COD franchise, released in 2010) feels less about vindictive defense or vengeance, less about fighting for a righteous American cause, than it does a personal euphoric service, meant to evoke nothing but pure domination over a foreign collective. The game’s antagonists look you in the eyes and tell you they are going to enact horrible torture upon you, as if to imply that these nonfiction historical figures like Fidel Castro are completely devoid of humanity. They are pure evil serving as another target to take aim at and fire.
History is set aside for the sake of engaging player motivation, turning a politically-charged setting and background source into a cinematic pleasure zone that rewards personal vengeance. All in the name of American pride. And it feels all the more uncomfortably politically prescient eight years following its release.
The game paints American soldiers as invincible figures of utmost humility, dedicated to the cause of defending their country at any personal cost. Most characters’ defining characteristics involve utmost loyalty to warfare. To killing anyone marked an enemy on their radar. And they carry out their murderous objectives with utter conviction, nearly joy. But not joy, rather cold and unfeeling otherness; an abstraction from any sort of feeling whatsoever.
But for the player,the game certainly makes the experience feel celebratory. Shooting down the enemy’s experimental offensive rocket causes a shower of shrapnel to rain down like ash, as the player looks around in wonder at the fiery chaos they have reaped upon the military base. Numerous kills are confirmed by teammates in the midsts of battle: “He’s dead;” and you can almost feel the protagonists high five in victory. Each kill is a victory for your side.
This of course is not unique to Black Ops, only far more malicious in philosophy. There are no instances where the protagonist, Mason questions his unit’s murderous cause. No, his motivations are established early on, as a quest for vengeance against the man who tortured him for invading his country and killing his men.
You see, Black Ops, like many war tales, is a story of two sides fighting for split causes. Only this tale fails to ever share insight into the enemy’s own morality, besides that of pure heinous intent. Why are we mercilessly mowing down hundreds, thousands of soldiers on screen? Because we are told to do so; our superiors are commanding us to. The game is telling us that this is what we want. Or rather, not telling, but simply assuming we are on board to fulfill Mason’s journey.
At one point, during an escapade through the trenches, a Vietnamese soldier leaps upon me and the game prompts me to mash ‘square’ to “fight back.” Upon success, a brief clip seizes control from me, and I watch Mason pull a pin from a grenade strapped to the soldier and push him away. The soldier frantically flails about, stripped of any power in a state of dissolution, and finally explodes into a blanket of smoke. Mason jerks his sight away, leaving much to the imagination, besides the sprayed blood across the ground in front of me. He then moves on without a care or a word, but I am left motionless and perturbed.
This game treats instances such as this as an awesome victory. Something for the player to pump their fist in elation after seeing the scene play out. It congratulates you for overpowering a man, for overkill, by simply pressing a button repeatedly for a brief few seconds, and then asks you — no, again assumes you will move on. Because of this, Black Ops stands as a testament to the gaming community’s collective mindset towards enacting violence. In 2010, developers like Treyarch had already been made aware of the desensitization of the majority of players involving horrific scenes, and started upping the ante to further increase the divide between mental moral cognition and thoughtless play.
In one scene, Mason’s brother in arms, Woods is beaten to the ground by a Vietnamese soldier, about to be laid to rest by a bullet to the head. I whip out a revolver and take aim, only to miss once, and then twice more from a mounting pressure. The soldier litters his body, and Woods is dead. The Game Over screen exclaims I have failed to save my comrade, but after a moment the game reloads right back to give me another chance.
I succeed this time around, the tension all but erased after my primary failure, and Woods climbs back up, dusts himself off and continues forward. Not a word of gratitude is spoken, nor any mention of this incident whatsoever. It is as if the game’s characters themselves have the knowledge that their deaths do not carry any weight. That a shot to the head merely suggests a quick reload and then continuing onwards.
Black Ops is a game where the nameless NPC soldiers rest for eternity while the American heroes only die when necessary. Sure, the game litters the battlefield with plenty of American soldiers as well, however they are all given names, as if they are more deserving of remembrance or mere acknowledgment as individuals. Scenes like this carry no emotional weight because the characters are too busy acting as cool as possible without sacrificing humility. The writers are attempting to express them as ‘courageous,’ but it’s actually just inhuman.
Call of Duty: Black Ops may very well be the most effective, unsettling horror game I have ever played because it never once acknowledges itself as anything but victorious. There is no humanity at its core, only mindless, vicious violence. The game itself acts as sort of its own villain, one which envelops the player in a murder spree devoid of moral quandary.
The game is seeped in horrific imagery, action, and philosophical undertones, culminating in an experience similar to playing the villain in Silent Hill 2 or P.T. But while those titles illustrate a post-mortem examination of the central playable protagonists, Black Ops delves into the psyche of an inhuman monster incapable of empathy. One that feels nothing at the sound of cries of numerous soldiers, as they are torn apart by gunfire in front of the player’s very eyes. One that walks away from a near-death experience, knowing full well of the moment’s inconsequentiality. Because death is only a brief interruption in the path towards victory, and it is devoid of any pain.
The enemy are at one point instructed by their leader to kill their city’s civilians as you make your way through a burning building murdering dozens of soldiers; a task they unquestionably obey. It is the one moment where your actions are indeed justified, but there is no empathy involved as you move through the building past multitudes of men and women laid to waste in front of you. You move forward, stepping over their bodies, seeking out the next target to shoot. The game gives you a fucking shotgun that lights enemies on fire during this sequence, which I quickly stopped using during my playthrough because of how despicable it felt to wield.
An unsurprisingly massive rift in motivational circumstance results: this is not a mission in which you seek to save innocents, but a level where you get a badass shotgun. This dreadful response is dictated entirely by ludonarrative dissonance, and relies entirely upon how much you are willing to accept/deem Mason’s call to arms as appropriate.
Sneaking through the Vietnamese jungles with Woods, Mason is restricted to only using a knife as a silent means of progress. Consequently, many throats are slit, the blood pours into the waters you wade through, turning them red, waters foreign to you but significant to the locals. How ironic that this vital river will be the grave for countless nameless soldiers they once enlivened.
I mount a dock and come across the enemy, silently approaching, knife in hand. Woods whispers harshly, “Hey, Charlie!” to garner his attention, upon which our teammate, Bowman sneaks up behind and takes the sucker out. He lays the body down, his impression as stiff and lifeless as the man he has just killed. “Never gets old,” he says. A victory, amongst many, signifying nothing but pure American superiority in the face of a foreign threat.
There is nothing wrong with violence dressed up as escapism. Video games are not strangers to emotionless bloodshed and gruesome imagery — see every COD multiplayer release to date. But there is a significant issue when a game like Black Ops is so indebted to its brutality that its writers forget to involve any sort of humanity. It’s easy to say that the characters’ lack of empathy towards their enemy is intentional, that it serves as a sort of commentary on players’ own lack of sympathy.
But games, like any art form, have a tremendous ability and potential to incite emotional reaction. I set down the controller for a while after mercilessly gunning down a foreign kidnapper for the sake of revenge for Mason’s comrade, Bowman — who is beaten to death with a pipe in front of the player’s very eyes. The conviction did not feel justified, frankly. This is the same, desensitized man who once claimed killing Viet Cong soldiers “never gets old.” Perhaps the same rings true for his own killer.
For what it is worth, which side am I supposed to be rooting for? By game’s end, it is revealed that Mason has been a puppet for both machines, a broken mind being utilized as a catalyst for wanton destruction and hierarchical murder. It is fitting that the player has been puppeteered by the hands of the US government, forcing his murderous rage out on leaders of the opposing side. His rage was conjured within him by assumed mania; his destruction is a direct result of brainwashing. This only paints our government in similarly malicious light, positing me to question when the game would finally become self-aware and call out the supposedly heroic side’s own hypocrisy.
But similar titles utilize player psychology to a much more expressive extent. Silent Hill 2 is steeped in grief, chronicling one man’s descent into madness through his own personal hellscape. Mason meanwhile learns nothing but the importance of patriotic commitment. Even the first Modern Warfare carefully examines gaming tropes by way of progressing the player forward. You take commands as an exploited soldier would, an expendable Life dedicated to the cause his superiors have relegated to him.
Mason is too significant and personalized, which works in direct odds against his relationship to the player. Not once does our protagonist look down upon his slain enemies and question what purpose has brought him to this madness — like I have countless times during my playthrough. And the game knows this; near the conclusion after Mason’s schizophrenic persona is brought into the light, it becomes clear that you have been working towards your murderous goal only for the sake of what you have been programmed to do. “Dragovich, Kravchenko, Steiner. These men must die.” The words literally haunt you throughout the game, as a reminder of your ultimate goal. A MacGuffin misdirecting you away from Mason’s lunacy.
It’s a shame that there is such a gaping hole left in the absence of narrative humanity, since Black Ops is consistently thrilling, thought-provoking, and plain menacing. A better script could turn its propaganda into something more meaningful, perhaps delve into player psychology and dig at our collective allure towards violence, as opposed to simply saying it exists, as the game so does. Whether or not Treyarch purposefully want to teach players a history lesson, they ultimately do, developing a tale in which America is only as successful as its government’s ability to reprogram soldiers into killing machines.
By game’s end, I am exhausted. The game never fails to remind you of your enemy’s humanity, even as the protagonists fail to ever mention it or offer personal insight into their deaths. The pain is there, etched out on each of their faces, as I mow them down with chain guns, rocket launchers, and Hind missiles alike. Their anguish can be felt with each blow, each ‘square’ button prompt acting as a device to add gameplay variety, in case the shooting and killing grows stale.
Black Ops often feels like a vacation for the mind, in more ways than one: infiltrating foreign lands, murdering countless numbers without any show of concern, across dozens of playgrounds designed for stimulating murderous experiences. If only this vacation had a sensible moral, one that offered some insight into the land I was visiting, instead of villainizing its people for simply trying to survive like me. Villains need understandable goals, as well; and the inculcated Mason sure has plenty to illustrate.