'Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare' Demonstrates The Continuing Struggle Of First ...
I recently finished up the rather lengthy Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare campaign, which has Kevin Spacey acting out an alternate universe version of House of Cards season 3 where Frank Underwood takes over the entire planet, the next logical step after the White House.
As always, Call of Duty campaigns are enjoyable to play. They're the right level of difficult, challenging but beatable after a few attempts on tough sections. They're full of fantastic blockbuster set pieces that rival anything Hollywood puts out (this year it was the collapse of the Golden Gate Bridge). But what about the story? Is it good, memorable? Not particularly, but that's usually par for the course when it comes not only to Call of Duty, but most FPS games in general.
But I think Advanced Warfare is a unique case that can properly demonstrate a few issues with first person storytelling in video games, and why it's just so damn hard to be engaging. And I'm not just talking about singularly awkward moments like pressing 'X' to pay respects to a fallen comrade. This is a broader issue that spans many, many games, and has for years now.
Unlike many first person games, Advanced Warfare mercifully does not have a fully mute protagonist, which is almost always an automatic way to kill your story unless you're really, really clever about it. Rather, AW has you playing as 'Mitchell,' voiced by the biggest name in video game voice acting, Troy Baker, who played both Joel in The Last of Us and Booker from BioShock Infinite last year, and Delsin (Infamous: Second Son) and the Joker (Arkham Origins) this year.
Weirdly though, Baker only speaks during the game's cutscenes (seen above), where the camera gets out from behind his eyes and shows him interacting with his crew or Underwood. I mean Irons. But once the mission starts? He goes completely radio silent, and you're usually driven forward instead by the voice of your squadmate Gideon.
It's a slightly-better-but-still-bad version of Battlefield 4′s infamous 'Recker,' the non-entity star of the game who didn't even have cutscenes to get a line or two to himself. In that case as well you're propelled forward solely by your squadmates, in particular one voiced by The Wire's Michael K. Williams, who essentially stepped into the lead role because your character fails to ever make a sound.
A key element that makes first person storytelling at least somewhat passable in games some of the time is the character having its own voice. It's the oldest cop-out in the book for developers to leave their first person protagonist mute and say that it increases 'immersion' that way. 'The player is the hero!' they say, but that trick just doesn't work.
What's your favorite Call of Duty campaign story? And before you say one of the Modern Warfares, I'm not talking about one with memorable campaign missions like 'Pripyat' or 'No Russian' that were fun to play or especially shocking. In terms of an overall plot, the choice I hear the most often is Black Ops, which had a tightly focused story, but most importantly, a protagonist that was the entire focus of the game, not just a secondary character to his squadmates. And he was a memorable lead with a good story behind him because all throughout gameplay, he had an actual voice.
The same goes for other first person games that you could also argue have decent stories like BioShock Infinite or Far Cry 3. Infinite had a great world and concept which did most of the heavy lifting from a story perspective, but Booker still felt like a real character because you constantly heard from him throughout the game. Similarly, Far Cry 3 would have just been bizarre if you as Jason Brody never actually spoke for the duration of the game.
But the fact remains that very few first person games come close to creating the same kind of memorable lead characters and story experiences as third person games. You don't love your version of Commander Shepard and become incredibly invested in their story just because of the game's writing and universe, but because Shepard is constantly in front of your eyes, both during gameplay and in cutscenes, and practically never stops talking. I'd argue that a game like The Last of Us wouldn't have worked nearly as well dramatically if it was in first person. And there's a reason I love my Saint-in-Chief in Saints Row, because I've been following them around and hearing them talk smack for four games now.
It's the mere-exposure effect, 'a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.' The more you see and hear from a character, the more engaged you are with them and their story, or in other words 'the more often a person is seen by someone, the more pleasing and likeable that person appears to be.' This is why completely mute, invisible protagonists in first person games often struggle to have effective stories crafted around them, even in otherwise great games. I've been harping on Call of Duty, but Destiny is also a prime example of this where your character is given five lines in five cutscenes, and the only voice you ever hear otherwise is Peter Dinklage's.
Obviously this is not a perfect rule, and silent, first person games can tell interesting non-traditional stories a-la-Gone Home, or third person games filled with chatter can still have lackluster stories and heroes (Gears of War, more than a few Assassin's Creeds). But it's something I've seen to be generally true for a while now, and Advanced Warfare only reinforced it. I think overall its Atlas plot was actually pretty solid, but restricting all Troy Baker's voicework to cutscenes hamstrung both the story and his character.
I recently was made aware of an upcoming crowdfunded movie promising an FPS perspective throughout. It comes with a badass trailer (above) that is literally like one of Call of Duty's firefights acted out in real life. But if this is such an 'immersive' storytelling technique, why is this one of the only films out there to use such a tactic? Because we relate much better to characters when we can see them, not when we supposedly 'become them.'
This isn't to say first person games shouldn't exist, but it does demonstrate why it's so consistently hard to tell good stories using the perspective, while many third party games seem to have better luck. Perhaps the 'become the character' theory will make games like this and the stories they tell more immersive when VR is finally mainstream, but right now it is very hard to tell a good story with other characters constantly peering into your TV like they're looking at you through a window and talking into your eyeballs.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go run silently through an Aztec temple murdering people to unlock more gun attachments.
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How should Destiny spend its $500M budget? I explain below: