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Call of Duty: Black Ops II and the Illusion of Choice

Paragon or Renegade? Deal or Payback? Doug or Carley? Video games like Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead have irrevocably altered the landscape of interactive storytelling by allowing players to make pivotal choices which shape the narrative experience. By giving gamers multiple options (“Should I blow So-and-So’s brains out, or let him go?”), developers force them to consider the consequences of their actions (“Maybe if I spare him, he’ll return the favor later on.”), thus making them participants in the creative process, rather than passive observers.

Unsurprisingly, the blockbuster Call of Duty franchise is a latecomer at this particular party–and, as expected, has arrived inebriated and more than a little belligerent. “You think you’re so special, Mass Effect?” the latest installment, Black Ops II, seems to ask. “Well, I can do what you did, and I can do it better!”

Sadly, Treyarch’s effort falls far short of BioWare’s groundbreaking sci-fi series, which offered up enough subtle variations between its multiple denouements to make almost every possible ending seem equally valid. Black Ops II instead follows the example of the original Metal Gear Solid, released on the PlayStation way back in 1998: meeting certain requirements during gameplay unlocks the “Happy Ending”; screwing up at any point rewards the player with the “Wrong Ending For Stupid People Who Don’t Know What They’re Doing.”

By attempting to emulate the Mass Effect model, however, Black Ops II fails to make any such conditions at all apparent. Even when the game goes out of its way to emphasize a major choice  (“Press ‘A’ to murder This Guy or 'B’ to execute That Guy,” as opposed to situations that permit you to ignore certain objectives), it’s usually impossible to foresee the associated repercussions. Acquiring the best ending, for instance, depends on the survival of a relatively minor character; unless another specific supporting character is present to take a bullet for her, though, she’ll be gunned down in one of the climactic missions. This poor fellow’s fate is always determined in the preceding level, and rests entirely in the player’s hands–but there’s no way of knowing any of that in the moment, which completely defeats the purpose of the mechanic.

Of course, much of this “choice” and “consequence” stuff is pure illusion–sleight of hand designed to make gamers feel empowered while keeping them firmly on-rails. If every “decision” didn’t lead to the same foregone conclusion, then the game wouldn’t have a real plot at all–just a muddled series of random events, filled with non-sequiturs and unfulfilled promises (*cough* Alpha Protocol *cough*). Therefore, regardless of player input, Niko Bellic always ends up distraught and alone, Carley/Doug always ends up shot through the head, and the Origami Killer is never anybody but Scott Shelby. But while developers such as BioWare, Quantic Dream, and Rockstar manage to strike enough of a balance between audience expectations and the demands of telling an effective story to perform the trick with relative ease, Treyarch simply cannot convincingly hide all the cards up its sleeves.

[Originally written November 18, 2012.]

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