One Does Not Simply ‘Make’ a Sci-Fi Game
News of a new Call of Duty game being released this November was about as surprising as Ashley cheating on Cheryl; it happens every year, and a lot of money is on the line. There was one aspect of the announcement, however, that I did find somewhat surprising: Call of Duty Black Ops 2 will be set over a decade in the future. That’s like finding out that not only has Ashley cheated again, but this time it’s bestiality.
Why such a dramatic simile? Well, as I said in a recent Death by Robots podcast, “One does not simply ‘make’ a sci-fi game”. You see; being a self confessed sci-fi expert whose arm remains freshly sore from the addition of a recent Star Trek tattoo, and being a long time ‘cod-head’, I feel somewhat qualified to weigh in on the matter. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is great that Treyarch are making a tangible effort to revitalise the series with something new. The problem with using science fiction as a vehicle to get there, however, is that sci-fi is not an easy genre to write. Let me elaborate.
One of the hardest things to do with a piece of science fiction entertainment is to make it feel real and liveable to the audience. An example of this being done well from recent years would be Battlestar Galactica. This show was a huge success, and it owes this at least in part to the fact that the writers carefully created a world that you the viewer felt like you lived in too. The show tackled very human issues and emotions, and simply used the sci-fi elements (space-battles and the like) to add toe-curling tension and thrilling action to an already very human story.
Another example of the potential pit-falls of sci-fi is the demise of the Star Wars series. There are many reasons why the new films are categorically weaker than the original trilogy, but one that I’d politely highlight was that the world itself became too polluted, and we lost our connection to it. If you think of the first film, you can almost feel yourself on the Millennium Falcon with Luke. You feel surges of emotion and tension during the final battle, because the world has drawn you in and you feel part of it. No amount of light-sabre wielding Samuel L Jackson could compensate for the lack of this feeling in the prequel trilogy.
Moving to the world of video games, one could cite Mass Effect as being a superlative example of science fiction at its best. Again, there are many facets that make Mass Effect a gem among its contemporaries, but one such facet is indisputably the attention on the part of the creative staff. Every little planet you see has some degree of back-story written for it, and it all weaves together into the overall tapestry of the Mass Effect universe.
Every interaction with every character is written to strengthen your connection to the world you are exploring, a universe so captivating that the fact that you’re shooting stuff is relegated to an almost incidental status. If I think back to moments that made my trousers bulge with gamer’s delight, I think of the epic battle to reach the collector base, or the moment in Mass Effect 3 where the entire fleet emerges proudly from the Sol relay.
This brings us on to Call of Duty. Call of Duty doing a sci-fi game is like Forza doing an F-Zero type game. Like I said, I do not begrudge Treyarch for wanting to experiment; in fact I commend their audacity in attempting to do something new. But one of the reasons that they need to try something new is that the games are getting over-the-top and repetitive, causing players to lose connection and interest in the series.
The games are getting to the point where it’s just a well decorated corridor containing a shooting gallery of generic enemy dudes. My concern is that they are attempting to fix this by simply swapping out dudes for robots, which will not work. Call of Duty has been losing its grip on reality one finger at a time with each new game Activision farts out. Given that science fiction is by definition a stretch of reality, could this cause the final finger to slide, and the credibility of the game to plunge?
Call of Duty has been increasingly criticized for transforming from a serious, enthralling war game (CoD4) to an immature Michael Bay movie (MW3). It seems odd that Treyarch’s solution to the problem is to “ADD ROBOTS!” This is not a viable solution, and could easily turn into nothing more than abuse of the sci-fi genre.