Expert Analysis of Black Ops 2 as a Sci-Fi Game
One does not simply ‘make’ a science fiction game. While once sci-fi may have been a back-alley genre catering to those in the know, it is no longer a niche media but rather a legitimate narrative method. But this still does not make it an easy thing to do; in the last five years there has not been one successful dedicated mainstream science fiction series (on a par with Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica) on television. Arguably Mass Effect has been the single best contribution to the genre since Battlestar.
When Activision announced the sideways shift for the new Call of Duty title to be set in the future, the publisher (likely unwittingly) plunged balls first into a sea of ambition. Good sci-fi is not an easy thing to do; one does not simply take a generic war story and swap out bearded middle-eastern dudes for robots. Given Activision’s penchant for the course of least resistance, it would be easy to assume that their aforementioned dive would land them chin first on the rocky floor at the bottom of the sea.
To create a great sci-fi story, there are five criteria that a visionary must aim to fulfill. Firstly your world needs to be plausible; there’s a fine line between science fiction and fantasy, and trespassing that line can result in a serious impact on suspense of disbelief. The second and third criteria are as simple as they are intrinsically related – a good story and good characters. The third criteria is one which cannot be allowed to succumb to complacency (even in in the era of HD), your work must be visually stunning. The fifth and final requirement by means of enumeration is, as is customary, by no means ‘last’. In fact it is the most simultaneously important and challenging aspect of science fiction. Your story needs to be an examination of humanity in a detached media. In other words, it needs to deliver an exposition that is analogous of some aspect of real-life society today. But more on that later. So how well-hung is Call of Duty when measured against the cold hard ruler of science fiction? Let’s examine each criteria individually.
We’ve discussed the scientific plausibility of Black Ops 2 in a separate article. The end-product is, in a nutshell, a cynical neo-futurist dystopia rather than a traditional optimistically progressive outlook. Technology is almost entirely extended from things we know are available or in development today. This makes sense as the game is set barely a decade from now. But it is still a victory in an arena where its contemporaries have failed; Assassin’s Creed being an unfortunate example. Assassins Creed is set in 2012, but bearing in mind that the game was released in 2006 this plants it firmly in the neo-futurist category alongside Call of Duty. It’s 2012 now and we simply don’t have any of the technology predicted by AC, and to think that we will in our lifetimes is delusion of the nth degree.
Plausibility goes beyond just making sure your gadgets are realistic. A common pitfall of science fiction is to present a world where futurism has outweighed practicality. In other words, the creators have spent so much time focusing on making it ‘futuristic’ that every room (even bedrooms) looks like an Apple Store, not somewhere you’d eat, shit and live. By embracing a cynical form of neo-futurism, Black Ops 2 has avoided this pitfall with grace.
Good Characters and Story
These are, of course, a mandatory part of any story. The specific issue with sci-fi is that you are often dealing with alien characters and other-worldly stories, so making them relatable for the audience requires extra attention. A good example of this would be Mass Effect; care was taken by the story-tellers to give every character a motivation and a personality, which gamers would be able to relate to. Even though Krogans and Solarians are aliens, you’d love the chance to go out drinking with any one of them. This is also true for Han and Chewy, Kirk and Spok, even Mal Reynolds and Jayne. Black Ops could have procrastinated this daunting task by relying on past characters in flash-backs to keep the player engaged. But, to their credit, Treyarch have tried to create new, familiar characters to hold our attention.
In regards to the story, it could be summarised with the word ‘passable’. It is a generic, derivative action story set around an ethic gentleman seeking vengeance on the decadent west via the wonderful medium of terrorism. There isn’t much else to say. For this reason, I’d give the game a pass and a fail on the two respective criteria we’re discussing here.
If anything was in Call of Duty’s power to mount and ride like glorious stallion, it was this category. In video-game presentation these days anything is possible. Too bad then – virtually every scene in the game was visually boring. Sure there were some colorful locations and obligatory set pieces, but in sci-fi you simply have to do more; you have to show people things that they could not see or even imagine in day to day life. Think of the iconic opening of Star Wars Episode 4, or the beautiful jungles of Avatar’s Pandora. Black Ops simply did not deliver this kind of experience. Every city was just a shiner version of its modern day counterpart. The weapons were just obvious continuations of those we’ve already seen in Modern Warfare games. Nothing about it stood up and punched me in the dick.
As you can guess, Black Ops 2 gets a fail on this criteria. To be fair, you don’t need to hit all the criteria to claim a great sci-fi experience. There were times when Star Trek looked cheap visually, but you can be damn sure it was still five-star motherfucking sci-fi. You do need to hit the majority of the criteria – three or more. With two passes and two fails, the fate of Black Ops 2 hangs in the balance. On to the final frontier!
Self-examination in a detached media.
I’ll begin this category by explaining what it means. Science fiction gives story-tellers the opportunity to spin a narrative that they otherwise could not tell. An example of this would be the original series of Star Trek; in a time when America was in a cold war with the Russians, when Civil rights were still atrocious, and when women had the social status of Labradors, Star Trek dared to tell stories involving inter-racial romance, women in command, and acceptance of all species – all with a Russian piloting the ship. Battlestar Galactica was likewise a political commentary on war in Iraq, slavery, and capitalism.
In this respect Black Ops 2 had an open-goal; it could directly commentate on our future in warfare and conflict. The unfortunate reality is that we’re left with a generic war story that happens to be set in the future. To put it bluntly, they could have told that exact same story set in the past or present with NO change in reaction from the consumer, by simply changing the weapons. That is why Black Ops 2 fails the final criteria, and that is why (given that it is the most important criteria) Black Ops 2 is not a good sci-fi game.