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Moral Ambiguity in Black Ops | And Why Cold War Concerns Me


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We're merely a month away from Black Ops - Cold War's release, and excitement is running high around here and in the general fanbase. Zombies looks to be a very interesting take with a lot of gameplay innovation, MP seems to be doing very well in the current beta, and the Campaign looks to be an exciting thrill-ride, like always. Look, I hate to be negative, because I know that Raven, Treyarch, and everyone else involved has put a ton of work into this game, and in a shorter time-frame than usual. But, something just felt very off about the reveal trailer for Cold War. It took me a while to put my finger on why, and it took me until now to be able to put it into words, and I think it runs deep within the veins of Black Ops as a series within Call of Duty. My concern is, based purely on marketing for the campaign, that this game may miss the point of what Black Ops is.

 

What is Black Ops?

 

Call of Duty is a franchise famous for its run and gun multiplayer, but also its intense, action-packed, and sometimes controversial campaign. The campaign of every game is the driving force behind the feel of the multiplayer and any other modes in the game, and is massively important in setting the stage and marketing the games. But, they're not all created the same. Modern Warfare has a very different feel from Black Ops.

 

You may feel slightly different, but when I think of Black Ops I think of over-the-top personalities, film-inspired action set-pieces, and mind-bending plots. But a key theme that pervades every Black Ops game, including World at War, despite all the differences between each entry, is the moral ambiguity. There are no heroes in Black Ops.

 

Why is it that the most marketable characters in CoD as a franchise are mostly characters from the Modern Warfare franchise? Even the most well-known Black Ops character, Woods, isn't known popularly for any personality, but for his iconic design, voice acting (We're going there), and famous lines throughout the series. The answer is, Treyarch do not write their characters to be heroes, at the end of the day.

 

Folks Need Heroes

 

The easiest example is Alex Mason. Despite being the protagonist of Black Ops, and someone ultimately hailed as a hero at the end of the story while a fleet of battleships waving American flags and American jets fly overhead to badass metal music, we are reminded at the end of Black Ops that Mason's future is not one he should look forward to, and his mind is permanently damaged by war and the manipulation of others:

The numbers stations are still out there. Mason killed the President. He's a danger to society and to himself. His story does not end happily.

Quote
From: Dr. Smith, Adrienne
To: Mason, Alex
Date/Time: Monday, December 23, 1968
Subject: RE: Recurring Migraines
Alex,


You cannot and will not threaten suicide to your assigned analyst if you ever intend to regain your field operation status. I'm sorry to hear about your family. I know what it is to be divisive with one's family, but I also know that if anyone can forgive, it is blood. I understand it's a sensitive subject, but I will not be blackmailed for medication. I trust we are clear.

That said, I cannot in good conscience allow an idle threat to become a reality. I have a final appointment at 5pm. Please come to my office at 6pm and we can discuss your medication and anything else you require for as long as is needed.


Best,

Doctor Adrienne Smith, M.D.

Staff Psychiatrist

He does not want to talk to anyone about his trauma. He has no family anymore. He demands drugs, because otherwise, he wants to be dead. His father completely disowned him because of his failure to attend his own mother's funeral.

Quote

March 20, 1966

Alex,

I gave you 5 days. You failed. You should have died in Vorkuta.

Signed,

- Your father

Black Ops II follows this future for Mason. Right off the bat's he's in a tree, barking orders at his only son, and yelling at him after he fails to climb the tree and hurts himself. David even mutters to himself that he hates his father. A CIA helicopter with Jason Hudson arrives, and Mason completely ignores his injured child to meet with his former employers. He has nothing but vitriol to spew, and he's miserable in his life alone. But they offer him one last mission to pull him out of retirement and save an old friend, Frank Woods. Based on the fact that Alex does not consult any wife before saying yes, and the fact David is raised by Woods after Alex's later "death", we can assume there is no mother in the picture. Alex promised David that he wouldn't go back to the CIA, but he breaks that promise to help out an old friend in need and be the hero. War is the only place where Alex is welcome.

 

Speaking of Woods, Treyarch's most marketable character, he's no hero either. It's more subtle in the original Black Ops, but Woods only knows war, nothing else. He's dedicated his life to fighting communists for no other reason than he needs an enemy to shoot to give life any meaning. Don't ask me, ask Chief Analyst Ryan Jackson:
 

Quote

SUMMARY PROFILE: The candidate is best described as an "old warhorse," a man increasingly out of step with the rapidly changing world around him. Though still fit for active duty, he knows that his days in the field are numbered and he has stated on numerous occasions that he intends to go out with "the biggest fucking bang the world has ever seen."

A fiercely patriotic and decorated veteran of the Korean war, the candidate is fiercely a consummate leader, possessed with a first-rate ability to assess and respond to any situation with quick and decisive action, in other words, absolutely nothing fazes him.

Quote
From: Woods, Frank
To: Mason, Alex
Date/Time: Monday, January 2, 1967
Subject: No Subject
We need to stop wasting our time with this techno garbage and get back to the business of dropping on the Commies.

This is war baby. Words don't count for nothin'.


Frank

Quote
From: Hudson, Jason
To: Mason, Alex
Date/Time: Tuesday, January 10, 1967
Subject: Frank
Mason,


In case you hadn't heard, Frank is off to Nam to lead a SOG RT incursions into Laos. Volunteered of course, Old war horse like him needs a fight like he needs oxygen. Nam will be like a day at the beach for him.

Feel sorry for the VC, tell you that much.


JH

He's also incredibly emotional and vengeful. When he hears word that he is approaching Raul Menendez's hideout, he goes into a blind rage killing his men and charging ahead, ultimately making a choice to toss a live grenade down a hallway in an attempt to kill Menendez, who is currently in the process of being restrained for questioning by an ally, Hudson. The grenade goes off, killing Raul's sister, Josefina. This is the spark that sends Menendez down his murderous, chaotic path in 2025, nearly toppling world governments on Cordis Die. It can all be traced back to Woods, who gets to live out the rest of his life in a miserable retirement home, knowing that what has happened is his fault, and knowing he pulled the trigger on Alex Mason, under Jason Hudson's orders.

 

Onto Hudson, we find out subtly in Black Ops 2 that he is a mole for Raul Menendez in the CIA, doing some shady shit for his cartel. He, like the US during the Cold War, is an opportunist, and it is his ultimate downfall. 

 

Black Ops 3 and 4, however disconnected they are from the characters of the first two games, follow similar themes, with the Black Ops agents using experimental DNI implants to aid in their various illegal takedown operations around the world. You start to see this DNI corrupt the minds of agents using DNI implants, and you hunt down former allies who are lost, scared, and confused as their minds slowly fade. Before killing them, you pull all the memories from their mind, giving them a slow, painful death as they relive the pain over and over. You, the player, are no hero.

 

Even World at War, which takes place in a war generally considered to have a clear "evil" side, has the playable Russians gunning down retreating and surrendering Germans in the name of the Motherland. Reznov, in the end, is not a hero. He ruins Mason's life in the pursuit of revenge.

 

What makes Cold War seem different?

 

Executive Order

 

Black Ops - Cold War's reveal trailer, and subsequently the Playstation presentation, shows us a particular scene from the game taking place in some sort of office with the President, Ronald Reagan, authorizing some sort of operation for the main cast to kill Perseus, the infamous Soviet spy. This scene is functionally identical to the cutscene U.S.S.D. from Black Ops.

 

Both cutscenes are about the protagonist(s) meeting with the President of the United States, who is authorizing a takedown of a major Russian threat to the United States (Dragovich and Perseus). Both operations are under the table, and in essence, illegal in the eyes of world governments. The President is asking that the professional Black Ops agents "get it done" with whatever they need to do it.

 

The difference, however, lies in the presentation, and the light being hung over these "illegal operations". This is not about the politics of either the Kennedy nor Reagan administrations. In the scene from Black Ops, everything is off, and from the eyes of Mason, we can see that there is something wrong with his mind. He imagines himself pulling out a gun and shooting the President then and there in the Pentagon. The only reason he does not, is because Kennedy is giving him authorization to kill Dragovich, a man who is he is programmed to kill to fullfill Reznov's revenge.

 

Meanwhile, in the Cold War cutscene, we start off seeing how dangerous a threat Perseus is. We then cut to the board room, where we meet Adler, being as cool and calm as possible. He's talking about how what they have to do will affect the free world as music swells and men in suits say Perseus is no big deal. In comes the President of the United States to make the final, righteous decision. Right away he is dismissive of the suits, and claims he chose these agents in their last mission. They are close, and he trusts them as soldiers. He only asks Hudson if the threat is real, which he confirms, and asks if they can do it. They say they can. A suit says their methods are irregular and illegal. Woods hangs a lampshade and says the new iconic line, "Every mission we go on is illegal!"

 

Reagan ends the meeting saying to "give Adler whatever he wants", and telling the agents, "I know you won't fail us." A key thing to point out: The Reagan scene is in the reveal trailer for Cold War, and it's framed as the awesome call to action, the "stinger" of the trailer. Compare this to the reveal trailer for Black Ops:
 

 

Quote

"A lie is a lie. Just because they write it down and call it history doesn't make it the truth."

From the very first line of dialogue from this game, we know it's about stories that are untold, stories that our government has kept from us for some unknown reason. You immediately are questioning the authority figures of this story, and what kind of missions you are going to be sent on.

 

Both trailers are exciting, but one has more to say than the other.

 

War isn't cool. It may LOOK cool, but it has everlasting negative effects on people. Black Ops, in my eyes, highlights this aspect in all its games and the marketing for those games. It turns traditional heroes into violent sociopaths to illustrate this point. It gets away with this is one of the most popular media franchise on earth by being subtle about it, requiring that extra care to get that point out of it. It's no secret, and this is not a conspiracy, it is fact, but Activision has a good relationship with the US military and generally portrays them in a positive light because they provide consultants for the game and allow their weaponry to appear in it. But Black Ops can skirt the line and tell a morally grey story, and that, I think, has always been the appeal of its story.

 

Cold War's marketing does not give this impression, though. It's as if everyone has forgotten what mental state Mason must be in in 1973, when the game takes place. His brain is fried, he is suicidal and lonely, he could be set off at any point by Soviet numbers stations, and he has killed a sitting US President (Tbf maybe they don't know this...) and yet he's just sitting there with the others, a trusted field agent. He and Woods feel like they are only there to act as icons of the past, simple one-liner dispensers. The fact that none of the original voice actors are brought back to fill these roles again, roles that they created, says a lot about how important these characters are to this game's story, in my eyes. Woods has spouted off "You can't kill me." and "Let's go find this shithead." already before the game has even come out, because they aren't lines that bring a story full-circle, they are lines to trigger a nostalgic memory in your head, nothing more. But without any purpose, any of the intent behind them, the words are hollow.

 

Modern Warfare's Influence

 

It's not surprising that MW2019 is going to play a key inspiration for many aspects of this game. It was massively successful, and for some may have reinvigorated the franchise. I'll keep this brief, because I only know of the game's story second-hand, and the Youtuber Jacob Gellar puts my thoughts on it into much more detailed, elegant words than me in this video, which I highly recommend:

 

To sum it up, just because you don't want the media you consume to be political, and the creator does not intend for it to be political, does not make it devoid of any agenda or politics. Our own worldviews make up a huge part of our lives, and all art is an extension of the lives of individual creators, whether they are meant to be or not. Modern Warfare's story seems to shine a spotlight on the bad reputation that Call of Duty and other modern First-Person Shooters have, and that is that they are military propaganda that sensationalize and idolize the US military.

 

Modern Warfare has a couple of instances of this that stick out. In one scene, a Russian war crime known as the "highway of death" is mentioned, in which the Russians dropped cluster bombs on escaping soldiers and refugees. This is actually based on the real-world "highway of death", an action committed by American and allied forces in the Gulf War, which violated a Geneva Convention. Another instance that is particularly nasty to me, is a scene in which you interrogate a man known as "The Butcher", a man who murders children. Price, a hero, decides it is time to "take the gloves off" and do what has to be done, which is bring out the man's family and hold them at gunpoint in front of him. After he talks, you can simply shoot him in front of his wife and child and walk away. Despite this, no one involved ends the game particularly scarred or broken. They aren't riddled with doubt or trauma about what they did. They know "they did what they had to do". They get to be heroes in their own heads, that did the right thing even though no one will know about it. 

 

This is Infinity Ward's story, and people clearly enjoyed it. That's great, but, I'm just concerned that this could be the type of story that Cold War will be. This is not Black Ops. This is arguably not even the original Modern Warfare trilogy.

 

Of course, maybe marketing for the game could be misleading, it sure wouldn't be the first time for a AAA game... I certainly hope that I enjoy it, and I will give it a shot. Hopefully this post will not come out to be true, but I still felt the need to post it to get it off my chest and let my thoughts be known, also to start a conversation about what this franchise, and these stories mean to you.

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What we've seen in regards to voice actor changes gives me the same concerns as you. 
Hopefully they follow the Black Ops tradition.
But, from what we've seen (and as you described) it's more likely to end up as a Black Ops skinned MW style campaign.

Due to the VO downgrades I'll be pinning my enjoyment on the plot rather than the characters anyway.
So as long as the plot is strong and complex enough the campaign should be enjoyable.
It's a shame about the characters and dialogue writing.
But as we can see from the VO changes that ship has aleady sailed.

Just gonna head cannon that the characters are slightly different because of the butterfly effect of Samantha being retconned into the story with the BO4 ending.
They did a similar thing in Serious Sam 4 with their time travel retcon and it worked well for the story imo.

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6 hours ago, Rapt said:

What we've seen in regards to voice actor changes gives me the same concerns as you. 
Hopefully they follow the Black Ops tradition.
But, from what we've seen (and as you described) it's more likely to end up as a Black Ops skinned MW style campaign.

Just gonna head cannon that the characters are slightly different because of the butterfly effect of Samantha being retconned into the story with the BO4 ending.
They did a similar thing in Serious Sam 4 with their time travel retcon and it worked well for the story imo.


Agree here. I think that as time goes on the series will become less and less logical, campaign as well as zombies. 

 

9 hours ago, RadZakpak said:

This is Infinity Ward's story, and people clearly enjoyed it. That's great, but, I'm just concerned that this could be the type of story that Cold War will be. This is not Black Ops. This is arguably not even the original Modern Warfare trilogy.

 

Of course, maybe marketing for the game could be misleading, it sure wouldn't be the first time for a AAA game... I certainly hope that I enjoy it, and I will give it a shot. Hopefully this post will not come out to be true, but I still felt the need to post it to get it off my chest and let my thoughts be known, also to start a conversation about what this franchise, and these stories mean to you.


Agreed here on IW's story, which is an out of the trilogy MW skinned as a MW game, and similar concerns are here for BOCW, campaign and zombies alike, again.

The narrative within CoD took great hits in the last years for the sake of marketing. Hopefully BOCW will shine in gameplay.

Edited by RichKiller
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Wish I could give you two brains: One for the character analysis and one for the important message of this post. This is so true, and a big issue I've always had with many First Person Shooters: idealize the fight, the war, the brotherhood and the heroism that these games (and not gonna lie, some type of movies as well) tell us to lay behind conflicts. War is not like this, absolutely not. 

 

If one looks to the Campaign of WWII, a game developed by Raven as well, you may notice things are wrong. The campaign focusses on the last year of the Second World War and blindly ignores everything that happened prior. Which makes perfectly sense because why would you show all the misery WW2 brought if you can also show that our heroes kill the Krauts and fight their victorious way to Berlin? In the first mission, a character named Zussman is being hurted on the shores of Normandy, and you as his buddy pulls him from the battlefield to a medical outpost. Despite him almost dying, there was no second of suspense to me because you knew he would survive. Because this is a Call of Duty. In real life, there were millions of cases like Zussman during the war, and many of them weren’t that lucky. Many of them bleeded out and died for a cause they self may not even understand, many of them not even adult.

9 hours ago, RadZakpak said:

Another instance that is particularly nasty to me, is a scene in which you interrogate a man known as "The Butcher", a man who murders children. Price, a hero, decides it is time to "take the gloves off" and do what has to be done, which is bring out the man's family and hold them at gunpoint in front of him. After he talks, you can simply shoot him in front of his wife and child and walk away. Despite this, no one involved ends the game particularly scarred or broken. They aren't riddled with doubt or trauma about what they did. They know "they did what they had to do".

This genuinely angers me. The problem is not only the overhyping of the supposed 'heroism' that comes with violence, but also the demonization of the enemy. Interesting, I feel like a game as World at War ridiculed this attitude by naming a mission 'Burn em out' in which you had to set living people on fire with a flamethrower, or naming a mission 'Their land, their blood' which felt like a direct mock to the supposed 'justice' that is found during that level when executing Nazi POW's. Thought that was really good.

 

We'll see how Cold War will go through this theme. One major thing that saddened me already is the fact that the Soviets already appear like the bad guys in the Zombies mode, though I hope I'm wrong on that. I do think that a big name like Call of Duty has a responsibility, and should have a message that it passes on to it's users. I really hope Cold War is gonna be deeper than a bland "Let's save the world from the commies once again"- theme.

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11 hours ago, RadZakpak said:

Both trailers are exciting, but one has more to say than the other.

 

 

While I'd share your concern if they do abandon the main conventions of Black Ops like this, it seems to me that BOCW won't be as black and white as it seems.

 

The first trailer begins with Adler saying "This war was a lie. Years of blood. Just to light the fuse of a secret war decades in the making."

 

 

The videos of the Hacker from pawntakespawn also show a lot of classic Black Ops grey area stuff. The hacker generally condemns both superpowers and calls out the lies of governments.

 

We also heard a lot more about the campaign from media outlets who saw a lot more gameplay:

 

Spoiler

Apparently they got to see extended parts of the flashback Vietnam mission, which includes the player character being interrogated about what happened at Vietnam.  One example: https://www.gamesradar.com/uk/black-ops-cold-war-single-player-campaign-preview/

While this doesn't necessarily mean it will feel like Black Ops, it's a good sign imo.

 

 

 

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2 hours ago, KronoriumExcerptB said:

Apparently they got to see extended parts of the flashback Vietnam mission, which includes the player character being interrogated about what happened at Vietnam.  One example: https://www.gamesradar.com/uk/black-ops-cold-war-single-player-campaign-preview/

While this doesn't necessarily mean it will feel like Black Ops, it's a good sign imo.

Spoiler

I don't want to drag this beautiful thread into another subject but I just read that link and noticed the following:

 

"A mission in Ukraine to investigate a mysterious Soviet building unearths a massive reconstruction of an entire American town being used for invasion practice by Russian special forces, Spetznaz".

 

A fake american town in Ukraine? We know there will be a MP map taking place at DUGA, which is in Ukraine so I highly presume that this 'mysterious Soviet building' is the DUGA. This DUGA lays in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, at the village of дитяки to be precise. Which brings me to the following:

896313.jpeg

nJF_Mboq6c8yuNsn48oKB_ZCWHJb-dyS5LrdtljE

Remember this Tranzit (and Die Rise) sign refering to Ditjaki? And from this intel it appears that there's also a fake American town located there in Ukraine? I know for sure Tranzit is canonly in the US, but how cool would this easter egg be if the fake American town we play in in CW's campagin is actually based on Hanford/Tranzit?

 

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