[17 November 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
One of the most prolific themes of modern video games is the idea of creating a roller coaster or theme park ride experience for the player. Just as you would go through an amusement park and jump on the various rides, in video games you go through and try out the various experiences offered. The designer creates a roller coaster path through a series of action-packed events. A prime example of this design is Call of Duty 4’s single-player campaign. Whether it’s operating the turret in a gun ship, dying in a nuclear fallout, or battling in the streets of a Middle-Eastern city, this is the gaming equivalent of an amusement park ride for modern warfare. Three specific moments are particularly impressive in this design because they push the norm for shooter experiences and offer something besides generic victory scenarios. What Call of Duty 4 tackles in three distinct sequences is dying in a war zone.
The first roller coaster sequence takes place in the midst of a Civil War. The developers pull the rug out from the player in this sequence because up until this point the game has been acting like a fairly typical shooter. Suddenly, we are thrust into the body of the President as he is being dragged to his execution. You have no control over movement but can move the camera, a logical game design choice given the linear narrative. What makes it interesting is that players almost never play the victim in an FPS and suddenly, here they are experiencing it. Once it dawns on the player that this is a passive sequence though, there is a risk for things to become boring. In Half-life 2 there are many passive exchanges that are dull. But here, the developers keep it interesting by surrounding the player with activity. Civilians run in terror, firefights are going on, and every atrocity of war one can imagine is going on at all sides. The player still controls the camera and they immediately start trying to see everything going on as the car drives through the city. It is, literally, like going on the Pirates of the Carribean ride except everything has been replaced with modern warfare events. By coercing the player to frantically look all around they are mimicking what a person in that situation would be doing. In this way, the game involves the player into being a willing camera man. A willing participant in making the event be presented the way that it would be for someone actually in that situation. The slow dread the player feels as they see the inevitable gun barrel coming upon them and finally being aimed is also present. The game gives you the experience of being executed and it coerces our involvement through both game design and player input.
The nuke sequence is still probably one of the most incredible experiences a video game has yet provided for its audience. What would the final moments of being at ground zero for a nuclear blast be like? The level opens with the player acting as the character they’ve been playing for several missions and whom we assume is going to be escaping from the blast in yet another frantic battle. Crawling out of the crashed chopper is done at a crippling pace and the player cannot see outside until they get to the exit. It’s an excellent piece of level design that controls the visual flow of the surroundings to the player. Like the passive sequence of being executed, there is a great deal of careful design architecture occurring. Each sight and sound is carefully paced in the level all while the player is still in control. The first thing you see once you get outside the chopper is a dead marine. Any thoughts about escaping begin to fade at that ominous sign. Movement is heavily inhibited and the player falls over several times while they try to move. Your crippld state is heavily emphasized by the sound here as well; each footstep makes a dragging sound and there is heavy breathing in the soundscape. You’re able to make some progress but slowly you start to realize maybe this level is different. Maybe you’re not getting out of here. A glance to the right reveals an incinerated playground and then the moment we were wondering about finally happens. The game design makes you collapse. You look up and finally see the mushroom cloud glowing bright yellow in the background. A crashing sound to your left draws your attention to a sky scraper crumbling to dust. No more walking and the lights dim, with only the strange sound of children playing in the burned out playground going on around you.
The final passive sequence is at the end of the game and it’s just as startling as the others. A lot of people criticized it for coming seemingly from nowhere, but given the almost cliché briefing where the soldiers all talk about buying each other drinks and the fact that you never really know when a mission is doomed in war anyways, it didn’t disrupt my personal experience. Your attempt to escape the Russian Ultra Nationalists goes awry and you end up stranded on a bridge. After two missiles from a helicopter slam your position, you struggle around in shock while everyone in your squad is brutally shot or injured. The camera is controlled somewhat by the player but the game does not hesitate to jerk your head for you, so you can only move it around a small amount. Your fellow soldier is shot while he drags you to safety, the approaching soldiers kill your team-mate, and your captain is struggling with the gun in his belt. In this instance, absolute freedom as in the other levels would cause you to miss the designers intended experience. The final moments of seeing the game’s main villain walking towards you culminate in the player performing the ‘Last Stand’ activity that they have witnessed throughout the game. A downed soldier pulls out their pistol and fires off a few shots before they’re finished off. Only now, it is the player performing the doomed action. Because of the other two cutscenes we are desensitized to our dying and when the gun is slid towards us concerns about staying alive are forgotten. All you want to do is take aim and finish off the person responsible for all of this. Yet the game’s final twist is perhaps its most clever, because just as we are preparing ourselves to die because the game has demonstrated that it has no qualms about killing us, we are miraculously saved. The game explores both elements of combat, dying for no reason as with the nuclear strike and being saved while others die around you.
There are a lot of fundamental elements in these moments of Call of Duty 4 that have little to do with game design or even narrative and instead boil down to aesthetics. When a game puts you into a passive situation where you can only observe one must instead approach it as an architect. How is this room conceived? Where do my eyes go? What is the flow? An excellent essay proposes just such an approach to games by pointing out the possibilities an architecture student would see in a video game. What is the perfect way to design the scenery and landscape of an atomic wasteland? Of the room you intend to be the last thing the player sees? It’s an aesthetic that Call of Duty 4 explores with these passive moments and that is greatly enhanced by the emotion the landscape design brings out. It’s not enough to just stick the player in a car that’s surrounded by people being shot. It’s not enough to have people speak to your character instead of shooting at them. Several other FPS games, such as Quake 4’s horrific Strogg conversion sequence or F.E.A.R.’s blending of cutscene and explosions have all explored the idea of passive sequences. What happens in Call of Duty 4 is a passive sequence that doesn’t take away the excitement of participating in those moments because the roller coaster ride always gives us something to look at.