The Spirit of ‘Call of Duty’

This week, Jorge and I talked about Call of Duty: Ghosts on our podcast. At one point in the conversation, Jorge raised a good question: Why do Call of Duty games still have campaigns and who plays them? It’s difficulty to get solid numbers, but cobble together some sporadic achievement data as well as anecdotes from the community and it starts to seem possible that less than half of the people who played Black Ops 2 finished the single-player campaign. Seeing as how the game sold monstrously well and that its campaign was (in my opinion) much better than that of Ghosts, it seems safe to assume a similarly low completion rate.

This brings us back to Jorge’s “why and who” question. I am one of those people who play CoD largely for the campaign, and while I can’t speak for the masses, I think my experience represents some of the practical and philosophical reasons why single player persists in an environment dominated by multiplayer. I’ll start with the practical aspect and work my way towards wild philosophical speculation.

I’m comfortable admitting that I’m a tourist when it comes to CoD. A lack of free time means that I’ll never be able to put in the required hours of practice necessary to unlock all the weapons, perks, and bonuses that elite players achieve in the multiplayer. I use the campaign as a sampler of the various tweaks and weapon swaps that happen every year. Historically, any new equipment is briefly spotlighted in a particular level in a way that shows off the novelty without actually requiring much expertise.

With five hours in the campaign and another hour or so in the multiplayer, I can at least follow the conversation around the “dive to prone” vs. “sliding” movement actions that changed between Black Ops 2 and Ghosts. I can have an informed opinion on how the new leaning from cover system works. I’m exposed to the new grenade fuse indicator even though I’m not an expert at using it. The campaign is a condensed preview of a larger game I’ll never truly master.

CoD campaigns also serve as my yearly check in for the state of triple-A spectacles. They may be scripted and linear, but the huge set pieces and high framerate continue to impress me. The theme park analogy is quite apt when it comes to my feeling towards these games. Just like real roller coasters, I buckle up for the CoD ride about once a year. It’s a brief, highly controlled kind of excitement, and it lasts long enough to get my fill and serve as a reminder that I wouldn’t want to do that sort of thing all the time.

The scripted, bombastic nature of the campaign also suggests why such a feature continues to exist in the face of lagging popularity. It’s difficult to capture and package the emergent fun that comes out of spontaneous events in a multiplayer match. It’s also impossible to transmit the feeling of satisfaction derived from hours of grinding for a new weapon and then using it to win a match. A highly structured campaign can manufacture these types of moments. NPC companions can be scripted to behave in dramatic ways, and perfectly timed explosions can evoke the feeling of randomness without relying on the hope that players will just so happen to be in the right place at the right time.

This bleeds in to my guess as to why so much emphasis and work is put into CoD campaigns. To borrow a term from the series itself; the campaigns are about prestige. They are yearly monuments to bombast, chaos, and controversy that give the series an identity beyond that which is created by the multiplayer community. The series has been responsible for some of this console cycle’s most discussed levels, “Death From Above” and “No Russian,” both of which ultimately transcended the video game community and started a broader discussion about the connection between games, violence, and war.

It’s telling that the reveal trailer for Ghosts (and every other game in the series) focused solely on a story that most players would consider secondary:

This trailer probably doesn’t do much to represent the average player’s moment-to-moment experience with the game (the follow up commercials featuring trash-talking friends are probably much more indicative of that), but it does fit in with the tradition of positioning the Call of Duty as a game with something specific to communicate alongside its more emergent player-driven community voice.

Honor, jingoism, faith. Whatever the year’s topic may be, the Call of Duty campaigns add context to what would otherwise be generic, military-themed combat arenas. It’s what separates the series from the aptly named Battlefield games. The former drapes its combat in nationality and philosophy. The latter focuses on the combat venue itself. The result is that Call of Duty has been able to have it both ways: its willingness to include campaigns that make interesting, if often contradictory or even downright repugnant, statements about war draw people like me in and offer context for the actions that all the multiplayer folks take.

Even if few people finish it, the campaigns are crucial for defining the philosophy and rhetoric that runs through the Call of Duty series. Take away the campaign and you’re left with a sparse battlefield that might not live up to its competitive namesake.