[Disclaimer: I am going to use Black Ops as the example in my argument because BO’s campaign is famous for being the “best of the series” that has become the canon for first person shooters. This means that I will spoil some parts of Black Ops, so if you haven't played the campaign yet, keep reading, and you'll be glad you didn't.]
I think I know why I really don't like the single player campaign in first person shooters, and it basically boils down to this: what’s the point really?
What’s the point of Black Ops single player? To build to that final nuke moment because of loud noises and flag waving and everybody giving the player character thumbs up and high fives because I’VE SINGLE HANDED-LY SAVED THE DAY, HOORAY!? Or is the point to induce epilepsy with those ridiculously over used and unnecessary transition editing? Those are things that happened in the campaign, and the dangerous epiphany will soon realize itself–there is no point to the campaign story.
Still, I think the first step into exploring the main point is to explore what the campaign actually is. And what the single player campaign is, unfortunately, is basically the zombie mode with human models. And I say this not just in terms of AI, but more importantly, their purpose: to get killed by the player to make the player feel good about themselves.
I don’t really care that the human AI is more advanced and capable as a challenge to the players compared to zombies, but they’re basically just zombie mode at level 50. And I have no problem with the zombie mode because the zombie mode is meant to be a light hearted distraction of racking up points and strategically moving around a restricted space with a balance on resources.
That’s brilliant because the shooting mechanic is the game, and there are no narrative to befuddle the point. It’s a game, so here are game mechanics. Here are some “theoretically” well balanced resource management mechanics with strategic level design and a strategic timing design. The whole point is to compete and cooperate with your friends by getting points by shooting enemies. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that. And for what it’s doing, the whole design works very well.
Unfortunately, that’s what the campaign is. It’s human zombie mode but done horribly wrong because there are no strategic restrictions or any design elements that make the zombie mode work in the first place. And that’s because the campaign is a campaign that is designed by an arcade-minded designer who is more interested in the pandering to the player than the actual campaign itself. What we got is a single player mode that’s nothing more than just a stream of target practice dummies popping up in different locations.The campaign is about ego-boosting the player and acts as a tutorial for how to play the game to prepare the player for the actual game: multiplayer modes. That’s it.
The whole plot about a secret cover up of a band of soldiers is superficial and simply has no narrative value because it’s not really presented as a story at all. It’s simply a collection of some levels that the player go through with character models that talk about things that the player can’t care about or really even matter (think Transformers the second movie).
Characters become friends because they shoot at the same enemies. Enemies become enemies because they shoot at the player. A situation is intense and supposed to be emotionally engaging because the screen glows red, things are blowing up in the background, the camera is close up on some guy pointing a gun at some other guy, and/or a siren is sounding.
The campaigns lack context and an overall build-up for why the player should care about this story (or any event in the story) in the first place. And unfortunately, the context can’t exist because the story is actually generic and uninteresting. There really is no reason the player should care about the story. So the game makers just throw in special effects to razzle-dazzle the player into thinking, “well maybe the story actually had substance, but I just don’t get it. I mean, look, it’s got that whole Memento effect, so…like it’s cool right?” I’m here to tell you, no. You didn’t get it because there’s nothing to get. That’s not a Memento effect. That’s just the loading screen spazzing out.
And I attribute this general lack of interesting story to the previous Call of Duty games because Black Ops is narratively designed very similarly to those games. In the World War 2 games, they present a premise, which is basically either you kill the Nazis or the Nazis will rule the world and kill everybody, and they built a game simply by stating that premise. That worked because that’s actually pretty accurate to what happened. The player can instantly relate to the material, bringing in previous knowledge and prejudice on the subject to fill in all the substance of the narrative. And when someone dies in a game, it carries weight because these soldiers actually literally died and experienced this hell in the real world. It mattered to the player because the premise mattered to the player. And assuming this design, the creators made the modern Call of Duty games.
Again, they presented a premise and expected the players to be involved. Here’s a nuclear crisis, now get interested. But we can’t because the premise of a secret cover-up of a story that includes re-routing our entire military into a single location with a giant nuclear warhead on the count-down is simply not relatable. You can’t just set that premise and expect the player to get involved from the beginning. The player doesn’t care about the premise because the player literally doesn’t care about the premise. So, the plot needs to build an understanding to explain what’s so interesting about this story about these characters?
And for that matter, who are the characters? The characters are generic soldiers, and that’s it. They’re excellent super soldiers who can survive impossible battles and eat bullets while regenerating limbs on the fly. All of these soldiers are ultra-patriotic and self-sacrificing. Everybody is fit and lean and tough and ready to die for their country.
Remember in old Call of Duty games, you know, those good old World War 2 games, when you see some characters cuddle in fetal position, scared shitless, facing the onslaught of merciless enemies? Or that one scene during Stalingrad, when the Russians are desperately throwing people into the line of fire, you holding only some bullets and had to go get your own gun because the army ran out of guns? Remember when humanity and personality and character actually existed in first person shooters? Man, those were the days.
In general, these games don’t work because they’re pointless, generic, and lacks a human touch. They actually really don’t have a narrative at all. It’s just a 4th of July theme park ride where the player gets to shoot stuff and watch things explode around them, while controlling the generic super soldier robot who have no character or background at all. And while it’s easy and obvious to point fingers towards the CoD franchise for setting the trend, ultimately, it’s our fault, as reviewers, for pandering to Black Ops’ popularity and hoisting its turd of a single player campaign and call the characters “well-crafted” and the plot “rarely disappoints.” –IGN