Modern shooters should focus on story

Blair Hanley Frank

Illustration: MaryAnne Bowen

Fair warning: this column contains  graphic  spoilers for the “Modern Warfare” series and “Battlefield 3.”

It’s the holiday season, and that means there’s a bumper crop of video games pouring out of development houses and vying for our screen time. Two of the biggest releases this year are “Battlefield 3” and “Modern Warfare 3,” a pair of photorealistic first-person shooters that put you behind the eyes of soldiers. Each game has sold millions of copies, raking in even more millions of dollars for their developers and publishers. They’re popular, sure, but the developers are taking the wrong lessons from their popularity. The problem isn’t that “Battlefield 3” and “Modern Warfare 3” are successful, it’s that the gaming industry sees them as  successes.

The evolution of the “Modern Warfare” series’s single-player campaign is a perfect example. In the original “Modern Warfare,” the player died a gruesome death at the hands of a nuclear weapon. It was an unexpected turn that received a lot of positive press. The lesson that the developers took away from that seems to be that what every MW game needs is a shocking, graphic moment. In “Modern Warfare 2,” players were treated to a level that involved being complicit in the massacre of civilians, and “Modern Warfare 3” follows that up with a short level in which you videotape your own family being blown apart by a truck bomb.

From those two examples, it seems like the message that Infinity Ward, the game’s developer, took away from the critical praise of “Modern Warfare”‘s nuke sequence is that more  shocking  content is good. But that’s exactly the wrong message to take. Shocking in and of itself is not a useful goal. The reason why having the player character get nuked was so meaningful was that we had an opportunity to bond with the character. The truck bomb sequence in “Modern Warfare 3” was the exact opposite. The player is plunked down in the role of some tourist we have never met, and the goal of the scene is immediately telegraphed. The player has just finished stopping one truck bomb from going off, but knows that there are another two in London. The entire scene is devoid of emotional value: You’re supposed to care about your “family” getting killed, but as a player, there’s no sense of a relationship.

But the real problem with both games is their willingness to cut corners in single-player while focusing on multiplayer. “Battlefield” is the most egregious offender here, with its sloppily written and brutally short single-player campaign. It begins with the player being dropped onto a subway train and fighting his way through a group of enemies before flashing back to an interrogation with two of the thickest intelligence agents that have ever existed in a fictional universe. The player is given no grounding in the basic trappings of the plot or the world in which these characters exist. The entire story is told in a series of flashbacks that try to encourage a sense of suspense by slowly revealing the plot, but they fall horribly short, instead preventing any understanding of the plot as a whole by the player until very late in the game.

They are, in short, the video game equivalent of Michael Bay films: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Unfortunately, they’re also the paragons of commercial success in gaming. If more games start following the model of “Modern Warfare” rather than “Skyrim,” “Bioshock” or “Half-Life,” we’re in a heap of trouble.