Tuesday marks the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the latest in the immensely popular first person shooter franchise. The game, now incorporating science fiction elements and branching storylines, sees players assuming the role of two separate soldiers, each coping with political problems from different generations. It’s an interesting setup and one that is sure to be appreciated by fans of the franchise — but that’s not what Call of Duty is about.
Consistently ranked as one of the most played series on the internet, Call of Duty is all about multiplayer. And perhaps that is why the series, more financially lucrative than James Cameron’s Avatar, can never really be called art.
Roger Ebert once commented on why he didn’t consider video games art. The iconic film critic elegantly stated, “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”
As difficult as it was for me to see Ebert’s point initially, I ultimately have to concede to his vision. No matter how well a video game is written, the strength of the writing will only arise in pre-rendered cinematic sequences that are out of the player’s hands. Once the player is given control, the authority to create shifts from the artist and goes into the hands of the players, most of whom spend their time pretending to defecate on their opponents.
Any time a player is given control, it takes away from the artistic merit of the work. In anything truly artistic, every single line, frame or brushstroke has a purpose. In King Lear, for example, everything from the Fool’s deceptively inane ramblings to Cordelia’s unfortunate demise is a necessity of the tale, and giving an actor free reign to change it is a criminal injustice.
In video games, however, the player is given such free reign once every 5 minutes. In Fallout 3, for example, it is possible to take hour-long detours to explore the unquestionably beautiful world. However, while Bethesda’s designers are brilliant, is random exploration really appropriate for a young man recklessly searching for his lost father in a post apocalyptic world? Simply put, regardless of the story the developer manages to create, by allowing gamers to receive it any which way they please, the developer is ultimately abandoning artistic control. Audiences had no option but to face the grim reality the Coen Brothers presented in No Country for Old Men; here, reality can be mutated with just the flick of a thumb.
That doesn’t mean video games are never an art form. In some games, the story is so well paced and freedom so limited that the player may only conduct actions that make contextual sense, and the story is so central that it forces the player to think about the issues it raises. Be it Ryo Hazuki’s search for his father’s killer in Shenmue II, Chell’s frantic escape from GLADoS in Portal or Michael Thorton’s search for the truth in Alpha Protocol, these are games that only allow the player to experience as much as the creator wanted because advancement is based on acting in accordance with the demands of the story. For much of Call of Duty, however, the story is inconsequential.
Call of Duty’s most popular mode is its online multiplayer, so much so that players often skip the story and immediately start playing online. However, what happens online is purely for fun; there is absolutely no context to any action. Just as boxing matches involve no other framework than the sport itself, neither do these exhibitions of thumb flexibility involve anything more. In art, even when there is action, the context lies within human emotions. The fight at the end of Rocky, for example, had context but it was not due to the sport.
Neither the video game industry nor the action genre is inherently inferior when it comes to art; games such as Shenmue II and action films like the Hong Kong crime drama Infernal Affairs are proof that these mediums can deliver the same intellectual and emotional experience as any sonnet. The reason these are art, however, while your average Frank Miller picture book is not, is because the action is contextual and forces human contemplation.
Black Ops II director Dave Anthony has stated that his game will overtake most Hollywood releases financially, referring to movies as “100 years old.” Since gamers are unwilling to pay $60 for a superbly told tale but will pay the same amount plus a monthly subscription fee in order to pointlessly stretch their thumbs, he is probably right about the financials. However, he is wrong in attacking the film industry; the film industry has delivered more pieces of art than any one man ever can in a lifetime. Whatever Anthony may call his product, and it is a product solely made for the purpose of selling well, he should never call it art nor should he call himself an artist; his vision can be changed with just a pair of thumbs.