State of Play – COD-native Dissonance

San Diego. Not New York, or London or Rome. Not even Los Angeles – although we’ll be picking our way, both physically and metaphorically, through the tattered remnants of tinsel town soon enough – but San Diego.

For a franchise that’s excelled in turning the world’s major cities into warzones, and once reduced the White House to rubble faster than George W. Bush test-driving a weaponized golf buggy, the choice of San Diego as the opening location for Call of Duty: Ghosts’ single-player campaign seems a little parochial. Let’s not forget, this is a place only discovered in 1904 and named after the German for whale’s vagina. (Factual information kindly provided by local TV news anchor Ron Burgundy).

They even have a sidekick dog, Riley. Although he’s basically just Steven Seagal reincarnated as a German Shepard.

At the height of its powers, I liked to imagine there was some sort of global competition, similar to the one to host the Olympics, to have your hometown wiped out in COD. Delegations would be formed, bids submitted and catchy slogans unveiled, (Make Dubai Go Bye-Bye, Let’s Wreck Reykjavik and so on). I wanted everyone to have a chance at that, “Woo-hoo, they just nuked my neighbourhood” moment. Either that, or for Activision to do something completely left of field, like obliterate Torquay off the face of the earth. Not in the game… just, you know… actually obliterate it.

Of course, it turns out there’s a perfectly logical explanation why COD has singled out this often overshadowed part of Southern California and bestowed upon it the series’ highest honour by pounding it into a smouldering crater. You see, Infinity Ward’s latest all-out assault on the first-person shooter genre begins with an attack on the U.S. by the South Americans.

Yep, that’s right, the South Americans. All of them.

I know, when it comes to credible threats to international stability, they’re probably not high on anyone’s list. They’re the San Diego of rogue warmongering regions.

Ostensibly, the reason behind Commandant Shakira and Co. making their grab for world domination is some sort of near-future global fuel war. Although, it’s hard not to conclude that this was just the straw that broke the Alpaca’s back. That the entire continent was just waiting to pick a fight, fed up with enduring the constant contempt shown to it by everyone, including the video games industry. You can easily see more than one game design meeting wrapping up with the words, “The South Americans, you say, as the brutal and cunning instigators of a new world order? I think we need to give our audience a little more credit than that, don’t you? Alright, so the Amish space aliens it is then.”

It's alright, lads, our route out of here just arrived. There's my Mum's Prius.
It’s alright, lads, our route out of here just arrived. There’s my Mum’s Prius.

Back in 2007, the game maker and commentator Clint Hocking published an article critiquing the original Bioshock in which he coined the phrase, ludonarrative dissonance. A term used to encapsulate the fundamental weakness in many games where the narrative tone of the non-interactive parts stands directly opposed to that of the gameplay. As an extremely rough analogy, think of it as a bit like an episode of This Morning that features a film on the dangers of concealed weapons, followed by a bit where Pip Schofield challenges members of the audience to a knife fight for fun.

The ludonarrative nuke is one that’s repeatedly been detonated over Call of Duty. The series’ reliance on real-world locales, its amplification of contemporary fears and conflicts, its fetishized recreations of weapons and military speak lend an unhealthy veneer of authenticity to what is actually a funfair shooting gallery built on a blockbuster movie budget. So, when it was announced that writing duties on Ghosts’ campaign were being handled by movie scribe Stephen Gaghan – the man responsible for the slickly contrived and sharply political films Syriana and Traffic – some took it as a sign COD was finally getting serious about addressing its incongruities.

Across a number of high profile reviews, I’ve seen Ghosts’ story referred to as stupid, dumb and dimwitted, and I have to say I completely agree. The key difference is that I mean it as a compliment.

The game’s plot centres on two brothers and their father thrown into close quarters combat with one another as members of America’s top special ops team. Already, this all sounds more like an unaired episode of Frasier than offcuts from Restrepo. They even have a sidekick dog, Riley. Although he’s basically just Steven Seagal reincarnated as a German Shepard.

The action begins in earnest in space, before being brought back down to earth in only the most literal of senses. A defence of Santa Monica beach plays out like a Baz Luhrmann modernisation of the D-Day landings. All theatrical excess and superficial shock and awe played with a smug Leo DiCaprio nobility and a possible sighting of Mitch Buchanan manning a .40 cal.

Your deep sea COD is armed to the teeth to avoid a battering.
Your deep sea COD is armed to the teeth to avoid a battering.

Later, you get to watch a Caracas awash with soldiers transformed into the South American equivalent of the Somerset Levels and do you your bit for rising fuel prices by blowing an Antarctic oil platform into the stratosphere. There’s even an underwater stealth section in which you have to sneak past great white sharks – which I guess makes you Solid Sea Snake – before the whole thing culminates in a runaway train ride. A more apt ending would be hard to find.

Of course, Call of Duty is the past master at ripping explosive Hollywood set pieces out of their celluloid frames and repurposing them as interactive action movie installations. Now (ironically, possibly through maturity) the series finally seems to have learnt to discard those heavier narrative elements that won the original Modern Warfare so much praise. Fully embracing the childish contrivances of its gameplay in its plot.

Ghosts’ action and story are a perfect match. Both as hokey, simplistic and jingoistic as one another. As a result, any hint of ludonarrative dissonance dissolves into the thin air Gaghan and Infinity Ward must have been breathing when they concocted its tale. It no longer matters if the gun you’re holding is a meticulous recreation, if the enemy base you’re firing it in looks like it’s on a long lease from Ernst Blofeld. It no longer matters about the accuracy of the soldier chatter, if the place you’re “Oscar Mike” to is low earth orbit because Pele and Eva Peron have teamed up to hurl giant space tooth picks at Sea World. Call of Duty’s perpetual war machine has finally found its peace. I just never thought it would be in San Diego.



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