It’s November, and if you follow any games writing at all, you’re bound to read something about Call of Duty somewhere. The long-running series’ annual release date pretty much guarantees you’ll hear something about its latest installment, and more likely than not, it will have to do with some shortcoming. As the gaming market’s 800-pound gorilla with a tactical vest and a rifle, it’s simply too big a target, and we’ve all had the pleasure of sniping at it for one reason or another.
The consensus on this year’s offering, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare by Sledgehammer Games and Activision, is unexpectedly positive; the new game is said to be more refined than its predecessors and even takes a few more risks. And it’s one of those out-of-left-field decisions that drew attention to it this time.
You’ve probably seen the “Press [Button] to pay respects” prompt scene by now. It’s hard to miss; outlets such as Forbes, GQ, and The Independent all wrote about it. Venture Beat included it in a list of the “most ridiculous button prompts in videogames”. Conan O’Brien made fun of it on his show, as part of his “Clueless Gamer” segment. Suffice to say, the scene is out there. It’s also down here, if you still want to see what it’s all about.
The coverage has been almost universally negative. The scene is described as crass, tasteless, inconsistent with the tone of the game, just flat-out wrong. This puts me in a position I would never thought I would find myself; defending Call of Duty.
Don’t get me wrong; the scene absolutely doesn’t work. Although I haven’t played it myself, the video and previous experiences on how such scenes are set up in games make it obvious that the developers wanted some sort of poignancy combined with player agency, and the result is indeed clumsy and incongruous. But much of that is the fault of the overall game, not that particular scene’s.
Call of Duty as a game is a thrilling roller-coaster of action movie tropes; war experienced as a Disneyland ride (if Disneyland allowed for graphic violence and the occasional swear word, obviously). As a narrative, it’s always been less successful, even with a digitized Kevin Spacey in full villain mode on board. It has been jingoistic, morally irresponsible, and borderline racist.
This is the main reason why the “Press X to pay respects” scene doesn’t work in my opinion; it resembles the feeble attempts at character moments within a Michael Bay blockbuster. It asks the player for a moment of empathy, when in return it offers hours of throwing empathy out the window of an exploding skyscraper collapsing on a highway of racing army vehicles. The average Call of Duty player simply doesn’t care, because they were never asked to care, nor were they given a good enough reason to care.
However, I think there’s something to be said about trying to make the player a more integral part of an interactive experience. I’m the kind of player who starts feeling like an actor on a stage that’s been set up for me to perform on. Never mind that the audience is just me (most of the time, at least). I enjoy actions that feel like they add extra possibilities into that world, even if they are momentary distractions from the “standard” gameplay. Done right, they can make the world feel that much deeper, more alive, a place worth caring about. Better yet, they can feel more organic than just a pre-rendered cut-scene, which makes me drop the controller and watch passively as the story is wrested from my hands.
Based on the video, here’s what I think did work in that scene:
- It allows interactivity, even though it is strictly a scene advancing the narrative (that’s nothing new, of course, but it remains a good approach).
- It portrays two other characters performing the action the game will then ask the player to perform, thus giving the player a picture of said action, and its significance in the scene.
- It allows the player to either perform the action or not, thus letting the player determine how their character will act in the scene.
For all that, of course, there’s plenty more that makes the scene a bad idea, at least in its current execution. For one, the player might decide to start moving around the funeral, and no one will bat an eye; like dutiful actors, determined not to let the one idiot ruin the production, their gaze is fixed forward, their posture straight. The whole thing hinges on the player to play along, collapsing miserably if the player does not. So how do you get the player to play along, without forcing them to do things in your interactive world they don’t want to?
Context is one way. I’m convinced moments like “Press X to pay respects” can work, even in a game where you’re mostly asked to shoot other people in the face. A scene like that placed in a game like Spec Ops: The Line, which presents a much more serious and harrowing face of warfare while framing it in a AAA blockbuster production, would absolutely work. But in that case, the whole narrative revolves around the trauma and horror of military conflict, rather than the thrill and spectacle. The much maligned scenes of “Press X to [perform action] in games like Heavy Rain and Batman: Arkham City are actually good examples of such actions being context-appropriate, if not altogether well-thought out.
Interactivity is another. Developers are currently only dipping their toe in the pool of such examples of “alternative” or “enhanced” interactivity. Players are only beginning to discover them as part of the overall gameplay. That’s why we still get the tasteless “Press X to do Y” prompts – the player must be notified they can perform a new action somehow. As game design and players further mature, isn’t it conceivable that the player will be compelled to experiment, to “press X” in order for their character to perform a context-appropriate (or inappropriate, as the case may be), action in a given situation, even without receiving a prompt? An action that offers some deeper insight into the scene, some emotional connection, some additional information, or maybe just an interesting easter egg? Adventure games have been perfecting this kind of versatile interface for years, why shouldn’t other genres borrow from that, as multiplayer shooters have so successfully borrowed from RPGs?
I can only imagine that must be a nightmare from a design/development standpoint, but as game worlds grow increasingly richer and more complex, new possibilities for interactivity and experiences within those game worlds open up. The players will want to experiment, participate in those worlds, if they know there is something there for them to find. The challenge, then, is to reward that experimentation with subtler, more meaningful experiences.