Dissecting The Narrative Of 'Black Ops 2'

Phil Owen takes a close look at the narrative structure and storytelling of Black Ops 2.

by on 6th Jan, 2013

black ops 2

Despite the fact that the Call of Duty franchise is mostly considered to be a multiplayer affair, they keep making campaigns for them, and I keep playing them. C'est la vie.

For the most part, I've grown tired of them, however. The last and only (before now, I should qualify) truly great Call of Duty campaign came in 2007 with the original Modern Warfare. That one worked perfectly because 1) it was the first to have a complete story arc and 2) the story was not about the soldiers you played as. It managed to maintain the traditional Call of Duty campaign structure while also managing to tell a coherent and interesting story.

Since then, we've been treated to campaigns that keep that structure while throwing at us stories that are more and more personal. This has been a problem because the Call of Duty campaign structure is built for vignettes rather than personal sagas. The structure by nature distances itself from the proceedings by not providing significant connective tissue. The first Black Ops tried to build some of said tissue around a personal story, but it failed to establish settings effectively. It was better than having folks rant on loading screens like in Modern Warfare 2, but not much better. We just got Ed Harris' mutated voice yelling at Sam Worthington over and over again without setting anything up.

Black Ops 2 maintains the vignette structure of the franchise while also being the first game in the series to give us honest-to-god cutscenes. In these cutscenes, characters discuss what is going on in the story! My goodness!

It's wonderful that we get a branching plot that hinges on your successes and failures, but we're still missing some of that connective tissue.

It's a good first attempt, but it doesn't end up working at all. See, Black Ops II features a pretty complex story that has flashbacks within flashbacks (Young Mason discusses something Woods told him, and then it flashes back to Woods talking to him, and then we get a playable segment set in the '80s, for example), but the scenes simply don't give us enough information most of the time.

One such scene has Young Mason and his buddies discussing one of the main henchman of the game's antagonist, and then it transitions into a playable section in which you are presented with a battle already in progress in which you don't know what your objectives are. Later in the game, you jump from one mission in some corner of the world (as Young Mason) straight to a siege of Los Angeles by terrorists in which you (Young Mason again) are inexplicably protecting Madame President. Despite Treyarch's best efforts, a lot of things just happen in this game without much explanation.

If you were playing as a random soldier, that would be OK. Real soldiers often don't have context for their orders. But this is a tale of Raul Menendez vs. Woods and the Masons, which are your playable characters. Menendez has a greater plan, of course, but really he's just doing it all to fuck with you. Too, our characters are for whatever reason in the loop about everything that is going on in the game. But it doesn't feel as if they're sharing all that information with you, the player.

What it comes down to is that Black Ops II still has a very barebones approach to storytelling, presumably in an attempt to tell the story efficiently. Treyarch was trying to stray from the Call of Duty norm here, but they didn't stray enough. It's wonderful that we get a branching plot that hinges on your successes and failures, but we're still missing some of that connective tissue.

But the campaign is, overall, still satisfying, thanks to its brilliantly crafted and epic set pieces. If Treyarch wants to make a campaign in which all the pieces really come together, though, we need a different structure.

I should point out, too, that this is the first Call of Duty game with a real epilogue. But, again, it's lacking. All sorts of heinous shit went down in this game, and it ends with a bang, but we don't get a good look at the consequences. In my ending, Menendez was successful in unleashing some sort of virus, but I don't know concretely how it affected the world later on. We just get scenes of Menendez breaking out of prison and stabbing Woods and then setting himself on fire in his sister's grave. I want to see what else happened, guys!

Treyarch delivered a good effort, but it's more of a slow evolution than a dramatic change. It could be that their next step will deliver what I'm looking for, but for now I'm left hanging.

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