Here’s a question: what are the black ops in Call of Duty: Black Ops? Some of them seem pretty easy to identify – assassination attempt on Castro, check, definitely a black op. That torture thing in Hong Kong, that’s a black op too. But what about the overarching narrative? A Soviet war hero imprisoned in a gulag hijacks the brainwashing of an American prisoner to make that prisoner kill the guys overseeing the brainwashing process. Is that really a black op? Or is it something else?
Let’s start with that brainwashing thing. In Black Ops, the protagonist Alec Mason – no, sorry, that’s the guy from Red Faction – ALEX Mason, rather – gets captured in Cuba and given to the Russians. They do some experiments on him, trying to brainwash him into killing JFK. Alright, that’s sort of black ops-y. Very illegal, very plausible deniability. But then this imprisoned Russian war hero, Viktor Reznov, gets to Mason midway through his brainwashing and implants the idea that he should kill the guys in charge of the project. And this is where that whole black ops thing starts to break down.
As I mentioned last week, the plot of this game is that there’s some evil Nazi murder gas, which the Russians get after adopting a Nazi scientist in the wake of WW2. The bad Russians decide to test the gas on the good Russians, including Reznov, but at the last minute the British jump in because they want the gas for themselves. The bad Russians have a big old fight with the British, and Reznov and his mates nope out. As they’re leaving, Reznov’s soldiers are asking him who to fight, and he’s all like ‘we’re on nobody’s side any more fuck russia bwahh!’ Actually, let me get the exact quote:
Reznov: This is not our war!
Nevski: Then who do we fight?
Reznov: Everyone! We stand alone!
Reznov abandons the Russia that betrayed him and strikes out on his own, seeking to correct an injustice and destroy the terrible Nazi murder gas. As a premise for a game, that’s fine on its own. It’s just worth noting that it’s not really a black ops kinda scenario. In terms of motivations, we’ve actually moved from the national to the personal.
Let’s revisit the black ops thread in a little more detail. Black ops are secret operations carried out by government agencies. They’re usually secret because the government in question will get in trouble if people find out what kinda shit they’re up to. The central black ops group in Call of Duty: Black Ops is SOG, a real historical group that basically went around doing a bunch of sneaky bad shit for the US government. For instance, they were involved in the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and in Vietnam, both of which are depicted in the game. All that sneaky shit is directly tied to American foreign policy objectives. It’s not random soldiers going off-mission and doing their own thing, it’s America pushing a very specific political agenda within the international community. Black Ops is really sort of like a more historically-minded version of Modern Warfare. If Modern Warfare is about showing that countries have a bunch of sneaky behind-the-scenes military action that none of the plebs ever know about, then Black Ops takes that premise and attaches it to real historical groups and events. That’s the game’s setting.
Given that setting, we might expect a story that has something to do with underhanded international relations – something that would allow those initial themes embedded into the setting to really shine through. Instead, we get a pretty straightforward revenge story. A prisoner gets another prisoner to kill their evil captors. That’s Black Ops in a nutshell. It’s a really personal story, with very personal motivations. The black ops stuff exists in an entirely adjacent space. For example, when Mason first gets sent to the gulag where he meets Reznov, it’s after failing to escape from the Bay of Pigs invasion. But that context is pretty arbitrary, right. It’s not crucial that he gets to the gulag via Cuba. You could translate this story into basically any other setting and it would still work more or less in the same way. In another instance, the SOG team are sent to destroy a Soviet rocket before it gets into space. Mason pauses at the end to try and kill one of his captors, who’s just hanging out at the launch site. The game essentially switches stories for thirty seconds, pausing the black ops narrative to focus on the revenge narrative with this captor who’s just conveniently there. The same thing happens in the Laos levels: the SOG team has been inserted to retrieve the Nazi murder gas from a crashed Soviet plane, and then they stop off at this compound with one of the captors so they can kill him. Again, no real reason, no real agenda – the black ops plot just gets put on hold for this other thing that’s going on.
The game’s climax attempts to pull these two disparate threads together, but ultimately it really just emphasises how they’ve mostly got nothing to do with each other. The captors from the gulag are in possession of the evil Nazi murder gas, and they’re going to use it in America unless Mason can use his semi-brainwashed brain to figure out this secret communication. Long story short, he figures it out, and the Americans stop the attack before it happens. He gets to kill the last of the captors, as Reznov wanted, technically dovetailing the two threads together, but also demonstrating how they don’t overlap in any meaningful way. Really there are two stories at the heart of Black Ops. The first is the black ops thing, where the Americans blunder round doing a bunch of dumb stuff and eventually solve a problem moments before catastrophe by piecing together information from their various hijinks. The second is about Reznov, a Russian war hero betrayed and locked away in a gulag, brainwashing one of the other prisoners into murdering their mutual captors. They’re two separate stories, with two separate sets of DNA. The black ops stuff is about international relations, about the US being sneaky and underhanded during the Cold War. The Reznov stuff is about interpersonal relations, about a guy who abandons the country that he fought for and strikes out on his own to exact revenge. These two stories crowd each other. They’re not very well integrated, and the result is this awkward elbowing and jostling for position.
Possibly the only moment where they do interact well is when Mason and the Americans are going after Steiner, the Nazi who invented the murder gas. Mason’s kinda wandered off on his own at this point, and so you play through the level twice, from two different perspectives – that of Mason, and of the normal Americans. The normal Americans want to capture Steiner and make him decode the numbers, so they can stop the gas attack. Mason wants to kill Steiner, because it’s what he’s been programmed to do by Reznov. That’s some interesting drama: the two groups want different things, so the different motivations are brought into conflict. When Mason wins, that even escalates the stakes, because suddenly his revenge has endangered US lives – the Americans needed Steiner alive so he could decode the numbers. Unfortunately that conflict is resolved thirty seconds later, when Mason just decodes the numbers himself. The stakes are deflated, and the rest of the game is mopping up. There’s a chance for that twinned structure to shine, and then – ah well.