Alright so last week we established that Black Ops II is set across two time periods: the end of the Cold War, and 2025. Here’s like a pure madlad narrative pro-tip for you – when you have two things in a story that exist in the same category, you can do what’s called a comparison. It’s part of this thing called commentary, where you deliberately arrange the parts of your story to offer a reflection on the world around us. It’s something art does. All you need is two things that more or less fall into the same category. You could use two characters, or two events, or, if you’re the maddest of lads, two time periods. Now where the fuck would we find two of those?
If we look at the Cold War and 2025 in Black Ops, probably the biggest immediate contrast to me is the tech angle. In the Cold War, you’re all riding horses and shit, while in 2025 you’re flying jets and using drones. To me, that contrast is strongest in the straight combat sections. In the Cold War, you’re basically just getting boring normal weapons. You look for an enemy, and you point and shoot. 2025 is interesting because it does some of that targeting for you. It’ll give you a little x-ray scan of where the bad guys are standing, or it’ll mark them with a red diamond when you aim down sights. From that perspective, the kinda latent comment is that technology makes combat easier. It gives you an edge over your enemies.
In some ways that’s not an unfamiliar idea – we’ve had it spread throughout the series. The original Modern Warfare had a scene where you use your night vision to raid a house and save an informant. You barrel up to the house, it’s the middle of the night, and Price tells one of the guys to go round the back and cut the power. Then you flick on your night vision, wander through the house, and murder its inhabitants basically at leisure – because they can’t see anything. That’s like a fun little creative moment – you see how the clever use of technology lets you fuck up your enemies. There’s that lovely physical proximity too – usually you’re firing on enemies from a distance, so actually being right up close to them, without them shooting at you, is a bit of a novel experience. It upsets your usual battlefield dynamic, kinda shows how technology can reshape the way we fight.
Anyway, Black Ops II doesn’t have anything that good. What I found interesting was more how the technology seems to revolve around information. You get your look-through-the-wall x-ray thing, and what that does for you on the battlefield is it gives you more information. You know where the bad guys are, and you know when they’re about to stand up to shoot – you can see them begin that movement. That obviously gives you an edge, because you can kinda pre-fire – you can start shooting before they’re even properly up, so that they just stand into a hail of bullets. Similarly, the red diamond sights will identify targets that you can’t necessarily see. At one point in an early level, some fucker threw a grenade, and it kicked up all kinds of dust and smoke – but the enemies were still marked with that little red diamond, so I could still shoot them. In Black Ops II, technology lets you see things you couldn’t otherwise see. It’s information.
With that increase in information comes all the little attendant frustrations and mistakes. Sometimes you’ll see an enemy with the x-ray thing, but you won’t be able to tell quite what’s in between the two of you. You might try and fire through the wall, only to realise that it’s thick concrete, or that the developers just haven’t made it a penetrable surface. The red diamond can sometimes be off, particularly if enemies are leaning or bending or doing anything other than standing still. Technology gives us information, but that information isn’t always reliable. It’s difficult. It’s finicky. It sometimes obscures what’s actually going on. This sort of theme has, again, already been explored in a previous instalment – I’m thinking the EMP sequence from Modern Warfare 2 – and again, Black Ops II doesn’t really have anything of comparable interest. It’s got the building blocks, but never takes the time to develop them into a substantial commentary. The closest it gets is in the climax, where the bad guys hijack all the drones, but even then it’s kinda ehh.
Let’s talk about that sequence, actually. Throughout the game you spend a bunch of time controlling different types of drone. There’s tiny hovering pizza delivery drones, tanks with legs, and even some remote controlled helicopter guns. Oh – one of those remote control sequences is in the Cold War period, by the by – it’s during the mission in Angola. This is kinda what I mean about the game having the building blocks but no sense of how to use them – it can’t keep a clear distinction between robo-techno future and the 70s. But okay, setting that aside, what does the game say about these unmanned weapons of war? On the one hand, they keep soldiers safe. If you’re not physically on the battlefield, you’re not gonna get killed. The drones make combat more impersonal, more distant. You’re not physically ‘there’, so you’re not gonna actually die. You’ll just connect to a new machine and carry on. Where the normal adage has it that technology brings us closer together, on the battlefield, it pushes us further apart.
And that’s one of the locations where a really interesting comparison could be made between the two time periods. In 2025, the Americans are using technology to distance their soldiers from combat, so that they aren’t getting killed. In the Cold War, could we say something about the proxy nations used for basically the same reason? When the CIA is training mujahideen in Afghanistan, when it’s supporting uprisings in Angola – they don’t want to come out and fight the Russians directly, so they put things in between themselves and their enemies. That’s a really interesting premise for a story: how are the human proxies more or less reliable than the technological ones? What’s more ethical? What’s better? Why are the Americans so recalcitrant to put their physical selves on the line? The human proxies of the game are big on betrayal (like Noriega, for instance), but technology isn’t necessarily any better. Your guns and turrets are always getting reprogrammed to fight against you. Again, I don’t think that Treyarch totally understand the material they have with this game, but if you wanted a more substantial narrative, these are the threads to be pulling on.