Imagine you have been captured. Your surroundings invoke terror as you watch prisoners like yourself being violently shoved into the darkness. You notice some of those prisoners are your friends, and your heart lurches for their safety. Guards in masks push you forward, cursing at you to increase your pace. The uncertainty and lack of control is meant to illicit fear for yourself and your friends. The threat of death and the failure of your mission should cause you to panic. But this is only a video game. You and your friends are portrayed as bland and clichéd. Your story has been told before, and everything you’ve done up until this point of capture would surprise no one.
This walking sequence—most likely bringing you to your enemy Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey)—is long and uneventful. The itch of boredom causes you to step out of line for a moment. A small blood splatter illuminates the screen as the guards behind you yell at you to stay in line. A small grin forms on your face as you do it again. The blood splatter gets larger and larger until you fall to your death. The death is not so much a punishment for breaking the rules as it is a victory in discovering that your actions can have a consequence. You begin to do the opposite of everything you’re told, whether it be refusing to walk when you’re told or turning left when you were ordered to go right. It is these small moments in-between shooting hundreds of indistinguishable A.I. in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s campaign that are the most fun, engaging, and memorable.
Call of Duty is easily one of the biggest game franchises on the market. The annualized first-person shooter depicting war in different time periods continues to bring in millions upon millions of dollars despite an arguably repetitive formula. More than anything, Call of Duty is known for its online component and is often judged more harshly on its multiplayer than its single player. The single player is often accused of being tacked on, but I think what a lot of Call of Duty fans don’t realize is how fun the single player can actually be once you stop following the rules.
Most games today sell themselves on being massive open worlds ripe for exploring. They brag about the lack of limits and emphasize player choice. Despite Call of Duty’s “gamey” reputation, the series has always stuck to being linear and cinematic: two qualities that can create fantastic games and experiences when used uniquely (The Last of Us is a good example). Call of Duty’s strict boundaries and use of punishment for exploration can ironically be considered “anti-gamer,” as it punishes the instinct to explore that most gamers feel.
However, the best moments in Advanced Warfare, the latest game in the series, are the ones where the player can test these boundaries. Whether it be the simple pleasure of knocking a chair back in forth while your comrades patiently wait and watch or completely breaking immersion by finding new ways to die, Call of Duty’s campaign shows that strict boundaries bring out the upmost creativity in gamers by unintentionally encouraging to explore and break their limits.
The satisfaction of putting your own input into a scene that clearly doesn’t want your input is what I believe is the main for why YouTube Let’s Plays are so popular. Watching others create comedy where it was never intended puts a fresh spin on the game and encourages viewers to twist their own gaming experiences. The process of exploring limits and discovering ways in which to change a scene becomes its own game, one in which the possibilities are pretty much endless. One player’s take on a scene may be comedic, while another’s may be overly dramatic or completely out of context. Creating a campaign such as Advanced Warfare encourages players to make up for the lack of content and strict boundaries by creating their own stories that erase those boundaries.
So, despite Call of Duty’s strict enforcement of rules being considered “anti-gamer” due to its punishment of all things gamers love to do, the unintended encouragement to break those rules is where the real fun in Advanced Warfare’s campaign lies. With a story that lacks any real sense of immersion or control, using what little wiggle room you have to change the game’s pace or make a serious scene comedic actually creates a sense of control and freedom. Even though an open world Call of Duty campaign is interesting and welcome, for now I’m happy with a strict environment, if only because I can knock a chair back and forth endlessly while the stability and well-being of the entire country is at stake.