Call of Duty storytelling: The past, present and future of Black Ops

Much credit is given to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, rightfully so, for kicking off the dust of the World War II military shooter and, in turn, reinvigorating the first-person shooter genre.

But I've always felt that Call of Duty: Black Ops never received the recognition it deserved for not fully committing to the same route Modern Warfare so successfully took, but rather, trying to deliver something a bit more nuanced and interesting with its narrative.

Where 2007's Modern Warfare was designed by Infinity Ward to tell the near-future story of a realistic world at war in 2011, 2010's Black Ops was designed by Treyarch to question the morality of war and clandestine black operations.

Black Opsas I wrote in 2010, redefined modern warfare.

But as the trilogy wraps up, ever pushing the game further and further into the future, I couldn't help but wonder what could be in store for players of Treyarch's first post-Black Ops game. Could they return to World War II? They did create what some consider to be the last, best hurrah for shooters of that era with World at War. Or maybe more exploration of the '70s and '80s?

During E3 earlier this month, I sat down with studio head Mark Lamia and Jason Blundell, the single-player campaign director for Black Ops 3, to discuss the future of narrative in Call of Duty games from the studio.

The edited conversation is below.


Brian Crecente: Do you feel that sense of, what are you going to do next? There was a time with shooters where everyone felt stuck in World War II. You're not stuck there anymore, but do you feel like you have to keep marching forward in time?

Mark Lamia: I don't feel like we have to. Fortunately we're in a position where we don't have to do any particular setting that we don't want to. When we start a project we get together as leadership and we talk a lot. What's the right setting for the game?

With Black Ops 2 we hadn't finished telling this story we were telling. We'd introduced elements of mind control, manipulation, the dark side of things that are about more than just military might. That's all that plays out on the battlefield, but there was something going on inside Black Ops, whether you were being brainwashed and manipulated as Alex Mason, or whether you were being manipulated and twisted by Raul Menendez. Even though it's a future story, there's a relevancy in today's society to the story we're telling that I think will surprise people.

One of the things that made Black Ops so surprising for people was that it unfolded before them. They didn't know where we were going to end up with that game. That was exciting and fun. They didn't know everything about a Call of Duty game. We're trying to hold that back on this game. It's going to be incredibly surprising. We think people are going to talk about this game. It's an interesting fiction. The subject matter we're going to touch on, you can draw a line from today ... or not even draw the line, but talk about the issues of technology and the integration of that into every single part of our lives, and how it just happens, and the unintended consequences and how that could even occur. Is that OK or not? Sometimes it's okay. It depends on how you feel about how that technology is getting used in our lives right now. There's a whole very interesting thread to that. I think people will spend a lot of time talking about it.

Jason Blundell: You make games about running around shooting people or blowing them up, but we spend a lot of time working on the nuance of what our messages are. We may have a message that's a neutral message, that gives space to both sides of the argument. We plow a lot of energy into that. When we started on Black Ops 1, we were talking about it and saying, it's a Cold War game, or is it? Is it about a Manchurian Candidate story, about brainwashing and being betrayed? We had these strong themes that we then were saying, this is a theme of Black Ops.

When it comes to what we were going to do next, it was obvious in our minds that we had to go on to [Black Ops] 3. We had to go on. We have this thread and we're moving through with these concepts. I look forward to the interviews after we finish 3, talking about the whole trilogy and what we've been talking about and what we've been doing. As we're coming into 3, we're playing with these ideas, these nuances, these larger concepts. It's just nice that it can come to a place and all be connected to the previous two chapters. The first one being about corruption of man. Second one was more about the geopolitical landscape. The third one is essentially an extension of that world and a combination of the previous two.

"I look forward to the interviews ... talking about the whole trilogy"

Lamia: It puts it all together. It's the culmination of it all. We create a very rich fiction. We look at Black Ops 2 and say, 'OK, these drone strikes in 2025 occurred. What happens next in the world?' We have a detailed wiki-like thing in the game. You might remember. You could hack into the computer in Black Ops. It's in your safe house. We have detailed out the world. We have a full history of where the EU goes. It's our fiction, but it's as we have projected it out, literally, in more detail than we've ever done.

Blundell: It's like being in school when the teacher says you have to show your work. We've shown our work.

Lamia We're giving it to the player this time. This is stuff we usually do anyway, with our research. How do we come up with these settings? We literally just did our research and project out. We're fortunate to have experts we can talk to. We've become futurist experts ourselves, living in this subject matter for so long. That's going to be there for the player. It's important.

"Suddenly, what does that do for warfare?"

What happens when that goes off? Politicians across the world create laser defense systems. The origins of those exist right now. Umbrella systems in the old days, with Star Wars or whatever. That can never happen again. Suddenly, what does that do for warfare? It brings everything back down to the ground. What happens when we're back down on the ground? Especially where we're heading? Massive investments in advanced military robotics. That starts flooding the battlefield. What happens to humans on the battlefield when there's a lot of different machines that don't care about their self-preservation any longer? What's the psychology? We also start to see threads of technology being integrated into our lives and our biology, more so than we have ever.

"We're starting to see the seeds of that even today."

We're starting to see the seeds of that even today. We started this fiction a couple of years ago, and we've seen newer seeds since then. I'm surprised by how many of these are starting to sprout up, almost on a daily basis. We're a little more attuned to it than the average person, but it's moving at an alarmingly rapid rate. What happens when we start implementing all this technology on the battlefield? It all needs to be networked and interfaced. How long until someone decides that the best way to do that is to have a chip implanted? Now it's me and my force out there. I'm sure nothing goes wrong with that. There's all kinds of things that we're touching upon. While it's in our fiction, these themes are more relevant than any Black Ops game ever made.

Blundell: It was kind of creepy, actually, as we were going through the ideas and how to put them together.

You'd say, oh, let's go with that technology, this idea. Swarm connectivity and so on. The next day we'd see a news story — military testing swarm connectivity! Okay, let's go over there, then.

It was really good, going through and hashing this stuff out, and then saying, now we can go all the way out there. But here's the thing. Everything we've put out there has a direct connection to today. It's there. You talk about everything miniaturizing and getting more powerful or more prevalent.

It's interesting what Mark talked about before. It's a cliché, but history is cyclical in terms of cause and effect and reaction. To go forward, we can look back and say, when this event happened, this was the reaction. Wind back again. This thing led to that. It keeps happening the same way, regardless of the time frame. People are still people, in Elizabethan times or today. Still the same drives, still the same anger and frustration. These things are all universal. They haven't changed since back in the old days. When you mix geopolitics or technological enhancements, be it the DNI or the invention of gunpowder, it's the same concepts, the same drives, the same fears that come out. That helps us keep in line when we're moving the story forward.


Crecente: As you're wrapping up what is essentially a trilogy, are you exploring other time periods? You have more time now than you've had in the past to develop the next game.

Lamia: We're still toward the end of the cycle of this project, but that's not to say we haven't already started to have some lunchtime conversations about our future. But we always explore. Everything is on the table.

We're fortunate, having been doing this for as long as we have and having the success we've had, to feel the freedom to do that. We'll talk about everything. The game we wanted to make—We weren't done with the story. We weren't done with the kinds of gameplay we wanted to introduce, the things we wanted to do. This game is absolutely spot-on. The fiction is the furthest out, but it's arguably the most relevant to some of the things people are going to be thinking about and dealing with from an issues perspective.

Everything's on the table for the future. As we let go of this baby, we'll start talking about everything. We tend to do that.

Is there a future too far for Call of Duty?

Crecente: Is there a line you don't want to cross in terms of moving forward in time? Is a game like Halo at the end of that somewhere?

Blundell: I think you have to ask that question of yourself for any story, anything you try to do. What's your purpose in going there? Creatively, artistically, why do you want to go there? What can it give to the story? When we talked about Vietnam for Black Ops 1, we wanted that environment, that feeling. We wanted a place that was historically kind of cut off. The media questions about what was going there was kind of sketchy. It was that ambiguity. That's what that environment brought to us. It wasn't about the Vietnam War. It was just a backdrop, a setting for those characters to go through their journey.

For me, there is no boundary in my mind. It's just, what is the purpose of that? Does it serve a purpose for the story we're telling, the gameplay we're trying to let the community experience?

Lamia: Including historical backdrops. We like to go back in history. Black Ops 1 even has a few World War II moments. Black Ops 2 had some levels in the ‘80s, taking on that part of the Cold War. We haven't talked about all of where Black Ops 3 takes us. But if the setting is meaningful to the story, you'll understand. It's just a creative place for us. Like we always do after every project, we'll take a step back and figure out what kind of game we want to make, what stories we want to tell, and we'll work on it.

Whether that's a future Black Ops or not, I guess we'll have to see.Babykayak