The leaves have changed and fallen, the days grow cold, and yet another Call of Duty game has been rented and returned. I picked up Modern Warfare 3 from redbox and made a weekend of it with my Brother and Cousin. We drank Bushmills and passed the controller until the Bushmills finished us off. The following day I dusted off the short campaign and spent another few hours in multiplayer. I liked it better than MW2, it is still not as good as MW1. Treyarch still makes the best MP maps.
The gist of a Call of Duty game is modeling the map. In multiplayer this is learning the various fire corridors and hiding spots, then cycling through them carefully without getting caught by another player. In SP it’s about identifying choke points that the AI is streaming through, whether these are infinite spawns or just how to channel a group of enemies without getting hit yourself. That’s the game design, all it needs is a steady stream of new maps and there is always new material for veteran players to model. Like a new sudoku or crossword puzzle, FPS maps can be created in near limitless variation.
The biggest thing that caught my eye about MW3 was the de-emphasis on setpieces. The setpiece, which is usually in a narrow section and your options are extremely limited, is a zero system. There is so little going on in terms of game design that the player supposedly ends up focusing on the content. All you can do is press X or move forward. These have become a staple in these games, starting with the nuke scene from MW1 and continuing into MW2’s macabre ‘No Russian’ level. They’re both zero systems but MW1’s deserves credit for making sure you never quite hits its limits. You can only walk around for so long before you just fall dead, you can’t run around exploring. It goes back to the map modeling nature of these games: the nuke scene works because it is always an unknowable space.
Alternatively, I spent most of the ‘No Russian’ level wandering around and admiring the details of the airport. Which was fun, but not exactly what the game intended. MW3’s is barely worth mentioning, you have minimal control over anything except to sit and watch as a family vacation becomes a lot more interesting. MW2’s suffers because I just go back to playing the game and figuring out how the map works instead of paying attention. MW3’s doesn’t let me move or give me any control at all.
Keep in mind I’m talking about a player who is not new to these games, a beginner who is still fixating on content would have a dramatically different experience. For the seasoned player the meaning of the content is so thoroughly degraded that it’s only inducing apathy. As soon as I realize I’m in a closed map where there is nothing to model, my brain tunes out and I start debating what I want for dinner. The nuke scene stays relevant because I’m fussing about trying to move somewhere, anywhere, in a sad echo of the rest of the gameplay.
When I say content degradation, I mean my diminishing capacity to view the objects in the game independently of the system for which they signify. I don’t think a falling chunk of skyscraper may actually potentially kill me in-game during the opening level of MW3. I see a setpiece unfolding. It is no more startling than an animatronic on an amusement park ride. I enjoy the aesthetics of the experience and possibly the jolt it sends my brain, but it bears no relationship to the play system I am in. It has no emotional meaning to me because my understanding of the game comes from the game design, not the content. MW1’s setpieces and levels are still some of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen on a console because that was before I plowed through five Call of Duty games.
Of course this is speaking for my own personal experience, I imagine someone whose very first shooter was MW2 would be blown away by it just as they would be by MW3. What’s going on here is that familiarity with the game design breeds contempt for the content. The moment I started playing MW3 I was analyzing the space and figuring out where to shoot. I wasn’t aware of the content on an emotional level anymore. The content isn’t a differential for the game design, it’s just a signifier now. And a setpiece signifies nothing except that I can’t move until it’s over.
This issue extends out to the game’s narrative itself. On a literal level I understand what’s going on in these games: Makarov wants a big global war and used the airport attack to make it happen. He’s ticked about the guy I shot in MW1. The General is upset about…the nuke or something from MW1. By the time MW3 comes around we’re just resolving various global conflicts and hunting down Makarov. The problem isn’t so much that the story is incoherent or that images of urban chaos are unmoving, it’s that the dialog, cutscenes, and setpieces no longer have any emotional meaning. It’s all been degraded because of their minimal relevance to the system itself. I’m only aware of signifiers and their value as defined by the system.
There is not a black-line test or moment when this happens for any player. We are talking about the dynamics of the subconscious and conscious as the symbols which represent things in the game become interchangeable. At moments the game is able to jolt me into paying attention to the content. Often this is in a new or unique situation where I don’t know what’s going on in terms of the system, forcing my brain to model new information and thus look at the content.
I focus on these minor aspects of the game only because so much of it is similar to the previous two iterations. I already wrote about map-modeling and the roller-coaster aesthetic years ago. Like eating a bag of Doritos or drinking Bushmills with family, these games are guilty pleasures. I am a year older, the world continues its cycles, and Call of Duty has stopped by for its November visit. I look forward to doing this again next year.