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Call of Duty and the Invisible Hand

Is linear design an inextricable part of the Call of Duty experience?

Interview by Jeremy Parish, .

I've never been able to get into the Call of the Duty games. That doesn't make me unusual by any means; in fact, anecdotally speaking, it seems like the people who frequent sites like USgamer are more likely to criticize Call of Duty than to enjoy it (or at least admit to enjoying it). It's the Madden NFL of shooters, a game whose stratospheric sales come mostly from people who own a game console for a couple of titles and couldn't care less about BioShock or Dead Space (let alone the likes of Monster Hunter or Rogue Legacy).

However, most of the disparagement I see directed toward Call of Duty by gaming enthusiasts focuses on its tone and story: The Michael Bay-esque glorification of military power, the ooh-rah jargon, the increasingly ludicrous lengths to which the writers will go to recapture the shock of Modern Warfare's nuclear detonation scene and its agonizing aftermath. They're understandable criticisms, but they're not my complaint; if I stopped playing games whose stories I didn't like, my collection would mostly revolve around Tetris and Yasumi Matsuno projects.

Rather, I take exception to the series' "invisible hand." Sadly, I don't mean Adam Smith's theory of the invisible hand that ensures free market exist in a self-correcting state -- though how wonderfully appropriate would it be to go up against a macroeconomic theory of capitalism as a final boss in a Call of Duty? -- but rather the hand that's constantly pressed against the small of your on-screen avatar's back, endlessly shoving him down what amounts to a linear hallway. Sometimes, the hand takes the form of a curiously closed-off pathway that conveniently leads you to your objective through the chaos of combat with no means to veer off course. Sometimes it's a guy shouting at you to do this, go there, kill that. Sometimes it's that same guy doing nearly all the work for you, mowing down an entire enemy squad and leaving you to mop up a straggler or two before shouting at you to advance to the next point in the scenario's inexorable tube of combat.

This year's E3 demo showcased a gorgeous underwater scenario with grand vistas and interesting scenery in all directions... and the player advancing through it all by means of a literal tube.

I've simply never been a fan of that style of shooter design. Maybe it's because I cut my teeth on the FPS genre back when they were called "Doom clones" and consisted of cutout sprites running around in primitive 2D engines, but the "roller coaster ride" style of FPS design -- as codified by Half-Life 2 -- has never clicked with me. Call of Duty takes that approach to its extreme limit, and when I spoke with Ghosts executive producer Mark Rubin a few weeks ago, I asked point-blank if the invisible hand of Call of Duty is an intrinsic element of the franchise. Is there a way to create a cinematic shooter without stuffing the player into a box and constantly saying "do this, go there"?


"It's a balance," Rubin said. "We want to tell a great story. We want you to be involved. There are a lot of things that we don't do, but a lot of other single-player campaigns do.

"For instance, we generally don't try to force you to look at a cutscene. If there's something happening, we don't just turn the camera and make you look and you're like, 'Oh, I'll just put the controller down. I have to watch this cutscene. Time to eat my popcorn.' We try to make the player always feel like they're still part of that world they're in. They're not being forced to see those things.

"Now, we do still want to guide the player through the story and have a story happening. We don't want to go into the open-world idea of, 'I can do whatever I want. I can break my story. I can make my story uninteresting.' It's a weird, fine balance. We want to ensure that the player gets the story and the experience that we're trying to craft for them, but not have that 'Press Y to watch the cutscene!' feel, or put the player in a position where they can make the wrong decision and get stuck or get lost or otherwise not feel like they're part of the story.

"One of the first things that can happen when you get away from what we try to plan for you is that you realize you're in a video game. 'Let's go see if the toilets flush!' Flush the toilets. 'Oh, look, the toilets flush!' That's cool. I did it in Duke Nukem every time I saw a toilet. But it pulls you out of the story. You remember that you're in a game. For us, it's always about making sure that the player feels like they're in a movie, that they're in this cinematic experience. I really think that kind of stuff can pull you away from there."

While Rubin's response made it clear the upcoming Ghosts isn't likely to fall over itself to accommodate my personal tastes, it does throw the very different philosophies behind the series' multiplayer and campaign aspects into sharp relief. Multiplayer is meant to be as "video game"-like as possible, with a fussy HUD and constant notifications to stick-and-carrot you into an obsessive long-term commitment. The campaign, on the other hand, is meant to sit at the opposite end of the spectrum. It seeks to hide its nature, wrapping itself in the conventions of Hollywood. It's meant to be as immersive as possible, eschewing any minor distraction that could break the illusion. A friction-free movie that you yourself play (kind of).

The leashed, muzzled dog is a metaphor for me as a player, right?

The problem with that philosophy, I think, is that different people expect different things from games. Personally, I find it far more distracting to have my movements locked down and my freedom negated than to be able to go off-script. My instinct with games is to poke around in the corners and have a look at the world my character inhabits, and when I'm forcibly prevented from doing that (or worse, the game plays itself while I'm exploring some non-critical scenery, as often happens to me in Call of Duty), I'm much more likely to be taken out of the experience.

But I also realize I'm probably unusual in that regard. For the majority of gamers -- especially the ones who don't do a lot of gaming -- the adrenal thrill of constant motion and rushing breathlessly from sortie to sortie is precisely the rush they want from the medium. The series' sales numbers prove Infinity Ward and Treyarch are doing something right. At the same time, Rubin's comments demonstrate the difficulty of designing a game for a mass audience: No matter who you try to appeal to, someone's going to be left out in the cold.

In Call of Duty's case, it looks like the one in the cold will be me. But that's OK. As long as I can count on the occasional shooter like Deus Ex -- a game where you earn rewards for exploring a room off the critical path rather than an earful of grief from your master sergeant -- Call of Duty and I can agree to disagree.

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Comments 11

  • Avatar for Mad-Mage #1 Mad-Mage 3 years ago
    So what Makes Call of Duty different than, say, Megaman? Is it that an FPS should be more free since it's in a 3D world? Or is Megaman's linearity different than CoD's?

    I love 2D action platformers, but am turned off of Call of Duty within a few minutes of playing it. Is it that it's difficult to connect with the cinematic elements in CoD when you feel like you're on a ride at Disneyland (forgive the played out comparison)? Is it because when I die in Megaman I have to replay the level as opposed to being warped back like ten seconds before I died?
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  • Avatar for Shinta #2 Shinta 3 years ago
    I don't think linearity is inherently bad, and I don't think openness is inherently good.

    Every book and movie in history is a linear journey with no input from the reader and viewer. Cinematography, and photography depend on the careful construction of scenes, lighting, editing, and camera angles that teams of professionals agonize over to portray things in the slickest possible way. It reminds me of people that claim that a cutscene is always inferior to an in game dialogue sequence where the player can move the camera around. I really disagree with that, because the player's fumbling around with the camera is hardly going to be a slick looking or impactful. It's like firing the cinematographer for Lawrence of Arabia and replacing him with the person who filmed The Blair Witch Project.

    The same goes for gameplay. Openness can be great, but it's not inherently great by itself. A tightly paced, polished, and perfected slice of gameplay can be a lot more fun than bland and uninteresting gameplay spread across a large geographical area. It's like comparing the combat in Resident Evil 4 to the combat in Skyrim. GTA is another great example of a series that fails in almost every respect from a gameplay perspective: poor driving controls, poor shooting controls, poor animation for everything, but it's spread across a large geographical area so people forgive it's obvious faults.

    The same goes for story. Having a tightly paced, compelling narrative works pretty well for books and movies - both mediums that are still far past gaming in conveying innovative and compelling stories. Why aren't choose your own adventure books regarded as the pinnacle of literature? Does it really add much to the story to give Shepard the option of being an asshole or a saint in Mass Effect? It's the same space narrative, just with a different shaded lens on the camera for the player to clumsily mess around with.

    In the best of cases, the hand isn't invisible at all. Spielburg's signature style is obvious in his movies, and you see his hand guiding the experience. The same comes across in great games, like works from Kojima, Miyamoto, Mikami and on and on.

    Linearity and openness can both be bad, when they're implemented poorly. Neither is inherently better than the other. And besides, if we're talking about an overly restrictive "invisible hand," I'd fault The Last of Us far, far more than Call of Duty.Edited July 2013 by Shinta
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #3 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    I never once said linearity was bad. I said, very specifically, I don't enjoy it in a shooter, and it impedes the way I approach games. But it's a deliberate choice by COD's designers and, as indicated in the article, they have ample justification for taking that approach.
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  • Avatar for Bla1ne #4 Bla1ne 3 years ago
    This isn't just a problem with Call of Duty, though. And, in Call of Duty's defense (believe me, taking CoD's defense isn't something I *ever* do!), at least they don't try to hide the fact that it's linear. I really hate those games that try and give you the illusion of freedom when you're being led down a corridor.

    Take Metro: Last Light, for example. I was never interested in that game because from the very first trailers I could tell it tried to give you the illusion of freedom, of stealth, of taking on firefights in alternate, strategic ways, when all the while it's a corridor. So when the game was released I thought I'd watch some Let's Play videos on youtube to see if my opinion was founded. Right at the start of the game you escape from capture with another prisoner who, when you overcame your captors, took all the firearms for himself and left you virtually defenseless. Right away, as a viewer, I didn't trust this guy. When, a few corridors later, he hands you a pistol, I couldn't help think to myself that I'd have shot him right there (or at least knocked him out). It would have made a very interesting gameplay mechanic to leave it up to the player whether he wanted to continue progressing with an untrustworthy partner, or take on whatever challenges awaited him alone. And, if you really think about it, it wouldn't have been all that difficult to erase that character from the storyline, depending on the player's actions. But no, you're forced to go it together, until he eventually screws you over--gee I didn't see *that* coming...

    All this to say: no, you're not alone in disliking the invisible hand!

    But the main reason I dislike CoD isn't its single player component, but it's maximum-noob-coddling multiplayer--ridiculously strong aim-assist, extremely few bullets to kill even in trivial body areas, shooting through walls, perks, kill streaks, etc, etc. The game is made to diminish the advantage skilled players have and to help out noobs as much as possible, thereby evening both out as much as mechanically possible. No thanks! I prefer a shooter that rewards skill and has a steep learning curve, noobs be damned!
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  • Avatar for Bla1ne #5 Bla1ne 3 years ago
    @Shinta Well argued. The point of the article wasn't so much whether linearity was good or bad, but rather whether it's to the author's liking or not. Either way, I won't refute your comment! All I wanted to say is that InFamous is a great example of open world game that manages to have those epic, tightly crafted linear game experiences too.

    I often felt, though, that InFamous's sandbox nature got in the way of its own good. (Poorly worded, but I'll elaborate!) The story, and its missions, are great fun and well-crafted, but the side-missions are constantly breaking up the action and often occupying you far too long between story missions, really hurting the flow of the game. I think the game would be much, much better, if the devs would simply make all the side-missions post-game only, and have only the story missions available from the onset.

    I do believe that the future of games lies in open worlds, rather than linear ones, and I'd consider InFamous the first step in the right direction. To be open world and still have those great linear moments, I think that's where we'll get the most out of the medium. But devs'll have to sort out the pacing of their games before open world games can overtake linear ones as far as story goes.
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  • Avatar for Shinta #6 Shinta 3 years ago
    @Bla1ne: I guess I was inspired to go more on my own rant.

    I think you're right that games that can combine both are definitely going to be more appealing in the future. Dragon's Dogma and Sleeping Dogs I think are also good examples of games that are open, but have the kind of gameplay polish you would expect from a more linear game. Dark Souls is the same way.

    There's still always going to be room for more linear games though.
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  • Avatar for Bla1ne #7 Bla1ne 3 years ago
    @Shinta Hell yes Dark Souls is the same way! I don't think many people realize, or think this way, but I consider Dark Souls to be one of the least linear games I've every played. Not only can you take on a large number of the game's areas in whatever order you like, and from different entry points, but, with relation to the little rant I went on about Metro earlier, you can also kill any NPC at any time, and each will have varying effects on your playthrough. That open nature gives the game incredible appeal and replay value (and that's without even mentioning its combat system, in which nearly every weapon is worth completing an entire playthrough alone with, and the multiplayer). I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I consider Dark Souls one of the best designed games I've ever played, and in no small part because of its open nature.

    Metal Gear Solid V sound like it'll be taking a page from Dark Souls's book, with regards to how the environments will be open and you can take on objectives in the order you like. I'm very much looking forward to seeing how this game will turn out--I'm sure it'll be great, but it has the potential to be game-changing.Edited 2 times. Last edited July 2013 by Bla1ne
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  • Avatar for Shinta #8 Shinta 3 years ago
    @Bla1ne: I too have really high hopes for Metal Gear V. At the same time though, the trailer almost hilariously cuts through the tedium that can sometime be the essence of unnecessarily open world games.

    The E3 trailer literally fast forwards to the good parts, and then slows down to show you the gameplay that isn't traveling from place to place. It's kind of interesting, because it shows that he must be somewhat aware that parts of open world games are tedious since he felt the need to fast forward through them.

    Could be a good sign or a bad sign. Hard to say so early!
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  • Avatar for ZachForrest #9 ZachForrest 3 years ago
    Agreed with the above, MGS has always encouraged experimentation, and open world with 'what if i try this...' moments sounds unbelievably appealing.

    Now in my dotage, this is the only game i'm excited for.
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  • Avatar for Thusian #10 Thusian 3 years ago
    Black Ops 2 was my first COD since they left WW2 and there is a scene where you need to avoid drone spotlights and sneak into a place. I failed it over and over again because I seemed to always be standing just outside of where I was "supposed" to. This was frustrating as hell.

    I did not feel like a bad ass, I felt like an actor who kept missing his mark. Every time the director would call cut and say take it from the top. This turned me off from the franchise as the campaign left me cold while Multi player has too many competitors (Team Fortress) that don't force a $60 price on me.

    I poped in Metroid Prime recently its hard not to feel like COD is a step backward, yes the story is Liniar in MP, but I can still poke around the edges and explore a bit, look for a bonus or two, solve puzzles as I go from assigned objective to assigned objective.
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  • Hei guys check the new call of duty ghosts guide http://codghostsguide.org/
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