A Study of Aesthetics in the Call of Duty Franchise
Different but the Same: An Analysis of Aesthetics in the Call of Duty Franchise First Person Shooters (FPS) is one of the most famous genres within the gaming industry. It started with titles like Doom, Counter Strike, and now Call of Duty. Nowadays, console and PC gaming is a billion dollar industry.
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Multiple corporate and independent developers are working day in and day out to supply the market with better, bigger games. However, there are some titles which stand out from the rest, titles that always seem to be churning out one more instalment.
One of these stand-out titles is the Call of Duty Franchise. Call of Duty is a series of games that at present, have nine main instalments, and another nine “lesser” titles to which the only difference is the console on which they are played. By “main” instalment, this means that the game was released on multiple platforms, which primarily includes PC, Playstation and the Xbox. It all started in October 29, 2003 with the release of Call of Duty. Since then, there has been a Call of Duty release every year, with Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 being the most recent adaptation, which came out November 12, 2012.
The researcher will limit the discussion to the Call of Duty franchise, on the PC platform. To be specific, the four most recent games which include: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. The researcher aims to answer the question: Is Call of Duty overrated as a franchise? To answer the question, the researcher will analyze each game on eight components of aesthetics which include: Sensation, Fantasy, Narrative, Challenge, Fellowship, Discovery, Expression and Submission (Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek).
In answering the question: “Is Call of Duty overrated as a franchise”, the researcher aims to educate both himself and his reader(s) on the importance of proper video game analysis. Nowadays, it is common to see a game receive a large amount of hype, such that gamers, who expected so much from a game, get disappointed and end up feeling like they wasted their money. It happened to Diablo III, where a sequel was created for the highly successful Diablo II, twelve years after it was released. Many gamers ended up disappointed with Diablo III, where changes to the core aesthetics of the game changed the way the game was going to be layed. These kinds of mistakes by the game industry, although excusable, could have been avoided. Likewise, the researcher will use Call of Duty as an example for this method for proper video game analysis. Hopefully, this will shed light on the matter, allowing both gamers and game developers to better understand the manner by which games should be measured. By analyzing on the different components of aesthetics, it would be plausible to define the franchise as “overrated” if they do not significantly improve in any one aspect and at the same time, deliver the same kind of performance in each instalment.
Before going into the full “meat” of the analysis, the researcher would like to delve a little into the components of Aesthetics that will be used in the analysis later on. The researcher wishes to stress that most of the analysis on each aesthetic is based on his opinions, based on the fact that he is a dedicated gamer himself. The nature of the analysis of game design using the MDA format is that it considers both the perspectives of the game developer and the player. A key concept of MDA is that the developer and player perceive the game through opposite ends of the spectrum (Portnow).
The player would first experience the aesthetics of the game, the general reason that they are playing it. The developer on the other hand, due to the nature of his work, sees the mechanics of the game, and how they influence the dynamics, and eventually the aesthetics. In understanding the definition of these mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics, it could be said that a game is overrated when it may be different in mechanics but deliver the same performance in aesthetics. The First Aesthetic: Game as Sense Pleasure
The first aesthetic is defined as the game’s ability to stimulate the senses (Portnow). Be it sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell, as long as the game is able to stimulate the senses of the player, this could be considered an aesthetic. For Call of Duty, the senses that are (if at all) stimulated are sight and sound. As a breakdown of sight, the most important parts is the gun itself, the enemies and the “set” or location. A breakdown of sound would be the general tone, and sound effects. For all four instalments of the game included in the research, the graphics were generally the same.
Advances in technology, greater processing power of consoles as well as computers allowed game developers to create richer, more detailed and crisp visuals for the game. However with this in mind, the modelling and texture of Black Ops 2 with respect to Modern Warfare 2 is significant. However, visuals are much more than the quality of the image, and have more to do with content. Content wise, there is no difference. The gun itself and other equipment are the same. Why? Because they use guns that actually exist in real life, which means that there is no deviation in model and texture.
Since all four instalments are set in around the same time frame, the guns present inside are the same. The enemies inside do not differ as well. Generally speaking, enemies are dressed up to characterize them. This is obvious, but this also means that most enemies will be the same. For example, there are multiple instances resent in all four games that require the player to kill people from the middle-east. Scarves, light clothing and the trademark AK47 have become the definition of the terrorist. Sound, also does not differ since it is highly unlikely for the “sound” of a certain gun to change, because they are based on real-life guns.
In multiplayer, the element of music is not as present as in the single player option. In the single player, key plot points and tense moments are always supported by a musical score, and this helps to set the mood. Be it the sad death of an ally or the intense run-and-gun moments, there is the right music for the right time. This would be a reason for a gamer to enjoy the game, but it is hardly different from one instalment to another. Therefore, Call of Duty does not change in this aesthetic. This is in fact due to the basis on real-life elements which actually help the game perform in the next aesthetic.
The Second Aesthetic: Game as Make-Believe The paper on MDA defines the second aesthetic as fantasy. That is, the ability of the game to immerse the player in a role that normally he/she would not be able to partake in (Portnow). Call of Duty excels in their performance under this aesthetic. The paper on MDA explains that good games would be able to deliver on maybe one or two “core aesthetics” while great games deliver on three or four. These “core aesthetics” can also be defined as the primary emotive reasons that a player would want to play a certain game. Fantasy, is one of those core aesthetics when it comes to Call of Duty.
Whether it’s being a marine, being a stone-cold killer or a patriot, there is a role that the player is immersed in, and the experience is fed to them in pieces during the experience of play. How this changes from game to game, is another matter altogether. Call of Duty excels in the immersive aspect of play, because of the authenticity of the places, and items inside the “Call of Duty Universe” and because that the first person point-of-view. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 in itself is already very good at this immersive aspect, and the experience does not really change from one instalment to another.
The game itself, and the developers of the game, seem to have found the magic formula for the immersive aspect. Some would argue that better graphics are part of the immersive aspect. Things that break the immersive aspect are things like bugs, or errors in shading. These break the player away from the experience, and remind him/her that they are only playing a game. In the opinion of the researcher, this is not true. Games predating Call of Duty prove that good graphics does not equal a complete immersive experience. They may help, but it is not the most important thing.
Games like Counter Strike, Half Life, Halo, and even some Doom games manage to immerse the player in another role without “life-like” graphics. In terms of the second aesthetic, Call of Duty shines. Even in the multiplayer where the immersive aspect is not as great (due to the lack of context), the game play alone is enough to make the player feel like a soldier surrounded by enemies, armed only with his gun, and his skill. All in all, the experience remains the same. But since it has been said that graphics help marginally to improve it, each game could still be said to have been better than the last, even if it is just by millimetres.
The Third Aesthetic: Game as Drama The third aesthetic is narrative. This means that the player is playing the game for the story. In the terms of Call of Duty this means one thing: the single player. Plot wise, the stories of all four instalments covered in this research are practically the same. A soldier is taken out of the “regular army” to join an elite, top secret team to undergo a save-the-world mission, against an extremist, usually Russian, or Middle-Eastern. That being said, narrative is not one of the core aesthetics of the Call of Duty franchise.
However, it is interesting to say that narrative may be one of the reasons for the game developers to create another instalment. Just like movies, the story where the previous game left of, is picked up by the next game. The plot in itself is not great, however anyone who played the previous game could be interested in knowing how the story progresses. The narrative in the first three games, Modern Warfare 2, Modern Warfare 3, and Black Ops are player driven. In the game itself, the story will not progress until the player decides to move forward. Also, the game is linear and lacks depth.
The player is given the “illusion of choice” through the tactical action of moment-to-moment decision, however in the end he/she has to kill their enemy to progress. Therefore, the player’s role as the main character is not to “make decisions” but to “stay alive”. This in my opinion can get old fast. A person who played Modern Warfare 2 and will play Modern Warfare 3 will know all they need to know, and have seen almost some variation of every part of the campaign. This however, changes in Black Ops 2. The campaign in Black Ops 2 is different from the first three games, and is significantly better for doing so.
Although still not having the “freedom of total choice” there are still moments in the game, subtle and otherwise, where the player is given the chance to change the plot. To go above ground or below, whether to spare a life or not, these are some of the examples of choice that the player will experience, and will feel a greater depth than ever found in the first three games. Having made an actual choice, a contribution to the plot, the player is excited to play on, anxious to see how his actions impacted the greater scheme of things. When it comes to narrative, the last game is improved significantly.
The possibility of choice for the player is no small thing. With choice, came the aspect of “multiple endings”. In each ending, the player sees how he/she affected the world, and is given an overview of everything that has happened during the campaign. For this aesthetic, Black Ops 2 showed greater depth, and was better for doing so. The Fourth Aesthetic: Game as Obstacle Course The fourth aesthetic is challenge. From the nature of the genre, First-Person Shooter, to the setting of the game, which are the Cold War and a fictional World War 3, it is obvious that the fourth aesthetic is a core aesthetic of the game.
For the analysis of the fourth aesthetic, the researcher will divide the game into two categories: Single player and Multiplayer. This is because that the “enemy” of both is different, and highly changes the dynamic of play. First, the Single Player, where there is a focus on the one against many. The computer does not use tactically superior moves, but focuses on overwhelming the player with numbers. The “bad guys” hide in obviously tactical positions: behind the counter, around the corner, against the wall, always facing the player.
This creates an obstacle course that the player has to go through, and although is a challenge, can get monotonous and repetitive. In the multiplayer, there is more depth. Since other players online differ from one another, use different weapons and different tactics, this creates a dynamic that the player will require more skill to follow. The multiplayer in Call of Duty did not change much from game to game, if only in mechanics. In this way, it could be said that although challenge is a core aesthetic to the franchise, Call of Duty has already found its niche and no longer needs to change a large aspect of it.
However it is still no progress, on the part of the developer. Insight would say that the challenge comes from the other players, and it would be logical to buy the new game if everyone is going to be playing it too. That being said, this is a special aesthetic where the game developer is not the one responsible for challenge, the player is. The Fifth Aesthetic: Game as Social Framework The fifth aesthetic, fellowship, is any game that allows the player to work cooperatively with others (Portnow). In the Call of Duty franchise, this is present in both the single and multiplayer.
In the single player, the player is in a sense, part of the team. He/she may even form a connection toward other members, especially when the main character they are playing as holds them in high regard. The pair of Alex Mason and Frank Woods from the Black Ops series is comparable to a Han Solo and Chewbacca, and the player will cherish that bond. It is worth mentioning that the voice acting in Call of Duty is some of the best voice acting in the gaming industry, and this helps the player humanize the fictional characters in-game.
In the multiplayer, as a flip side of the aesthetic challenge, bonds are formed in between team mates. Team work is always required for objective-based play, and for people with a good enough gaming set, people in game can talk to each other over the net. The players who experience this aesthetic most are people who enter the game as a group, and have friends with them to share the experience in. In this aspect, the game developer does not control much of it, and the players are responsible. For example, why would a person play Modern Warfare 3 when all of his/her friends are playing Black Ops 2?
His/her friends are reason enough to but the new game. The Sixth Aesthetic: Game as Uncharted Territory The sixth aesthetic is discovery. Any player who plays the game to see what was previously unknown is a player who plays for discovery (Portnow). Again, this can be divided into the single and multiplayer, as the aspect of discovery is different for both. For the single player, discovery is not a large role to play. There aren’t many things to “unearth” and most things about the narrative are given to the player as a reward for beating the previous mission. This is true for the first three games, until Black Ops 2.
With multiple endings, as well as the option to reset the story to a particular mission, the player was left with some sort of replay value: the option to discover the alternate endings. This forced the player to do things differently to achieve them, and offered more depth. In the multiplayer, discovery comes through the form of a levelling system. Higher level players can use more things, and has access to more powerful guns and equipment. This made it so that the multiplayer experience was more of a journey than an arena, and kept the players interested longer.
In a way, the multiplayer did not change from game to game. However, there is a significant improvement on the part of the single player in Black Ops 2. The Seventh Aesthetic: Game as Self-Discovery The seventh aesthetic is defined as expression, or the ability of the players to express themselves through the game. In Call of Duty, this is limited to the multiplayer. In the single player, the player is thrust into the shoes of a fictional character and therefore does not express himself. Expression in the multiplayer however, comes from the “Create your own Class” system. In other words, load out.
The player gets to choose the primary weapon, secondary, as well as buffs to their character by way of “perks”. Whether the player is the run-and-gun type, or the silent sniper, these are all forms of expression. In terms of expression as an aesthetic, the game itself does not improve. Expression is something that is player driven, and can only be helped by more options for customization. As this game does not offer more customization from game to game, it could be said that it did not improve. The Eighth Aesthetic: Game as Past-time The eight aesthetic is called submission.
This means that the player plays the game as a way to tune-out; much like reading a book or watching TV does (Portnow). It is difficult for the researcher to judge games on this aesthetic, seeing as the developers have no way to control this. People playing Black Ops 2 now, played Modern Warfare 2 before, and played Counter Strike even before that. Older gamers would be able to relate more games to their experience, and the researcher is speaking out of his own experience from playing first person shooters. Interestingly enough, the eighth aesthetic is aided not by the difference in games, but the similarity of them.
People who have been playing the FPS as a genre for a long time would be able to enjoy this aesthetic more when the new games holds more similarities to old ones. In this way, developers are aiding their players by keeping the game relatively standard. In this, the game could be said to be the same for all four instalments, and does not improve. Of the eight aesthetics discussed, six are actually controlled by the developer. Of those six, the franchise as a whole has been seen to improve in three. That is half of those supposedly developer-induced aesthetics. Because of this, the game is judged to be not over rated.
Small or big, there have been changes to the franchise with respect to the last four instalments with regard to the aesthetics. Whether these changes actually merit the game being “worthy” of being purchased, is in the opinion of the buyer. But as said before, there are another two aesthetics which are not developer-controlled. Which are the fourth and fifth. The players aid each other in these aesthetics by playing the game itself, and people seeking competition must go where competition lies. However, as said before, these games at most times changed marginally, and whether this deserves a $60 price tag is the player’s choice.
As a researcher, the game is sound, and it is apparent that a lot of work went into the creation of these games. As a gamer, the researcher must implore other gamers to demand quality from their games. We as a culture, a society who enjoys this form of media have to be specific with what we want from the game developers. Do some small, arbitrary changes to the system deserve our money? If the next game is really the previous one with better graphics, we should think about where we put our money and whether these games are worth buying. To conclude, Black Ops 2 picks up the slack of where the first three left off.
Individually, these games deserve their standing, since all of them perform excellently in at least 4, maybe 5 aesthetics. As a whole, the franchise has found its niche. People are inherently intelligent, and will only buy when the price is right. It is the responsibility of the developers to improve, however their greatest responsibility will always be to satisfy the needs of the customers. Bibliography Ahearn, Nate. “Call of Duty: Black Ops Review. ” 9 November 2010. IGN. 10 January 2013. Bozon, Mark. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Review. ” 10 November 2009. IGN. 0 January 2013. Gallegos, Anthony. “CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS 2 REVIEW. ” 13 November 2012. IGN. 10 January 2013. —. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Review. ” 8 November 2011. IGN. 10 January 2013. Hunicke, Robin, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek. “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. ” 2004. 3 January 2013. . Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Aesthetics of Play. ” 17 October 2012. Extra Credits. 3 January 2013. Ryckert, Dan. “Call of Duty: Black Ops II. ” 13 November 2012. gameinformer. 10 January 2013. Sicart, Miguel. “Defining Game Mechanics. ” December