So, Call of Duty 4 has won the BAFTA for ‘Story and character’, eh? That’s certainly ruffled a few feathers, not least The Guardian. Despite the kneejerk surprise, it is however a wholly deserving win.
Greg Howson over at The Guardian described CoD4’s win in this category as one of the few real surprises of the awards night, self-assuredly writing: “Perhaps only Call of Duty 4‘s winning of the ‘Story and Character’ award – surely it should have been Mass Effect?? – felt misplaced.”
Mr Howson appears to be mistaking quality for quantity in this case. Mass Effect certainly had a huge amount of story, and lots and lots of characters. Most of that story was inconsequential filler, generic FedEx or assassin quests serving no real purpose, while even the main storyline quickly devolved into a typical ‘ancient alien race threatens the galaxy’ cliche-fest. Meanwhile Mass Effect‘s characters are little more than exposition canisters, waiting for you to press their buttons in order to reveal the deepest, darkest secrets of their race, despite having only just met you under (usually) violent circumstances. Unlike Bioware’s prior Knights of the Old Republic, the inhabitants of Mass Effect rarely seem to live and breathe, always proving functional rather than emotional and serving only to further Shepherd’s self-aggrandisement. It’s a fabulous game and I can’t wait for the sequel, but for a studio of Bioware’s reputation they should have done better with the writing.
Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, is a story full of surprises. Twists and turns abound, not least those surrounding a nuclear weapon that prove absolutely shocking and quite revelatory within the genre. The game plays with expectations, turns gaming cliches on their head and also conjures up a wide-ranging and believable global conflict – it may be Clancy-esque pulp, but it hits every mark perfectly. Most remarkable of all, though, is that it accomplishes something no other war game has managed: it made me care about the characters. By the time I reached the finale, not only did I know most of the characters’ names, I was genuinely concerned for their well-being. In the military debacle that is the game’s conclusion, it upset me and elated me in equal measure, not only through my own heroics but by utilising established characters in slyly staged dramatic sequences. Half Life 2 has been doing this for years, of course, but it’s a genuine revelation in the war genre and edges it a little closer to the dream of creating as complex and moving an experience as the television series Band of Brothers.
In a separate, more analytical article, Steve Boxer describes the win as ‘eccentric’, elaborating: “It’s a great game, for sure, but story and character aren’t its strong points, particularly when compared to games like GTA IV and Fallout 3.”
The GTA IV reference is understandable, of course – the game features a massive cast of superbly acted and animated characters and a mostly interesting, satirical tale of US immigrants that find themselves slipping between the cracks of American life. My only concern about it winning any kind of ‘story’ award is that that, despite the high quality of the writing, none of GTA IV‘s characters or plot have anything to do with the game itself. In fact, the story mission only serve to get in the way of the GTA game structure, limiting your options and funnelling you down linear corridors rather than embracing the astonishing freeform potential of Liberty City. Great story, great game, but they’re really two completely separate things.
I have a confession to make about Fallout 3, if only for purposes of journalistic integrity: I’ve only played it as far as departing the first bomb-obsessed town. Despite the hype and devoted fans, I simply couldn’t play any further. Partly this was due to the inexplicably awful animation and hideous facial ‘acting’. The strangely blurry textures, floaty controls and 2002-era physics also contributed. But the real killer, as with Oblivion, was the writing. At best it achieved tolerable mediocrity, at worst it descended into such banality that I began to suspect it was all a deeply ironic spoof. Characters were empty stereotypes and/or actively annoying, while the story opened at such a tedious, predictable pace that it sapped all my enthusiasm before I’d even stepped outside the Vault door. As with Oblivion, some of the quests were cleverly designed and written in a general sense, but the fine detail was fumbled with unconvincing dialogue and staging. A particular favourite moment was when a man asked me if I fancied helping him to blow up the entire town – while shouting across to me in a bar crowded with citizens of that very town, none of whom batted an eyelid. Again there’s a disconnect between the writing and the game so that neither quite interacts convincingly. Ultimately, much like Mass Effect, Fallout 3 does nothing to further game storytelling, either inside or outside the RPG genre.
Call of Duty 4 might not aim as high as Fallout 3 but it blasts past it in terms of quality and execution. After all, there’s no point aiming high if you miss all your targets.
To skip to the end: BAFTA, I agree with you.
p.s. Despite my moaning, I’m very glad to see Mr Howser and Mr Boxer providing thought-provoking coverage of games in the mainstream press! 😛