‘Call of Duty: Black Ops III’ Is One Soldier’s Journey Through Madness
The popular game franchise's latest installment is smarter than it appears
We move through the shattered landscape of Cairo as buildings collapse around us. Civilians overwhelm the military. We turn a corner and watch as men and women pull a soldier to the ground and beat his brains in.
I hear a scream, look above me and watch as people push a soldier from a window.
The chaos is good. It helps us get closer to our target — rogue Special Operations Forces commander Taylor. “You don’t understand,” he tells us over the shared connection wet-wired into our brains. “I’m taking us home. We’ll all be safe.”
Taylor’s gone crazy. His internal computers have driven him mad and now he believes in a safe space called the Frozen Forest. He wants to find the place and bring all his soldiers there. But the Frozen Forest isn’t real. It’s a guided meditation technique created by the CIA to help trauma victims.
“Once we put this shit in our heads,” Taylor says, referring to the brain computers all black ops agents use. “We handed over our souls to whoever had the keys.”
This is the bleak and horrible world of Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
It’s that time again. Every November, Activision releases a video game that’s destined to become the most consumed bit of entertainment that year — the latest installment of the juggernaut Call of Duty franchise.
These games make billions of dollars. Millions will spend the next year playing both the single player campaign and the online multiplayer mode. Last year’s game starred Kevin Spacey. This year stars Law & Order alum Christopher Meloni alongside Katee Sackhoff. These games are a big deal.
Which is why I find the single player campaign so fascinating. The designers have the eyes and ears of millions. So what kinds of stories do they want to tell? Last year’s Advanced Warfare explored a millennial’s fascist nightmare.
This year’s Call of Duty tells a story of geopolitical madness, post-traumatic stress disorder and the dangers of transhumanist technology. It’s about the mental toll constant war takes on a soldier’s psyche and what happens when a super soldier goes crazy.
Warning, massive spoilers for Black Ops III’s single player story follow.
I didn’t enjoy most of Black Ops III. It’s an odd game with a rich and detailed setting the game spends most of its time ignoring.
At the end of Black Ops 2 a terrorist took control of America’s drone fleet and used it to destroy Los Angeles. In the wake of the tragedy the United States developed fancy direct-energy anti-aircraft weapons and stationed them outside all its major population centers.
Then NATO collapsed and the European Union disintegrated. After the collapse of both, Russia built a new defense coalition that includes most of Europe — only France, Germany and the United Kingdom stayed away — and some African allies. It’s called the Common Defense Pact.
The Winslow Accord replaced NATO. The defense treaty includes China and most of America’s current allies. Adoption of America’s directed energy cannons is a prerequisite for joining the W.A.
Tension between the CDP and W.A. caused a new Cold War. Worse, climate change wrecked the planet, super storms ravage the earth and most people moved into mega-cities to avoid the harsh extremes of the country.
The directed energy weapons made air power all but obsolete and there’s a renewed focus on infantry. Robots and augmented humans fight the wars of the future.
The player controls a nameless thug in this bleak universe. The game opens up with a W.A. operation in Egypt. An African alliance called the Nile River Coalition is tearing up Cairo and it’s up to a W.A. black ops team to rescue allies and flee the collapsing country.
But it all goes belly up when the player misses his exfiltration and a robot corners him. A brutal first person dismemberment follows. The ground drone literally rips off the player’s arms and legs like a deranged child pulling the wings off a fly.
The player wakes up to find the W.A. has given him fancy robot arms and legs as well as Direct Neural Interface — a wetwired brain computer which allows him to interact with computers and his teammates with his mind.
The unnamed player then spends the next several hours blowing stuff up, ignoring the burgeoning horror around him and spouting action movie cliches. The game has an odd tone.
At one point, the player and Hendricks — his partner — land in Singapore to extract a CIA operative. The city’s gangs have risen up and they’re clearing out all Western influence. “This is gonna get worse before it gets better,” Hendricks says as you turn a corner to watch the literal crucifixion of civilians.
We turn down a dark alley and come across gang members hanging a Singapore army private from a lamppost. Pvt. Wu kicks his feet and sputters his last breath as we shoot the bad guys. He was dead by the time we could help him.
Black Ops III is bleak. The protagonists wade through horror yet seem unaffected by it … and that’s the point.
I was ready to write off this game as the video game equivalent of a bad action film, but the ending threw me for a loop and I’ve been thinking about it since I finished. I can’t get it out of my head.
Black Ops III’s story is complicated and weird. The player and Hendricks are chasing down a rogue black ops Agent — Christopher Meloni’s Taylor — in attempt to silence him. A rogue A.I. has infected Taylor’s team and it’s making them act crazy. The A.I. has also poisoned Hendricks and the player, so ending Taylor is a race against your own madness.
In the final missions the player literally travels through the shattered psyche of one of Taylor’s soldiers. Sarah Hall is dying and her brain has taken her back to the topic of her war college thesis paper — a battle in the Belgian forests during World War II.
Hall talks about how, when she wrote the paper, she never felt she could live up to the courage of the men in this battle. She’s works through her guilt in front of the player. As her mind dies, the landscape tears apart and becomes stranger.
Later, after killing off everyone else infected by the rogue A.I. — including his partner Hendricks — the player turns his gun on himself and fires. The final mission of the game takes the player into his own A.I. riddled mind as it dies in the moments after putting a bullet into his brain.
The end twists the knife even further. The player wakes up to find he hasn’t killed himself and worse, his surroundings look nothing like those he left behind before pulling the trigger. He stumbles into the light to find another soldier who asks his name.
“Taylor,” he says. The credits roll. There’s debate over this moment. Some say Taylor’s consciousness infected the player, other that the A.I. pushed out the player and is posing as Taylor … but I don’t think those are right.
I think the player was always Taylor and the bulk of the game was his descent into madness and his fight against the rogue A.I. infecting his brain. In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense. The player character never gives his name. Literally every other character does.
The constant death and destruction swirling the player leaves him unmoved. Other characters comment on the devastation, but the player brushes it off and pushes forward relentlessly toward Taylor. No amount of mass executions or political intrigue stop him.
His interactions with the other characters is suspect, too. Taylor’s ex-girlfriend acts as a guide and a goal in several missions and her presence — as well as the player’s relationship to her — make much more sense once I realized that the player was Taylor.
In this context, Black Ops III is the story of a soldier working through his own PTSD. Taylor is a decorated soldier. He’s been doing wetwork for the W.A. for a decade. That amount of killing and horror will take its toll, and the game designers used his struggle against the rogue A.I. as a stand-in for a soldier’s struggle with combat stress.
Which is brilliant and subversive and strange. Every cheesy moment that led to the player putting a gun in his mouth was part of a long con designed to please the audience and lull them into a false sense of security.
Every explosion the player ignored, every cold hearted murder he turned a blind eye to and every soldier he put down without blinking was just part of Taylor’s war against himself. That little twist at the end makes Black Ops III something different, something better than the hours of mindless slaughter would have its audience believe.