You can see through US agent Mason’s eyes as he is graphically tortured.
You can rotate the controls to look down at the soldier’s hands—your hands—strapped to the chair.
“I know when you’re lying!” cries the torturer angrily as he electrocutes you, demanding you set out your role in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, where you tried but failed to assassinate Fidel Castro. (Castro outwitted you with a double.)
These are the opening scenes of Call of Duty: Black Ops—now the fastest-selling video game of all time.
On launch day last Tuesday, 5.6 million copies flew off the shelves in the US and Britain alone. At £40 a throw, in cash terms it is outselling the likes of Harry Potter, Avatar—you name it.
So doesn’t that mean millions will right now be playing a game that “glorifies” war—and US imperialism? Isn’t that a damning indictment of society?
Not quite. Black Ops is somewhat more complicated than that.
As the torture begins to break you, the game’s “missions” take place in flashback as Mason describes his experiences—not always, it is suggested, reliably.
At key points the game cuts back to the torture scene, as the interrogator argues with Mason’s account of events.
Within this structure, Black Ops leads you through a timeline of US imperialism during the Cold War, from the point of view of a US soldier and later a CIA agent.
After Cuba, you go on briefly to Russia, then into the Vietnam war, where much of the game is set.
Each is recreated with a surprising amount of context. The game even warns at the start that it contains “historical footage which some viewers may find disturbing”.
At various points black bars slide across the screen to “redact” parts of the history you just saw. There is no jingoism here—the US does not come out of this looking particularly good.
Of course, games like Black Ops can’t escape society’s pressures to present a one-sided view of war.
Last month EA, developers of the rival Medal of Honor series, backed down after a right wing outcry when it was revealed the game let you play as the Taliban and take pot-shots at US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Mischeviously, though, the game-makers left all the imagery in and simply renamed the Taliban as the “Opposing Force”.
And Black Ops’ predecessor, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, sparked controversy itself after including a mission where you go undercover as a terrorist, massacring people in an airport.
Under pressure, the developers made the sequence skippable, and argued you could technically complete it without killing a single civilian.
But who the hell is going to do that? It’d be like playing Grand Theft Auto by driving politely and obeying all the speed limits.
“Choice” in games is largely an illusion. In Black Ops, much like an ordinary soldier, your choices once you’re in are to do as you’re told or die, or both.
When they say fire—or don’t fire—you’d better obey. If you so much as hesitate, the game is brutal about killing you instantly.
You have to be tactical. If you run around all guns blazing, you’ll be dead within seconds. Actions have consequences. Or do they?
After all, in a game, death is never permanent. And most of the time you can shoot as many people as you like with no comeback.
Isn’t there a danger in experiencing situations where you, for example, are forced to mow down everything that moves in order to make your escape?
Couldn’t it breed empathy with the imperialist side—a sense that they, like the player, “have no choice”?
Perhaps. I can’t imagine, however, a young player wanting to join the army after playing Black Ops—suffering through these real wars, rendered in incredible detail. Pac-Man it ain’t.
It’s exciting, no doubt. Early in the game you dramatically bust out of a Russian labour camp, suddenly jumping on a motorcycle to drive through the perimeter fence, then from there to a truck to chase a moving train.
That’s just plain fun.
But the vast majority of the missions are tense, hurried, chaotic, stressful, and often downright horrific.
War here is rendered with far greater realism than most war
movies—even than most news reports. The result, overall, could hardly be accused of “glamourising war”.
Like any piece of art—whether book or film, sculpture or painting—it has more to say about its subject than that.
Call of Duty: Black Ops is out now for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii and PC. There is also a scaled-down version for Nintendo DS