Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole looks for storytelling to rival cinema in Black Ops III
Black Ops III isn’t only laughably inferior to Sicario, it’s much worse than literally
any film ever made
There’s a brilliantly videogamey moment in the moody drug-war thriller Sicario, when Benicio del Toro, infiltrating a drug lord’s compound, is seen as a tiny white humanoid figure through aerial thermal vision from an overwatching drone. There are other tiny white humanoid figures (enemies) and a red targeting reticle over the main house. Once del Toro gets to the front door a radio-support guy announces, through atmospheric static: “Six remain.” (He means people who are still alive in the compound.) Then the support guy says, “Going blind,” because del Toro has slipped into the house and is no longer visible.
This is an example in which videogames deserve the credit for expanding the cinematic lexicon, while cinema deserves credit for understanding the different dramatic possibilities of its aesthetic borrowing. This scene in Sicario was heavily reminiscent of the co-op AC-130 gunship missions in Modern Warfare 2 and 3. There, one player is on the ground, and the other player is the thermal-visioned eye in the sky, giving advice and feeding information. However, the difference is that the Overwatch player in the game also has three massive guns to rain down deafening explosions on all those tiny white humanoid figures who aren’t the other player. (As well as, amusingly often, the one who is.)
In Sicario, the drone doesn’t fire bombs and bullets; instead director Denis Villeneuve has chosen this new perspective for its tones of suspense and delicious paranoia. (The viewer wonders: ‘Have I ever appeared as such a tiny figure on the visual feed from a CIA drone?’) There’s also FPS-style thermal imaging on the ground, along with green night vision, as a squad navigates dark tunnels – but there, brilliantly, almost all the shooting happens off-camera.
In Black Ops III – as the consumer expects and desires – all the shooting happens on-camera. The game also illustrates all too well the asymmetry in influence between today’s games and movies. Action thrillers can play with modes of visual representation that will be most familiar to the audience from the medium of videogames. Meanwhile, the blockbuster games aspire to be more and more cinematic in terms of dialogue and plot.
The mystery, though, is that they seem to be paying less and less attention to how modern films actually work. For one thing, if you want your game to seem like a contemporary action movie, you should make sure that at least 30 per cent of the dialogue is totally incomprehensible because the actors are mumbling. Sicario is a feast of mumblecore confusion in this regard – but it works because the heroine, Emily Blunt, is mostly as confused by what is going on as the viewer is. By contrast, the dialogue in Black Ops III is all too clear. You can tell that this is a mature videogame because sometimes the grizzled soldiers from the future shout “Fuck!” or hit tables, or (when they’re really frustrated) do both at the same time. But that is, alas, the height of its dialogic sophistication.
Expository videogame scenes, of course, have many more minutes and hours to play with than your average Hollywood movie. The tragedy is that developers are so determined to fill them all. Cutscenes that you can skip are one thing. Much, much worse is the enforced slow-walking interlude, when you have to follow soldiers delivering bad lines badly while perambulating at the pace of a lassitudinous snail, with your rifle held butt-upwards in front of your chest as the exposition drags on. You can understand why developers don’t want the player to be able to shoot one of these walking information kiosks, but it would be nice at least to be able to walk around the room at normal speed. Happily, playing through the campaign with my co-op partner, we can at least make our own entertainment by quickly crouching and standing up over and over again until the scene is finished. Eventually, because this is after all a Call Of Duty game, we get to shoot lots of men and robots, unleashing flesh-eating fireflies (“Say it with bees!”) or hacking the bots themselves with our cyberpowers (“Jazz hands!”). It’s quite a romp. But while our guns are forcibly pointed down to the ground, Black Ops III isn’t only laughably inferior to Sicario, it’s much worse than literally any film ever made. Surely it’s high time to revive the tradition of text-only mission briefings?