Because plausible scenarios are just too hard
It’s never good when the setup of your game is just so implausible that I can’t get beyond it. Call of Duty: Ghosts (Ghosts) is rife with such silliness. It’s a cornucopia of stupidity that stands as a monument to terrible setting design. The basic premise is this: Venezuela succeeds in unifying South America under a new entity called the Federation and, faster than you can say “empire consolidation”, attacks the USA. It overcomes our military might by commandeering a US weapons satellite that is apparently capable of leveling cities. Gee, I wonder why a state would get nervous about that? That could be the motivation, but Ghosts never tells us why the evil Mexicans are attacking the US. They’re probably after our women and minimum wage jobs.
I take that back. They can’t be after our women; we don’t have them! During some unmentioned catastrophe, all the American women disappeared except for the one that we sent into space. Ghosts has no other women. One of the protagonists mentions his mother, but I suspect she died in the Great Female Purge of 2015. We lost so much. Including diversity. California is made entirely of white people. So far, I have seen exactly two minority characters. One was an NPC that got a whopping five seconds on screen before disappearing into the ether. The other was a black guy whose first scene is him dying. Don’t want to wait on that kind of thing. He does get a brief scene in a flashback where he at least benefits from the temporal requirement that he not die, but he’s probably well aware that it’s coming. The knowledge so paralyzes him that he doesn’t speak a word until disappearing sometime later. Poor token black guy. I feel for you.
This all results from the need to pander to what developers think their audience wants. To Activision, players want manly, white protagonists who kick ass in the name of the stars and stripes. Unfortunately for them, this leaves very little room to build a realistic world or solid characters as they must conform to simplistic, overdone archtypes. The end result is characters that are uninteresting. Emotions are rather important components to the development of a narrative arc. Remove them and you just have meatheads fighting for non-descript “freedom” while, and I’m not kidding, wrestling wolves. Ghosts relies entirely on reverence for the military and generic machismo to connect to the players and (surprise!) it comes off as flat as you’d expect. At little character complexity and genuine conflict would go a long way towards making these characters feel human. Or close to human. At least part of the same biological family. Let’s not get too ambitious.
Bland archetypes also force the story down very silly paths. Consider the conundrum of realistic war games. They all feel the need to use the United States of America as the protagonist, and must place the country in peril in order to have sufficiently high stakes to keep the player interested. Small problem: the USA is a military beast. In the 15 years preceding this game, the US military has successfully invaded and occupied two remote countries with strong insurgencies. It has the largest Navy of any country and almost double the number of aircraft carriers of the second place country, Britain. It takes a lot to weaken that kind of force and the ham-fisted theoretical attempts by developers all come off as wildly misinformed. They require that the US be both vulnerable and strong, and so contort into strange positions and awkward alternate realities to make it happen. Case and point, requiring the takeover of a satellite superweapon by a collection of countries that don’t have a space program. Maybe they just got a really good running start.
There is a solution to this. It involves introducing realistic scenarios, complex characters, and adding a bit of diversity to a stupidly white world. It means giving your audience credit for having read the occasional news article and being able to appreciate that the world is not just lava guzzling super men without more emotions than revenge and indigestion. It means growing up as story tellers and speaking about the actual realities of war instead of the eighties action movie version. But that would be hard, and stupid is so easy.