Interview: Creating the story of Black Ops II

Intertwining reality and fiction

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The 99%. The military’s increasing reliance on drones. China’s monopoly of rare earth elements. Social media. Literally laying down everything for your country. These are but the many themes that the latest Call of Duty tackles. Sure, the series still caters to those looking for that Hollywood-style action-packed thrill ride, but it does so while taking on ever growing real-world issues.

This is a story unlike any other Call of Duty game. Black Ops II raises a lot of questions that we could potentially face, all while giving players the choice of how they want to see the story unfold before them.

Choose Your Own Adventure

The original Black Ops had some heavy themes of its own, from torture and brainwashing to even insinuating that lead character Alex Mason had a hand in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was a very dark and personal story, and the first Call of Duty to give the player a voice, drawing them in as the main character. This was a risky move, according to Dave Anthony, Head of Story at Treyarch — it was something that had never been done before in the franchise. But as David told me, they “wanted to do that because we wanted to deliver a different experience.”

Treyarch went and took the franchise in their own dark and twisted direction. “You look at the first Black Ops game and I think we kind of told a story in that game in a way that it had never really been done before in Call of Duty. I always want to make sure that at Treyarch we deliver an experience that’s genuinely going to give people something new. Something that they haven’t experienced before.”

David’s desire to bring a new experience each time is evident in Black Ops II, as the core elements with the campaign, multiplayer, and zombies mode have each seen some tremendous overhauls. They’ve even gone as far as adding a fourth major element with Strikeforce; one of the biggest additions is the branching storyline, where your choices will have consequences throughout the campaign.

The idea of branching storylines came about in a brainstorming session with David Goyer, a famous Hollywood talent who’s biggest accomplishment includes being the writer on Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

“It’s interesting for [David Goyer] because he’s been working in cinema,” David Anthony explained. “It’s kind of like with me, I’ve been working in my field for twenty years, he’s been working in his field for twenty years, and we’ve both had levels of success. But we want to do more. When he’s working on this for a game, he’s sort of flexing muscles that he hasn’t used before. He’s used to being very carefully scripted, even down to camera shots because he’s a director as well, and a very very fixed experience. Whereas with games, you have the potential to do so much more. And for him, that’s new ground.”

Anthony continued: “So when we sat down after working on the first Black Ops together, we actually worked on it for about three months together, we sat down and we were like, we just want to rewrite the rules on this thing. And I knew that with his story telling ability, one of the things he’s really good at is character development, and Treyarch’s experience with making many of these games now, you combine those two things and you could be on to something really powerful.

“We were thinking about it and saying ‘What can we do?’ And we started talking about how we both used to read these books as a kid — the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Where you flip around to all the different pages. And we both loved those things, and we’re like ‘Why don’t we do THAT in Call of Duty?’ At first it’s so daunting — where would you even start with something like that? But you know, Goyer’s a pretty smart guy. Being able to work with someone like him, we were like ‘this is daunting’ but because we were even talking about this before the first Black Ops had finished, we knew we would have two years plus from this conversation to actually get this thing done.

“The thing with the branching stories, what we learned very quickly was, to have a realistic chance of pulling it off, and pulling it off well, you have to have a very, very clear idea from the start of who your characters are, what their arcs are, and what the key moments in the story are, because once you start on this path, you start changing one little thing and it’s going to break everything. So we made the decision from the start: we are going to very, very carefully design this thing. We are going to have a clear idea of the fundamentals of what we’re going to do before we even start work. Very, very intense pre-production.

“Once we had that solid basis, it was almost, like in terms of the branching stories side of things, the hardest part had been done because the design of it is actually the hardest thing. We’d been making games for a long time now and we have a very clear method of how we produce these things, so on that level we had a lot of confidence. Once we had the branching stories element designed, we were like ‘We know we can do this.’ The whole branching storyline thing, I would not have embarked on that unless I had the confidence that we could pull it off, and David Goyer was instrumental in giving me that confidence.”

Make a Choice

The choices you make won’t always be a simple matter of kill character A or B. In fact, you won’t realize you’re even making an active choice sometimes. There’s one mission in particular early on where you’re interrogating a suspect. You could simply kill him the second you have the chance, or you can wait and get additional intel that you need to be aware of.

There are moments where you will have to choose, though, and it won’t be an easy choice. One mission later in the story sees the player character undercover within the terrorist organization of main antagonist Menendez. There will come a moment when you’re faced with killing a captured ally and you’re presented with two options: Save your friend or do your job.

“This is what the soldiers go through,” David explained. “They have to face these decisions. I talked to — I can’t name him because I’m not allowed to– but I talked to someone from one of the SEALS teams who’d been in a very similar situation. This happens. Sometimes they make the human decision, sometimes they make the mission decisions.

“It’s a human story. A lot of people go through a lot of tough times, particular soldiers and veterans. We feel really close to veterans, and very attached to them. We’ve heard a lot of these stories, and what they go through. How they’re traumatized by what they’ve been through. I wanted to tell that story, I wanted to show here’s a guy, he’s done everything he can for his country and look what happened to him. Look at how he deals with it and how noble he deals with it.”

All your choices, no matter how big or small, will affect the outcome you get. There are several endings, ranging from the really dark to even a positive conclusion. David tells me there’s one particular path through the story that is the optimal path, but don’t take that to mean it’s the official ending. We’ll only know what’s the cannon ending if Treyarch continues the Black Ops saga.

“What I really want players to do when they’re playing the game is they … experience the “bad ending,” the ending where characters you’re invested in may get killed or whatever it is, [and] for you to realize ‘Wow, I could have influenced that differently.’ What I wanted from this was I kind of don’t want people to get the perfect ending the first time they play it. I want them to have to struggle to get it and actually experience some of the worst outcomes first, then be motivated to play it again.”

The Government’s Problem is David’s Problem

Up until now, Treyarch had history to play with in crafting their stories. History is given an entertainment spin to fit their needs, sure, but a lot of what you see and do in their games are grounded in reality, to some extent. Black Ops II, however, is a first for the studio as it’s a tale of the unknown future intertwined with the past. David still wanted to present a realistic story, so he used a resource that governments all around the world use to craft the game’s 2025 setting.

“The thing that was most important for me working on this thing is that I wanted it to feel real. I didn’t want it to feel like it was Star Wars or something. Star Wars is a great movie, but it has a certain feel to it. It’s all shiny and laser beams everywhere, and it’s very, very far in the future. I didn’t want it to feel like that. I wanted it to feel grounded, gritty, and authentic like it could actually be an extension to what could happen to today’s world. We take the real world, and we either present stories which happened in the real world that you weren’t aware of or we extrapolate the real world outwards. And then present what we think that looks like.

“The first place we started was I worked with a consultant called Peter Singer. He’s an amazing guy, a Senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington. That is essentially a think tank for the US Government. In a weird way, it’s funny when you think about it in these terms, it’ll sound a little bizarre, but it’s actually true — the Government kind of has the same problem as I do, or I did when I started making this game. The Government needs to know what’s going to happen to the world in the next 10-15 years. Because that’s how they’re planning what’s going to happen to the country. That’s how they plan military budget, and defense strategies, and those kinds of things.  So who do they go to when figuring out what to do? They don’t know themselves, they actually use consultants.   

“The person they go to is actually Peter at Brookings. He meets with world leaders all the time — literally meets with world leaders. That’s benefit number one with Peter. The second thing is that before we even started working on this game, he’s an author and he wrote this book called Wired for War — which is just awesome, you should read it, it’s an easy read based around what’s technology going to look like in the next 10-15 years, weapons, robotics, all that kind of stuff. So he’s an expert in that. He’s also an expert in geopolitics. What’s happening politically with the world right now, where is the world trending in the next 10-15 years. So we get the benefit of the technology with him: weapons and vehicles, and that sort of thing. Plus he can actually describe to us what our world is going to look like in 15 years — what is the conflict going to be over?

“This is one of the first places we started because look at conflict today, it’s all kind of about oil. You look at a country like Iran, which controls about 10% of the oil, and look at what a problem that is, controlling 10%. Right now there are these things called rare earth elements — any sort of new technology has rare earth elements in it. Not just consumer goods. It’s things like military technology, drones, robotics, things that kill people — it’s all built from rare earth elements. So right now you’ve got Iran controlling 10% of the oil, and what a problem that is — as of today, China controls over 95% of the rare earth elements.

“In fact, the funny thing was, in March of this year, President Obama gave a live telecast saying how he’s filing a case with the World Trade Organization against China — live on CNN, because they are monopolizing rare earth elements. So we’d actually started working on this a year before that. We’re into the story and excited about it, and I’m watching this thing on CNN and I’m just like …’What the fuck is going on?’ It’s all unfolding around us, while we’re writing this story that’s based in this conflict around rare earth elements between America and China.”

David wouldn’t be surprised if the Obama administration had consulted Peter directly about this issue. “That’s how this game I think is rooted in authenticity in that. The best way to do it is to get someone who lives it. And that’s what we did with Peter.”

Bringing Life to the Characters

A story like this is nothing without a talented group of actors to really bring everything to life. While Black Ops II once again features a star-studded cast such as Sam Worthington, Michael Rooker, Tony Todd, Michael Keaton, and James Hong, it’s the unknown actors that really steal the show.

“Let me start with Sam Worthington (Avatar, Terminator Salvation, Wrath of the Titans). He played Alex Mason in the first Black Ops, and he returned to play Alex Mason in this one. He’s one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with — he’s such a talented guy. It’s interesting when you meet him because he’s so humble and so completely outside the stereotype of what you’d expect someone from Hollywood to be. I swear to God you could walk past him right now and never know it was him, and he’s starred in some of the biggest action movies.

“I can tell you for all the scenes I did with him, he always said ‘Don’t worry about how much time I have today, I will get this done — it doesn’t matter how long it takes.’ I’d always show him the level beforehand, show him everything we had, and he would take the time to look through everything and he’d be thinking about it, and we’d do something, get it done, and show it to him in the next session. Sometimes he’d say ‘No, that’s not right, let me do it again’ which is pretty unusual for dealing with people in Hollywood. A lot of the time, unless it’s a passion project for them, it’s a job, and they want to do a good job, but not necessarily particularly heavily invested in what we’re doing.

“Sam is highly in demand, he’s very famous, and everything that comes with that. But let’s talk about the other key characters in Black Ops 2, like David Mason. The actor’s name is Rich McDonald, and I’m sure you’ll have never heard of him. Look at the villain, Menendez — pretty interesting performance in the game. His name is Kamar de los Reyes, you’ve probably never heard of him. So I go to Activision with the casting for this, I’m casting these main roles with complete unknowns. And this is Call of Duty, you know, if we want to cast high-profile talent, we are able to do that within our budget. So to say to Activision this is who I want to cast, they’re like, ‘Are you nuts?’ Well, maybe yeah, but that’s not relevant [laughing].”

For me, the star of the game is James Burns as Frank Woods. This character goes through an endless amount of trauma, the likes of which need to be experienced first hand in the game if only to feel the full shock that comes with each situation.

“We started with a script. And when we have the scene or script planned out, for every single line of dialogue for Woods I sat down with James Burns and we went through every line and he rewrote everything himself. He rewrote it as how he believes Woods would say the line. Sometimes he even rewrote other character’s lines because the way they were interacting with Woods wasn’t right. It was painstaking.

“He took a great amount of his own personal time to do that. I think what we’ve ended up with is something very authentic and it’s because of that. There’s no way we could have written, doesn’t matter who it is — me, David Goyer — whoever is writing this stuff, you can’t write something as authentic as that without the actor who is in that role believing he’s that character in that moment. Because at that point they’re not actually acting they’re performing. Performing as they believe that person is. If you just give them a bunch of words and say ‘This is what your character is saying,’ it lacks that authenticity, I believe. And that’s why it’s worth the trouble to sit down — with James particularly — and do that. I’m really proud of the results. I’m proud of him for doing that.

“This is the kind of commitment these guys give to the game because they feel really invested in it. Let me put it this way — if these like triple-A Hollywood talent who have got a million projects on the go at the same time, they’re not going to do that. Even if they’re really into it, they just don’t have time. Working with these guys, with them being such brilliant performers, we were allowed to do that. I hope that they get the credit they deserve for the effort that they made for this game because they gave it everything they have.”

Starting the Conversation

Given the themes presented in the story and heavy reflections to what’s going on in our world today, at a glance, it may appear like the game is trying to send a message. Rather, it’s asking questions and it’s up to you to find the answer.

“There’s something I very clearly wanted to do, something I very clearly didn’t want to do with the story. The thing I wanted to very clearly do was I wanted to make the themes of the story relevant to people today. So you’ll see there’s a lot of things to do with rich versus poor, which is a huge thing in people’s minds right now. There’s a lot of stuff to do with new technology, and drones and all those sorts of things, that’s sort of a hot topic right now. There’s actually a lot to do with the use of social media, and how Menendez sort of forms his hundreds of millions of followers. Social media is very sort of a big thing right now, this is all deliberate.

“I wanted to ask questions about all these things. But what I did not want to do, and I was very careful not to do, is preach anything. I don’t want to preach any answers to these questions. I don’t want to be political, I don’t want to say this is our belief and you’re all idiots if you don’t believe this. I don’t want to get anywhere near that. Let people draw their own conclusions, but let’s ask the questions. What do you think about this? Have you thought about this? Have you considered what ramifications of this could be, good and bad?

“Social media is a good example. Social media is, when used correctly, can be one of the greatest things the planet has ever had. It’s amazing, the crowd sourcing itself is one of the most mind blowing things I’ve ever seen. I actually read an article the other day about an astronomy thing where they’re trying to find new planets and they’re crowdsourcing this to anybody. There’s so much data that they have from these telescopes that are looking at all this shit in the sky and they don’t have enough manpower to analyze it all so they’re just giving it to these amateur astronomers all over the world and saying you find it. And this guy found a planet, and he’s just some guy. It’s amazing.

“There’s many great use of this stuff, but also it can be used for nefarious purposes and that’s what Menendez does in the game. I wanted to present that and say ‘This is what can happen, good and bad. What do you think about that?’ Provoke discussion. There’s moral choices in the game, when you get the chance to execute [an ally], so tough. You’re on mission, what are you going to do? Where’s the line between what you do for your country versus what you do for your friend? Not saying where it is, we’re not making that statement, we’re asking the question. Where is it? It’s up to you. You’re playing the game, you decide.”

Raising the bar

The Call of Duty series is easily money in the bank on brand power alone, already selling millions just a week after launch. Treyarch could have made a rather plain sequel, but instead innovated on a number of features that change the Call of Duty formula.

“[I’m really] proud of the team. Sometimes people might get success, get a little bit complacent, and there’s none of that at Treyarch. It’s never good enough — it’s always what can we do better — no matter what we’re working on. I saw this most of all when we finished the first Black Ops game because we got to the end of that — and that was a pretty punishing development, you know, it was hard — and people sometimes at the end of these developments are a little fried. They just want to go away and forget about everything. But people were like, ‘What are we going to do for the next one?’ before they’d even had a break! I was even working on the story for Black Ops II while Black Ops 1 was in submission for the first parties with David Goyer because we were so excited about what we could do.

“They could have sat down after Black Ops and been like, ‘Well, you know, we’ll just — as the popular term is — reskin it and do another one.’ That’s the last thing on their minds. They would have been disgusted with themselves for doing that. The thing that I’m so proud about Treyarch is the more success they have, the more hungry they are to make things different, to change things up. I’m incredibly proud of them for that. It’s not easy to do, and they invest a lot of time, they make a lot of family sacrifices. These things are brutal to make.

“All I want to do, I want to make sure first and foremost that the team is happy with what they did. At the beginning of each new project the mantra is always, since the very first Call of Duty game we worked on — Call of Duty 2 : Big Red One — the game we work on has to be better than the last one we did. Has to be, otherwise we failed. And ever since Big Red One it has been. I think Black Ops II is no different. I think it’s better than Black Ops 1. And I think whatever we work on next will be better than Black Ops II.”

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Hamza Aziz
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