header is screenshot from Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
Blank Ops
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

This article discusses plot points from the entirety of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.

More than any Call of Duty game before, Black Ops Cold War is obsessed with the material substance of history and of history-making. It packs every crevice with the props and textures of its early 1980s setting. The game's loading screens consist of showroom-style close-ups of letterheaded documents and intelligence-gathering apparata—perspex maps, floppy discs, and coloured map pins held together by red string. The saferoom you'll return to between missions is similarly cluttered with folios, blinking computer monitors, post-it notes, dangling darkroom photos, newspaper excerpts, tapedecks, and projectors—a hectic collage of recording, analysis, and display technologies, stewed in cigarette smoke and LED glare.

As ever with action games of this scale, there's a bruising disconnection as your mind places the time and labour required to fashion such details against the haste with which you're typically encouraged to put them behind you. The very first section of the game, a cosy pub in Amsterdam on New Year's Eve, is almost a parody of this bizarre self-dismissiveness. It's rammed with period touches such as taped-up customer Polaroids, walls of car license plates, and year upon year of toilet graffiti. This is an intensity of research and location design most developers can only dream of, and yet, the first thing the game asks you to do is leave the premises. 

Call of Duty's creators may or may not be aware of how perverse all this feels. The new game's spy investigation elements certainly suggest a desire to fashion something more comprehensible and lasting from all the bric-a-brac. In this newly modular campaign, you gather evidence about your quarry, alt-Soviet agent Perseus, slowly populating a corkboard in your saferoom with print-outs and photographs. Two side missions even ask you to perform some actual deduction, deciphering passwords in order to track down a CIA defector, or identifying sleeper agents with recourse to travel and banking records.

If there's the suggestion, here, of a game in which all the props looted from the epoch might add up into a critical through-line, an appraisal of the cultural dynamics and strategic machinations that gave these objects life, the whoddunnit elements prove limited. The main investigation's breakthroughs are both banal and predetermined, requiring only that you shoot your way far enough down the rabbit hole to unlock the relevant cutscenes. Some missions give you a camera, but the game doesn’t allow you to capture and save photographs at will. The camera functions more often as a guard-tagging HUD aid, paring densely wrought settings back to their moving parts —an indirect acknowledgement of the art direction’s gratuitousness. The investigation element never organises the mass of artefacts modelled for the game into a useful or coherent account of the period; rather, its shortcomings only emphasise the superficiality of the portrayal, which ultimately reduces everything to memorabilia.

The art direction is crying out for an editor. The nearest it gets to one is a censor—a spectral presence armed with a fat black marker who exists inside and outside the frame. Within missions, this unseen entity wages war on the HUD, blacking out location details and checkpoint notifications, like an auteur director trying to purge an immersive blockbuster of non-diegetic elements. Your protagonist, Bell, is conceived on a CIA declassification screen, your choice of background blotted out seconds after you make it. Much of this is superficial set-dressing with some callous overtones—consider the option to classify your gender, a sorry echo of the Clinton administration's “Don't Ask Don't Tell” policies with regard to LGBT service members. Still, there's an awareness in Black Ops Cold War of the broader import of redaction that threatens to become the foundation for a much more involving game.

Redaction isn't a purely negative act. It's more than a removal of information. As the anthropologist Michael Powell explains, redaction in the US was actually adopted to increase transparency by allowing more documents to be released under the Freedom of Information Act. Redacted texts themselves, he goes on, aren't inert and non-communicative but “an invitation for suspicion, skepticism, and paranoid interpretation”. Redaction draws literal lines around the privileged access of those in power, and goads us into uncovering or imagining their secrets.

The redacted document is a place where the regime's control is both direct and precarious, at once dictating what can be known and exposing itself to subversion by filling a text with enticing blanks. Redaction is best understood not as an act of destruction, but the editing-together of a second document, which shapes and is shaped by the reading of the original. Redaction of an autobiographical work such as Mohamedou Ould Slahi's book The Guantánamo Memoirs can be especially provocative because it resembles a lobotomy, an erasure and fragmentation of the self written into the text. Redaction also transforms text into object, foregrounding the page as a physical space— it turns written language into another blacksite of uncertain consequence.

There's a healthy tradition of artists who have seized upon these myriad effects for radical purposes. In my other life as an extremely mediocre academic I study “blackout” literature and erasure-based poetry such as M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong!, a book crafted by repeatedly deleting and rearranging an English insurance case report on the massacre of Africans aboard a slave ship in 1781. Zong! turns erasure back on itself, using it to rip open the calculated silences and objectifications of a legal text and make space, if not for unfiltered testimony, then at least for mourning. Black Ops Cold War can't hold a candle to works like these, but all the concepts above are at stake in its correlating of redaction with ideological incoherence and psychological rupture.

The aura of semantic instability produced by redaction is what separates the “black op” in Call of Duty from a mere secret mission, or even the structurally and tonally similar “spec ops” of the Modern Warfare games. Black ops in Call of Duty are sites of chaos and collapse, where protagonists undergo various kinds of disintegration before a self-contradictory imperial ideology that raids, kills, or tortures in the name of peace and humanity. In Black Ops Cold War, the phrases stricken out by the censor correspond to a multitude of disavowed, “plausibly deniable” spaces. The first of these is the Soviet base in the “Redlight, Greenlight” mission—a vast, geometric, impassive building, redolent of an Aztec temple, which proves to contain a full-scale mock-up of an American town. The negative space of the base is portrayed as a rich, conceptual terrain where Soviet strategists imagine the lives of their opposites, including their works of entertainment (there are bowling alleys and a cinema bearing the sign “Red Army Coming Soon”). In the process, ideologies are revealed for aesthetics, which collapse into one another at the behest of Call of Duty's combat design.

This concept of one space harbouring another informs the game's penultimate flashback missions—false memories of the Vietnam War implanted by your supposed comrade, Adler. As you learn in the process, you are in fact a Perseus agent, brainwashed by the CIA to think you're a US agent. The mission is an exercise in undoing that redaction, disentangling spaces that exist to conceal: on the one hand, the CIA lab where your latter-day self was constructed; on the other, the bunker where you received critical intel as a member of Perseus, which proves to be an organisation rather than an individual. The censor's hand extends more obviously, here, into the environment design. As you run and rerun the scenario, huge rocky busts of Adler seal off previously accessible routes. These foreshadow references to the Medusa, the monster slain by the Perseus of Greek myth, whose gaze turns flesh to stone—as fitting a metaphor for Call of Duty's handling of historical data as any.

At the centre of the maze is a chamber walled and floored with fully redacted documents and hysterical notes-to-self in Russian, German, and English. There are hints to glean here about the plot—amongst other things, we learn that Bell may have been named for “Die Glocke”, a mythical Nazi superweapon—but the data is otherwise presented as pure obfuscation, scenic dead matter that must be purged for the narrative to proceed. (When you next visit this room in a “true” flashback, the walls and floors are bare.) The chamber is a bald illustration of how Call of Duty petrifies historical artefact into decoration, to be admired in passing but never seriously analysed and traced to the power dynamics that facilitate the wars it is forever striving to avert. At the same time, the figure of the censor, busily fashioning intriguing absences amongst signifiers stripped of purpose, suggests that we can make more of these games than their raw materials.

Among the objects found in these blacksites are older, Activision-licensed videogames—a whole arcade's worth in the “Redlight, Greenlight” mission. These games are collected for replay in a sealed part of your saferoom. Breaking into this area, which also contains a transmitter you can use to contact your old bosses at Perseus, is required to reach one of the endings, but as with the invisible censor, it has an eerie, half-real status within the story. The space is unlocked by piecing together a code split between text fragments referring to the assassination of President Kennedy. No explanation is given for the presence of those clues, and while your brainwashers-turned-comrades supposedly have you under close supervision, nobody stops you cracking the code. Many of the retro games in the secret area are anachronisms, released years too early. The locked-off space reflects the destabilising effects of redaction by existing half inside, half outside of the narrative context—not quite a simple trove of Easter eggs, not quite an explicable part of the world.

The inclusion of these retro games—recreated with the same care Call of Duty bestows on its officially licensed guns—is a banal reminder of the links between the blockbuster games industry, weapons manufacturers, and military organisations. A more buoyant reading is possible, however. Among the titles housed in this peculiar corner of the Black Ops universe are parser-based text adventures such as Zork and Enchanter, acquired when Activision bought Infocom in 1986. An elementary feature of the text adventure is that, beyond the introductory description, nothing is depicted until you pose a query. There is no flash-frozen tumult of period paraphernalia, to be gawped at and dismissed. The world is a black screen till you ask something of it, a redacted space awaiting critical intervention. If Call of Duty ever wants to encourage genuine investigation of forever-wars and their trappings, this seems a blank worth building on.


Edwin Evans-Thirlwell writes videogame criticism for Edge, Eurogamer, The Face, and The Guardian. He also creates found or erasure-based verse for places like Burning House Press and Babel Tower, and is currently working on a series of poetry card decks about destroyed gardens and space travel. He tweets as @dirigiblebill.