Think what you will of me, but I never play as the bad guy. This isn’t because I want to get the “canon” ending or because I don’t want to miss out on anything that comes from killing quest-giving NPCs but rather because I take no pleasure in being malicious, even to code. I believe I’ve stayed true to form in siding, ultimately, with Perseus, the “villainous” organization of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, because after seeing how poorly “Bell” has been treated by this covert CIA team, I found it easier to side with those trying to take out an entire superpower than with those who would stoop to highly unethical means to prevent it. I think that’s the understated genius of Cold War: the entire game is filled with seemingly obvious black-and-white choices that point you toward always forcibly recruiting enemy intelligence targets as opposed to killing them, only for the final act to pull back that curtain by putting you in the shoes of one of these coerced operatives.
I never play as the bad guy, but after seeing how poorly Bell is treated by his own team, I found it easier to side with those trying to take out a superpower than those who would stoop to such unethical means to prevent it.
The trick employed by Cold War‘s “Break On Through” is that of the unreliable narrator. (Honestly, I’m surprised we don’t see this device more often given how well it’s worked in the limited scope of Bioshock, Man of Medan, Metal Gear, Cyberpilot, and of course Spec Ops.) Throughout the main campaign, characters keep alluding to how memories can’t fully be trusted; in fact, one of the earliest levels is Bell’s attempt to unearth a suppressed memory from his Vietnam days. But as the game progresses, members of your team keep letting it slip that maybe it’s you who is not to be trusted. Things fall apart for Bell completely in the end-game; after being injured on an operation in Cuba, your teammates–one of whom you just saved–turn on you and pump you full of drugs, forcing you to relive a particular memory. Except–and here’s the catch–it’s not entirely your memory.
Normally, when you assume the role of a character, you’re left to fill in the blanks of their development, how they came to be the person they are today. As it turns out, both you and Bell know exactly as much, because Bell’s entire persona is a lie. That mission in Vietnam was an implanted memory, meant to establish trust with his handler, Adler, so that he might reveal the real memory beneath the surface. The only difference between us and Bell is that we knew, by dint of playing a game called Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War that we were getting an illusion. In one fell swoop, we’re left to question what we’ve actually been fed.
“Break On Through” begins simply enough, with Adler providing a narrative to the actions Bell presumably recounted during his Vietnam debrief. He adlibs easily enough should you choose slightly different actions than the ones he’s describing: picking up a different weapon or tackling a bunch of enemies in a rice paddy head-on, instead of with stealth. When you linger too long in an indistinct house, he simply glosses over these small details as things that “weren’t in your debrief.” But then the game comes to a literal fork in the road, and things start falling apart if you choose to disobey Adler’s instructions. The jungle begins to come apart at the seams, with images from the present-day safehouse interrogation bleeding into the trees: a television there, a gurney here. In one rebellious iteration, all of the Vietnamese soldiers are eerily replaced by Adler’s character model. His increasing frustration brings this spot-on TikTok to mind:
Of course, you can’t actually break this sequence in Cold War, which is part of the irony. Your resistance has been as carefully scripted here as it was in the brilliant The Stanley Parable. You’ve got the illusion of freedom because you can choose to go left or right, and Adler (“the developer”) provides frustrated feedback to enhance the idea that you’re doing something wrong, but it’s not as if you can actually break the game. Try to outwit him by jumping off a bridge and he just scoffs as he resets back to the moment right before that: “Sure Bell, you committed suicide. Then what happened?” Try to outlast him by running around an infinite PT-like corridor and eventually, when nothing new happens, you’ll eventually turn around to see what comes next. Refuse to open the enticingly bright red door of the bunker and he conjures up another one, which startlingly thuds down before you. Ignore it, and another falls, and another, and then eventually he just teleports you inside. Resistance is ultimately futile, but it’s a lot of fun getting to that point, so come on and give this level a spin: It’s got a job to do.