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Sure, Videogames Are Fun — But Where Are the Stories?

If you’re gonna spend $200M on a game, why not add a plot that makes sense?

It’s the “first interactive blockbuster,” said “Hollywood’s “first virtual movie mogul,” longtime Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, about his company’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, which last week captured a whopping $310 million in its first day.

A good day, indeed, followed by a good week that left the Financial Times (source of the above quotes) and other news outlets slightly breathless about the sheer staggering magnitude of all the sales numbers. 

Yes, but.

It’s true that Activision Blizzard can lay claim to media history’s biggest-ever opening day.

Kudos.

For comparison, just a few days after MW2’s debut, “2012,” Roland Emmerich’s latest fluent exercise in disaster porn, managed a mere $225 million globally. Even worse, it took all weekend, three entire days, to raise even that paltry sum. And that was for a film that now ranks, in Variety’s endlessly arcane categorical accounting, as the fifth-best international opening ever and the best foreign launch for a non-sequel.

And despite the hyperbole, even MW2’s very big numbers weren’t quite that extraordinary. Way back in 2007, the Halo franchise’s third iteration earned big bucks and similarly breathless coverage, despite debuting in a market roughly 40 percent as big. Last year, the blockbuster quotes were all about Grand Theft Auto’s latest chapter, No. 4 literally with a bullet.

Fortunately for the suddenly struggling game industry, this year’s favored title (to be followed quickly by several other much-anticipated competitors) arrives just in time. The influx of cash should give execs time to figure out where they’re heading next.

As they ponder the big questions, I have a simple suggestion, based on my many years of game “research.” Work on your stories.

Yes, videogames now have extraordinary on-the-fly graphics that come gorgeously close to the work visual-effects moviemakers need months or years to create.

And as for value, the best videogames deliver dozens or hundreds of hours of enormously involving, often highly social entertainment for just 60 bones. Nothing Hollywood makes comes close on any ratio of fun per dollar.

But please, Activision, if you’re gonna spend $200 million making and marketing a game, can we spend a few more bucks on a story that matters? I might even settle for a story that makes sense.

Among its many shards of narrative, MW2’s single-player campaign posits a shadowy Russian ultranationalist who frames an American operative for an airport atrocity, setting off a retaliatory invasion of Washington, D.C.

Kind of a big deal, right? Except this whole storyline disappears halfway through. (By the way, the Russian government has banned MW2, for conduct unbecoming an ultranationalist or some such thing.)

Over on the U.S. side, the “good guys” are led by an equally shadowy special-ops general who personally kills some of his own best soldiers, played by you, and burns their bodies. Why? It’s never quite made clear.

And really, why do we need a mission to slaughter hundreds of civilians, in a viscerally horrific segment that’s both so disturbing and so dispensable that players can elect to skip it at the game’s start? What’s the reason for setting off a resulting war? Who knows?  

Of course, such lit-crit questions likely weren’t front of mind for the hundreds of thousands of gamers logged in this weekend with me for heated late-night multiplayer matches. And yes, the erratic narrative does create an excuse to skip around the globe, with hugely entertaining, even thrilling missions set on several continents and in several climates.

As with the fans who jammed “2012” theaters despite its widely noted narrative shortcomings, this may be all most people need.

But still, a man, a gamer, can dream for more from his interactive blockbusters. If I’m going to spend many, many more hours plunked in front of my Xbox, playing MW2 (and sigh, I am), can I get a real story, not just a rough and scattered outline of one? And can we not randomly snuff out major characters without some explanation that advances the story?

Small things, I know, in the tsunami of this week’s sales hype. But when we have a game that can do both the art and the commerce the way, say, “The Dark Knight” or “Iron Man” did in film, then I’ll call that the first true interactive blockbuster.

David Bloom is a principal in Words & Deeds, a firm specializing in communications and social media strategy, and is partner in ThinkGASM Consulting, which advises on growth strategies for companies in the digital media value chain. He can be reached at david@thinkgasm.com, or through www.thinkgasm.com. He can be found on Twitter @davidbloom.