Quest Updated: Why The Dog Of Duty?
Or: Why Are Humans Not Emotionally Engaging Us?
I need not rehash the “right thing” revealed by the creators of Call of Dude-y: Ghosts. The dog has already gone viral. Yup, dogs are the next generation of FPS elements. I find this quite bizarre for a number of reasons. *Disclaimer – military FPS isn’t my favourite genre so this will be tongue in cheek and may contain some factual inaccuracy for the sake of me not much minding.
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“What they wanted was emotional reality”. The dog is “someone you care about, a squad member”. Okay. This is starting to feel rather familiar. Fable 2 pretty much had the same damn idea. A dog you care about that impacts meaningfully on your game experience is something that, while not common, isn’t totally unheard of. Skyrim had a dog you could have. So did Fallout. Granted, these may not have been narrative-defining features, which is what it sounds like Call of Dude-y is looking to do for the next gen dude-bros. But why a dog? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a dog person of note. I love dogs, and I didn’t even bring the dog in Skyrim along cos I didn’t want to accidentally fireball the furry fellah. In an announcement that begins with an emphasis on an emotionally real experience, the only element of that experience that is emphasised is the dog.
This begs two sub-questions: why is a game that is fundamentally about duty, in a genre featuring titles that relate to honour and other noble ideals, struggling for emotional depth, and secondly, why is the only route to that depth a dog? This is something that I found odd about the Fable dog as well: in a game about moral choices, why does it take a dog to cement the ‘reality’ of the fiction you as the gamer are writing?
Maybe I’ll address the “why a dog” first. And I will do so with an anecdote. My girlfriend is the worst to watch movies with, especially war movies, because she gets waaaaaay too involved in the lives of characters who are certainly going to probably die. But what is most weird is that, while she will get bleak when that blonde-haired, first-time-on-the-frontlines soldier, who just took out a picture of his sweetheart back home, gets shot, it is nothing compared to when a dog or horse or other animal dies. When a horse is piked on the battlefield, it gets seven times the reaction of Gondor Soldier #4’s death at the hands of 3 orcs.
Partly, I think (and she confirms this) it’s because the animals don’t really have a lot of choice, and aren’t entirely aware of their situation. The horses sure as hell didn’t enlist. Call of Duty Dog didn’t sign up because Uncle Sam needed him. He signed up for the doggy treats they got at attack dog school. Flippancy aside, the dog is the least responsible of the team, so maybe that’s why it might actually work to bring some emotion to the series. I further think that, and maybe there may be a gendered element to this as well, the dog might encourage some protective instincts in the player. Sanchez and Jackson giving you covering fire have freaking top-of-the-line military grade weaponry and bulletproof vests. They can damn well fend for themselves in a firefight. Dog has teeth. If you don’t shoot the millions of terrorists out there, dog isn’t really going to stand much chance, unless they all happen to have dog-phobias.
But it’s still a dog. Yes, Western culture places a great emphasis on dogs as companion animals. We’re accustomed to thinking of them as pets and near-human friends. Nonetheless, surely a character with meaningful dialogue, a history, a (virtual, yes) family waiting for him/her to return home from duty, could make much more of an impact. Similarly, a dog has no concept of duty – at least not with the nuance of connotations we assume most humans have. What should be the overriding theme of the game cannot really be explored by dog. Dog can bark, not give soliloquies about the nature of duty. But that’s not really what I assume the average CoD’er is looking for. And yes, as disclaimer says, I am biased. But if it takes the next-gen console, and a freaking dog (which is apparently easy mode for base emotional connection for some) to engender emotion in a storyline that should be brimming with it, I wonder what the writing of the previous games in the series is like.
It almost makes me want to play through them all to see. Why is it necessary to bring in a canine squad member to make the game emotionally realistic? I don’t have a problem with dogs; as I said, I’m a dog person. I think it’s cool that there are dogs in games. But it seems so strange to me that the writers of these games haven’t managed to create a human character who evokes a realistic emotional reaction from the gamer, and their solution wasn’t to write more moving dialogue or create emotionally scarring backstories for the NPCs. No, their solution was: “let’s get a dog”. Is it all just up to uncanny valley getting in the way of our connections with the characters? Is it that why the average gamer does somehow, like my girlfriend, feel much more sorry for the animals dragged into warfare than the people? Is it just poor writing/acting/emotional facial modelling? Why is it so hard?
And once again, I end with little answers. Maybe the dedicated FPS’ers who are more qualified to discuss the storylines of CoD can enlighten me.