August 19th, 2013, 10:23 am

Writing Betrayal: A Tale of Two Traitors

Since my last blog on writing traitors went so well, I figured I'd write a follow-up. I celebrated a writing victory this last weekend, so I played "Call of Duty: Blacks Op 2" (because that's how far behind I am). And sure enough, there are not one but two traitors in the game (at least working for the bad guys), one which is done well, and one which is done not so well. As you can imagine, there are spoilers below.

The one works particularly well is actually pretty painful. This is a character from the first "Black Ops", and pretty cool one to boot. James Hudson (why Michael Keaton? WHY?) is a CIA spook who not only helps the POV character Mason in the first game, but also sloshes through the jungles of Africa to rescue Mason's buddy Woods. But then a captured enemy mentioned a mole in the CIA during a mission in Afghanistan, which gets a very angry response from Hudson. And then things go terribly sideways during a mission in Panama to capture Manuel Noriega. Hudson keeps changing the mission parameters, telling Mason and Woods to "trust him". You really want to trust him, but by the mission's bloody conclusion, it turns out Hudson has been a prisoner of the enemy all along, and has been coerced by big bad Raul Menendez, who is threatening his children. In an act of redemption, Hudson does provoke Menendez to kill him to stop him from killing Woods or Mason's captive son David.

The entire subplot works because we know Hudson. We've seen and even grown attached to the character in the first "Black Ops", as well as in portions of "Black Ops 2". This character has earned his past as one of the guys, which makes his betrayal that much more shocking. It's all the more painful because Hudson had a particularly good reason for why he acted the way he did - to protect his kids. Though he dies pretty gruesomely in the end, Hudson remains a consistently heroic character, despite his coerced treachery.

The other part of the game takes place in 2025, as Mason's son David leads a SEAL team to capture Raul Menendez. One of the David's teammates, Salazar, comes from Menendez's home country of Cuba. I assumed this guy was probably vetted thoroughly before they let him join the SEALs. But the truth is there is no big build-up to Salazar's betrayal. Just about every mission has this guy sympathizing with the enemy in some way. He might as be waving a white flag. When a captive Menenedez takes Salazar prisoner even while supposedly handcuffed, I'm surprised David - who is also in the room - didn't put it together then. Salazar later betrays his team and helps Menendez escape, but not before infecting the entire US military's infrastructure with a virus. The interesting thing about Salazar is he is a believer - instead of escaping with his boss, he stays behind and surrenders, not that it does him much good as David's buddy Harper shoots him on sight (at least in the ending I played).

The reasons Salazar's betrayal doesn't work as well is because, unlike Hudson, we don't really know him. It doesn't help that he is one of the only ethnic characters, making him stick out like a sore thumb to begin with. Practically the only two things we know about him is a) he's from Cuba and b) he really, really gets Menendez even before his betrayal. The game offers several moments where you must choose one option or the other, and I would have really liked it if we had to guess who was the traitor - maybe between Salazar and another character. It would also been helpful if there was a red herring in the mix - if players were asked to play whodunit, with their actions determining the outcome.

This is far from the first betrayal in a "Call of Duty" game. The franchise thrives on making players feel like they are right in the action, and at times the game is guilty of feeling more like a movie rather than a video game. Still, I did feel the story (written by Dave Goyer and Dave Anthony) was a step up from previous games. Hudson's betrayal was painful while Salazar's, while more dramatic, still felt somewhat shallow. I would really like to see the multiple endings feature used more in the story, as players would have to rely not only in skill, but also on observation and collecting clues. Regardless, this story illustrates who writing an effective betrayal can maximize tension instead of maximizing frustration in a story.

(That's it for this rant. Check out a new Blue Yonder next week!)

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