A Writing Exercise, Courtesey of Keegan & Merrick

The Setup

So, I just finished playing through the campaign of Call of Duty: Ghosts.



I’m not going to devote a whole blog post to gleefully beating the game with a stick. That’s what other people are doubtless already doing, and it’s too easy. It’d be like 1-v-1ing a noob. It’d be an easy kill, followed by t-bagging. Beating a story with a stick like that doesn’t get you anything–not even candy.

That’s no to say that this is a very good story. It expresses this weird paranoia of everything south of Texas, complete with a Great Wall of Texas. It claims to depict a U.S. in decline, yet that U.S. has ridiculous military capabilities, complete with space-based WMD’s and ridiculously awesome tech as compared to it’s in-game nemesis. It does not represent females in any significant way–like, they don’t exist, except that one lady who dies at the beginning. The plot is actually nonsensical. What’s up with the military-as-family thing? Taking orders from a patriarchal Dad-God is creepy. And how’s that whole “torture them until they’re inexplicably Latino” thing supposed work?

There is value in analyzing CoD:G’s story, though, and it comes from looking at one of it’s specific holes and, rather than just pointing it out and laughing, instead making up lots of imaginative bull shit to fill in the gap. I call this a “writing exercise”, and I’d like to share it with the whole internet. This writing exercise is both useful for writers and, more importantly, it illustrates the importance of a character’s backstory in fiction.

Come, take my hand! Together we shall enter the marvelous world of story-telling!

The Exercise

Early on in the game’s campaign you are introduced to two characters: Keegan and Merrick. These guys are Ghosts. They’re super-duper hardcore ranger-tastic five-different-berets-stacked-on-their-heads-at-formal-events special forces, and they have cool masks. But seriously, they’re cool, and we actually do feel some legitimate cool-guy vibes, particularly in light of the first cut-scene.

But oh darn, look at that–they don’t have backstories. At least, nothing significant that I could piece together.

This sucks for them. Imagine having no personal history? WHO WOULD YOU EVEN BE? Could you even have “character” without a history to inform it? Why do they even fight? Have they ever loved? Are they allergic to Riley? Are they wizards?

Keegan and Merrick probably spend their time off-screen weeping bitter tears, lamenting their very creation, cursing their cruel makers for not giving them identities outside of the shallowest of personalities as dictated by simple circumstance. They’re hardcore Ghosts who place the mission before their well-being, who are committed to killing South Americans in the most hardcore of ways. They like to be sneaky and dangerous. But what else are they?

Your Mission: Give Keegan and Merrick the backstories they deserve. Try to include motive. Anything goes. I don’t even care if your information contradicts (a little) what’s provided by the game. Screw it, it’s time to be creative. What were these men before they became Ghosts? Why did they become Ghosts? What motivates them to remain as Ghosts and do their ghostly stuff throughout the story?

The Takeaway

You might be surprised by what you come up with. Any magic? Any romance? Interesting stuff, I’m sure, and that stuff actually has a purpose in the larger scheme of things, regardless of how stupid it seems.

The backstories that you might have created are more than fluff–they give otherwise superficial killing-machines a surprising level of depth and humanity. Reimagining these two characters while you replay or rethink the campaign in light of their new histories might actually be a treat. Suddenly, Keegan and Merrick have reasons to celebrate successes and get mopey after failures. Everything that happens in the story will suddenly take on new significance, because every mission’s success or failure will have implicit, personal meaning for Keegan and Merrick.

Consider this: You and Keegan (it was Keegan, right?) are, in one mission, armed and in full-scuba gear underwater in hostile territory. You’re both about to infiltrate some rather dangerous, shark and soldier infested waters in order to shoot a single torpedo into the side of a Federation destroyer. This, so that you can later storm a Federation oil platform and, also, distract the Federation from something else screw it I can’t remember.

The point is, you and Keegan are about to do something stupidly dangerous. You’re both sitting at the bottom of some god forsaken ocean, preparing to execute a suicide mission, and Keegan’s floating there with no backstory to give his actions meaning. He’s as thin and wispy as, well, a ghost.

Fill that wispiness, and the situation becomes meaningful. Let’s say that Keegan’s actually floating at the bottom of the god forsaken ocean because he hates the Federation with a burning passion. As was revealed at the story’s beginning, the Federation is in the habit of killing civilians whenever humanly possible. Keegan’s family suffered such a fate. Everyone, from mother to father to sister, was killed in the initial invasion, save Keegan, who fled at the last moment and, of course, witnessed their deaths. Keegan joined the Army to kill Federation soldiers. He became a Ghost for the same reason. He is vengeance personified, and he wont be satisfied until he sees the all of South American in flames!

That’s not original in the least, but it’s better than nothing. It turns your robot friend into a bloodthirsty, vengeful robot friend.

We can go nuts with this. Merrick… Merrick is Davy Crockett. He was teleported forward in time by a TIME TRAVELING WIZARD. This wizard, sensing the impending doom of the Alamo, and fully aware of another future Latino invasion that’ll be much more threatening,  sent Davy forward in time, to spare him his life now so that he might continue his battle against the evil South of Texas America in the future. He does just that. After being dropped behind enemy lines with only a shoe and a hatchet, he kills his way to The Wall and is drafted by the Ghosts because of his hat, and his declared, still somewhat confused intention to, “Scalp that damned Santa Anna and everybody south of the border with him.”

It is only later, in a scene overflowing with emotion, that Davy actually learns the fate of The Alamo. One of his fellow Ghosts–maybe Riley–references the Alamo’s fate and last stand, then has to explain it to Davy, who lets out a sorrowful wail, mourning his fallen comrades who died doing their duty. Oh my look at that, backstory is potentially a way of demonstrating theme(s), too! WHAT CAN’T IT DO?!

See, backstory can be dynamic and can add lots of pathos to a story. It can add theme. It can add wizards and Davy Crockett. Silliness aside, CoD:G’s lack of backstory is something to lament. That said, it is also a reminder: backstory is good, and every story-teller should make it. Look at Bioware’s Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect series. Lots of backstory for your party members, and lots of awesomeness.


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