Call of Duty: Black Ops III — Ember

Information elements and project structure

Unrestricted progress — Published on 23rd April 2015, Ember introduces a timeline of past and future events interpreting the desire to transcend human limits through the use of extreme biotechnologies, describing a full-scale crisis amid social discrimination, pollution, riots and military conflicts. The reported information defines the background and key features of CoD: Black Ops III’s futuristic world, presenting the 1993–2065 (the game’s starting year) period.

1. Introduction

1.1. Synopsis
1993–2065: the unrestrained and primordial human will to go beyond natural bodily bonds using medicines, devices, prostheses and extreme surgery will lead humanity to live an unprecedented techno-social and cultural crisis, permanently destabilizing the world order by 2065.

“In the next 50 years, technological advancements will lead us into a world where only those who risk going too far, will find out how far we can actually go.”[2]

“Mankind’s greatest mistake will be its inability to control the technology it has created.”[6]

Considering the transmedia communicative strategies[7] that have been adopted during the Call of Duty: Black Ops III promotional campaign, the film proves to be a particularly important project because:

  • It is a cinematographic prologue independent from the gaming narrative, which testifies to the growing stylistic similarities between film, gaming and advertising productions, mostly with regard to the possibilities of narrative complementarity.
  • It documents the cultural and scientific changes that happened between 1993 and 2065, highlighting the fictional world’s key topics (drug abuse in sports, technological development, cultural crisis, extreme biotechnologies, climate change, financial speculation, social uprisings, international terrorism, governmental secrets, cybernetic military experiments), and developing a creative universe with multiple
    chronological, geographical and narrative levels.
  • It integrates true material (interviews, conferences, historic facts) with fictional footage, realising a film in documentary style which results in a plausible science fiction dystopia that amplifies present topics and issues.
  • It represents a transmedia extension of the videogame that expands its narrative universe (the gaming narrative is only one of many potentially serial stories), and it encourages the user to explore collateral domains and official social platforms.
  • It promotes the videogame celebrating its fictional world, with the purpose of creating the desire of interacting with the intellectual property through gaming, also increasing commercial expectations.
  • It stimulates interest among a diversified audience, which includes affiliate users, curious viewers, scholars, business operators and rival gaming companies.
  • Given the type of sensitive issues being addressed (bioethics, religion, pollution, justice), the inclusion of an interactive collateral questionnaire establishes a relationship based on complicity and collaborative entertainment with the viewer-user, which provides an immersive experience (the simulation of a sociological and political survey in a science fiction trans-human world), and gives back unique graphics, created on the basis of personal and potentially repeatable choices.
Future political fiction — The interactive questionnaire What Would You Do?, available on the Call of Duty website, proposes a plausible political survey on sci-fi topics that were introduced in Ember: 13 questions with short response time (10 seconds) evaluate the participant’s ideological profile (anti-modifications/neutral/pro-modifications) in relation to the given relationship between ethics and technological advancement, finally developing personalised and shareable online diagrams. Note: the image shows 10 questions and 3 additional variables (that are activated if the user answers negatively to question n. 2) + recapitulative diagrams. The reading order goes laterally, beginning from top left. The image shows the questionnaire’s exact visual development. (Note: the domain has now been disconnected).
Audiovisual enigmas — Created with archive material, the 20 promotional videos published daily on CoD’s Snapchat profile (6th-23rd April 2015) present a flux of distorted images combined with a mysterious male voice. The initiative actually refers to a complementary report inserted in a Coalescence secret medical document, which is concealed in a Tumblr page protected by a key word shown in Ember. See []

“Subjects appear unable to distinguish the implanted memories from their own.“[8]

2. Analysis

2.1. Visual structure and information management
Re-examining the CoD: Black Ops III transmedia campaign, the combined use of entertainment processes and integrated information meets particular communicative purposes. As in many other similar products conceived to be immersive[9], the release of promotional material is carefully planned and
measured to unveil only a limited number of information elements, providing indefinite narrative spaces (potentially open for exploration in collateral products) and serial clues, with the aim of attracting many types of viewers and promoting the product in the various available media systems.

  1. Dialogue transcription
    It reports the original texts.
  2. Summary of information elements
    It introduces the basic characteristics of the fictional world.
  3. Frame visualisation
    It presents the 175 examined framings.
  4. Identification of thematic sequences
    It establishes relations between frames subdividing them in thematic units.
  5. Organisation of thematic sequences
    It presents the identified sequences’ development order.
  6. Analysis of the communicative structure
    It includes the description of every chosen framing and a related interpretation proposal.
  7. Individuation of transmedia clues
    It points out external references and identifies their communicative function.
Ember’s narrative structure and fictional world’s key elements.
  1. Announcement
    An opening text introducing the narrative or information on the product (for example its publishing date).
  2. Chronological segment
    It shows a reference date. It is often combined with an ERA interface with graphic elements and images, which establish a semantic relation.
  3. Descriptive segment
    It describes the social and technological context of a given historical period.
  4. Transmedia clue
    It contains a reference to contents which are external to Ember, independent but complementary to it.
  5. ERA interface
    Geometric shapes, numbers, graphic (in white or red) and textual elements (even geographical names or Chinese characters) identify a hypothetical research archive named as ERA.
The 5 thematic sequences identified in Ember’s structure: announcement, chronological segment, descriptive segment, transmedia clue, ERA interface.
  • At macro level, turn a product’s promotional campaign into an additional entertainment experience.
  • Support the videogame’s narrative with other communicative means (which are cinematographic[10], in form of documentary or advertisement), expanding knowledge on the game’s setting and simulating interactions with the real world (for example, creating the Coalescence and Courtoptic visual identities).
  • Stimulate the user over the long term, by encouraging technological migrations towards Internet domains (the official CoD website, promotional profiles and social platforms) or other similar products[11] (for example, the previous Black Ops and Black Ops II chapters and the related comic book series[12]).
  • Establish a relationship based on dialogue with the user, evaluating his interaction skills with regard to comprehension, reactions, research and sharing methods, calibrating in this way the strategy for the development of the whole promotional campaign.
  • Add value to the users’ and communities’ role and operational potential including immersive and customisable promotional activities (for example, the political-fiction questionnaire), which are meant to encourage collective enjoyment practices.
Unpublished prologue — Cataclysms, cities lying in ruins and clashes between the police and civilians are shown in the “Story” promo, published on 30th September 2015 on the official Call of Duty YouTube channel. The first images of the promo (0:00–00:22) are in black and white and alternate between archive material and 3D graphics: it is a short prologue that draws the viewer into the 2065 fictional world before presenting gaming sequences from CoD: Black Ops III. A similar sequence, comprising other unpublished material, introduces the single player gaming campaign showing further cataclysms, devastation and conflicts. Story’s opening sequence shows key information anticipated in Ember, presenting a world undergoing complete crisis because of cataclysms and riots. Note: the reading order goes laterally, beginning from top left. The number of frames does not show the video’s exact visual development. See []

“Biotech market skyrockets as DNA upgrades and organ replacements become the new luxury!”

The company’s official website, simply conceived as an enigmatic black screen with no content, adds to the references reported in Ember: the only interactive element is the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) acronym, which invites the customer to contact the firm’s president by email[14].
Science-fiction announcements and realistic advertisements are then published periodically on Coalescence’s official Twitter profile[15] including, for the first time, the company logo.

“You look at me, and you see just what you wanna see. You know what I see? Everything!” [16]

2.9.2. Courtoptic
The descriptive segment included after the 2052–2055 period (frames 88–96) shows a realistic advertisement for a specific ocular biotechnology for civil and sport use. The sequence shows an Afro-American basketball player declaring his superior vision thanks to a Courtoptic (second bionics company introduced in Ember) retinal implant. In conclusion, with the player depicted in an air move, the viewer is invited to visit the reported official website and book the product. The domain is made of a single main page and, automatically, the advertisement is visible in little, with the indication of the product’s upcoming commercial availability[17].

3. Conclusions

3.1. Promoting fictional reality
Call of Duty: Black Ops III’s promotional strategy, which was devised for over six months, combined serial videos, interdependent Internet domains, reinterpreted archive material, interactive experiences (the questionnaire), social platforms for narrative use (Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, Soundcloud), collateral stories and many other community initiatives. In a complex and long-lasting communicative context, the great balance between images and textual information managed to convert the project’s complexity, fragmented in diverse styles and media spaces and stratified in many narrations, into a vehicle of commercial success, simultaneously attracting longtime users and occasional viewers coming from generalist medias[21].

“A good world can sustain multiple characters (and their stories) and thus successfully launch a transmedia franchise.”[24]

Logically, the intention is to amplify the intellectual property’s executive potentialities creating a mould, in other words an informative structure capable of generating serial content, cyclically renewing itself for commercial purposes with the aim of obtaining fruitful inter-sectoral results. The highest achievement is the creation of a long term entertainment plan where the complete understanding of a narrative world implies, almost inevitably, the exploration of a vast network of media products (in literature, cinema, television, comics, videogames, music, documentaries and exhibitions) trying to connect different user profiles (readers, viewers, users, players and researchers) and protecting the authors’ control process on copyrighted material as well as opportunities for economic profit. In an example of transmedia structure sophisticated as the model examined in Ember, films introduce videogames and vice versa; commercials promote unreal goods; social platforms develop separate narratives; soundtracks reveal encoded
narrative clues; editorial and analogue artifacts give new value to paper documents and real social interactions, and Internet domains become entertainment and sharing areas that continue to exist even after the sales period, preparing the public for other novelties and expectations.

Sarif Industries — One of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s (2011) promotional videos simulates an advertisement for Sarif Industries, credible bionics company specialised in prostheses and body enhancements. The viewer is then invited to visit the company’s website, where you can learn about available services and implants
and witness, live, a cyber-attack by a group of anti-enhancement activists named “Purity First”, engaged in denouncing Sarif’s illegal activities. Moreover, the promotional campaign includes a documentary on real progress achieved in the biomedical field and the related social issues. See [] [] [] []

Notes list

The hyperlinks are abbreviated by Google Url Shortener.

  • Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.
    This allows third parties to share the published material indicating the origin, respecting the same type of original license and prohibiting the use for commercial purposes.
  • Project Prometheus
    A comprehensive case study on information management and narrative design in the Alien (R. Scott, 1979) and Prometheus (R. Scott, 2012) interconnected franchises. (120 pp; available upon request)



I’m a creative research unit specialized in immersive entertainment and transmedia storytelling with focus on cinema, tv series, and videogames |

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store

I’m a creative research unit specialized in immersive entertainment and transmedia storytelling with focus on cinema, tv series, and videogames |