A Tale of Two Tales: Call of Duty Black Ops 3’s Hidden Story

Brian Steele
14 min readMar 28, 2023


It can never be said that single player campaigns, in the average player’s mind, register as all that important of an aspect of the yearly Call of Duty release. Indeed, even in my regular video gaming circles, out of the people who play Call of Duty with me, I am the only one who seems to more often than not be able to discuss and hold court about the various stories the entries attempt to put forth. This is not a knock on those players, in fact it feels like the campaigns increasingly became an afterthought even in the minds of the games’ own developers, deteriorating to the point that 2018’s Black Ops IIII (yes, IIII, not IV) did not even have a single player campaign, and it can be feasibly argued that the only reason the games from Modern Warfare 2019 on even have one is so players can do the Leo Point at the screen and buy the microtransaction bundles featuring those characters.

It is in this kind of environment that I, emboldened by the new enthusiast PC I treated myself to after a decade of stringing along an exhausted 2012 model Alienware, decided to play through basically every single mainline Call of Duty game’s single player campaign, from 1 all the way through to Infinite Warfare (let’s just say there are reasons I ended up stopping there that have nothing to do with my preferred “pre-financed storefront” not having the games from MW2019 on, no ma’am), partaking in every single high (Black Ops 2) and low (Ghosts, aka Modern Warfare 1.3) of the series.

I’m near the end of my journey due to picking through the series rather nonchronologically, with Black Ops 3 being the final game on my list. I was aware going in that there was a metanarrative to the campaign that not many people knew about, so me being the info-dumper that I am I told a bunch of my Gamer Friends that there was one, and summarized what I thought it was. But a funny thing happened, which is that there were a couple of bits and bobs in the Call of Duty fan wiki that didn’t match up with what I thought the narrative was, but even on the wiki everything was half-mentioned and totally fractured across all of the single player campaign’s pages to the point that it took me legitimate effort to piece together what actually happens in the damn game. Apparently, not even fans devoted enough to maintain a fan wiki for the series were dedicated enough, or even aware, of the metanarrative in Black Ops 3 enough to properly document it. It took enough effort that I figure I should collate my findings into a Medium post so that maybe anyone else who ends up curious about this won’t have to dig in and read a dozen and a half wiki articles and construct an Always Sunny conspiracy billboard to keep it together, themselves. So, let’s begin.

We’re going to take multiple passes through the game’s campaign at different levels, because trying to explain everything to you in one go will probably result in your eyes glazing over and you closing the tab. First, we’re going to discuss what I will call the Simulation Narrative for clarity’s sake. This is the very surface level of the game, the story that the player who pays no attention, is simply playing the campaign for unlockables and then never touches it again will come away believing the story was.

Black Ops 3 takes place in the 2060s, during the Third Cold War, between the Winslow Accord (the US, Canada, China, Japan, Germany, Italy, and most of Southeast Asia, with Egypt a revolting member of the faction we’re about to introduce, that may be on its way to joining) and the Common Defense Pact (most of the former European Union and the Middle East, Russia, and a closely aligned secondary bloc of African nations called the Nile River Coalition). The Second Cold War, if you’re wondering, takes place in Black Ops 2’s 2020s between the United States and China, which ends when both countries’ governments realize they’re being manipulated toward war by the game’s actual villain, Raul Menendez.

You, the player (who we will, appropriately, simply address as the Player) are a member of a Winslow Accord hostage rescue team that takes part in an operation to rescue the WA-sympathetic Egyptian Prime Minister from Nile River Coalition Forces with your commanding officer Jacob Hendricks, aided by a Cyber Black Ops team headed by John Taylor.

A picture of Christopher Meloni as the Black Ops 3 character John Taylor
Christopher Meloni, you beautiful beautiful man.

The rescue operation goes slightly sideways and the Player is graphically, brutally, and mortally maimed by an NRC combat robot before being rescued by Taylor, who stabilizes their condition and brings them to a WA military hospital, where they undergo emergency surgery to have their body enhanced with cybernetics, very particularly the Direct Neural Interface, which is never very specifically broken down as a concept in the game other than the catch-all term for the system that lets you Do Stuff like control drones and hack computers and systems by simply Jedi-waving your hand at them. While the Player is under for their surgery, Taylor trains them up in a virtual simulation created by the interface of his DNI with the Player’s and also that of his team, comprising of three characters whose names aren’t as particularly important as knowing that they exist.

A story aspect to remember here but won’t be important for a little bit is that Hendricks volunteers to undergo the surgery with the player in solidarity, notable in that apparently he had worked with Taylor before Taylor himself was enhanced but so far in his career had refused to go through with it himself.

After the player’s training is complete, the narrative fast forwards five years. Taylor’s team has gone missing in Singapore, their last mission on the grid having been to investigate a Coalescence Corporation alarm in the ruins of the city. Coalescence is the company that manufactures the Winslow Accord’s cybernetics, and their Singapore HQ was the epicenter of an unspecified Disaster(tm) that killed 300,000 people and rendered most of the city sub-habitable. (Before the advent of covid I would have wondered how an incident could kill 300k people and somehow not have any consequences for the responsible entity, but here we are.)

After misadventures mostly dealing with the local cartel, the 54 Immortals, the Player and Hendricks investigate the Coalescence HQ themselves, where they find evidence that Taylor’s team has gone rogue and defected to the CDP, selling out all of the Winslow Accord’s intelligence agencies on the way out, because they found evidence of a CIA black project in the Coalescence HQ that revealed the DNI program that’s the basis for their cybernetics was developed on the backs (and minds) of human test subjects that were trafficked from their homes and forcibly entered into the program.

Most of the middle third of the campaign is tracking down and killing each member of Taylor’s team while trying to find the man himself, and the Player comes to learn that the entire team’s minds have been overwritten by an entity calling itself Corvus, that was born in the instant the Singapore HQ’s test subjects’ minds melded and then accidentally caused the detonation that was the Disaster, mixing supreme meta-consciousness and the agony of death into a gestalt intelligence. Worse, the Player and Hendricks learn that, through directly interfacing with Taylor’s teams DNIs themselves to extract their memories and information pertaining to the mission, they have contracted the Corvus entity themselves, with Hendricks in particular demonstrating increasing emotional instability as the infection progresses. The player’s CIA liaison, Rachel Kane, is unaugmented and monitors the two cybernetic soldiers’ infection, which Hendricks becomes increasingly paranoid about.

The player then finally confronts Taylor in Egypt as the Cairo Uprisings reach their zenith, and after doing battle with a gigantic VTOL that Taylor possesses, appear to convince him to come back to himself. Taylor rips out his DNI, freeing himself of Corvus, but doesn’t get to say much of anything to the player about it before Hendricks, now fully Gone, kills Taylor himself and leaves the player injured in Cairo. From there, he goes rogue and launches a robot invasion of Zurich to infiltrate Coalescence’s HQ to find the lone survivor of the Singapore Disaster, a Coalescence executive, and exact Corvus’s revenge for the crimes of the trafficking and death that catalyzed its existence.

When Hendricks kills the executive, the Player brains Hendricks and then, realizing that this means that they’re the only person alive with the Corvus infection, turn the gun on themselves, pull the trigger, and are immediately schlorped (that’s the scientific term) into a virtual reality that is revealed to be a digital afterlife that Corvus maintains for the people it kills that have DNIs, in an attempt to atone for the tragedy of its existence. The Player rejects Corvus and, with the help of a virtual Taylor, does battle with Corvus so they can regain consciousness in the real world and purge their DNI to definitively defeat the infection.

And then, as the Player leaves the Coalescence HQ, a Zurich Security officer asks the Player to identify themselves, to which they respond “Taylor” as the screen fades to white.


Thus ends the Simulation Narrative. The ending is a real sudden left turn but a regular player might just regard it as weird schlocky shock writing and immediately turn on the option to have the game boot directly to multiplayer and never think about it again. But where the hell did that very last bit come from? It is because of that, dear reader, that we have to rewind back to the second campaign mission and examine what I will call the Real World Narrative.

So that surgery the Player undergoes to get all their cool cyber stuff and digital psychic powers? The Player actually dies during the surgery. It goes incredibly wrong and the Player dies in the middle of receiving their virtual training from Taylor. So then, where exactly did the events of the game actually come from? When the Player dies, the trauma of their death and the feedback from their networking with Taylor’s team for their training recreates the circumstances of Corvus’s initial birth in Singapore.

Wait, the reader asks. Recreates? Don’t the events of Taylor’s team becoming infected with Corvus in the Simulation Narrative happen five years later? Therein lies the rub, reader: The Simulation Narrative is actually a series of events that Taylor went through in the months leading up to the first mission of the game, corrupted by the Player’s agonized consciousness and the Corvus entity. What actually happened is that Taylor, before his augmentation, investigated the Singapore HQ and found that a cybernetic team had discovered the DNI project, contracted the Corvus entity, and gone rogue. Taylor then had to kill the members of this other cyber black ops team one by one, in a manner paralleling the Simulation Narrative. The Simulation Narrative, however, substitutes the members of this other team with Taylor’s team. Still, though, in the Real World Narrative, because the entire team has been corrupted by the Player and Corvus, as the Player kills the team in the Simulation Narrative, they also die in the Real World.

During the events of the Real World Narrative, Hendricks is present as Taylor’s partner and, same as in the Simulation Narrative, increasingly becomes agitated and unstable, but instead of the Simulation Narrative where he has been corrupted by Corvus, in the Real World he is melting down because of the stress of killing his friends on the other cyber black ops team and the ideological shock of realizing the Winslow Accord cybernetics project was developed off of human trafficking.

The part where everything gets extremely fuzzy is the end of the Cairo arc of the campaign that transitions into Hendrick’s Zurich invasion. When Simulation Narrative Taylor rips out his DNI, this technically ends the Simulation Narrative and is a representation of the Real World Taylor’s consciousness dissociating from the DNI. After a brief hospital scene with Kane, the game diagetically presents heavy glitching and opens in medias res with the Player standing huddled with Kane behind a Zurich cop car. This is actually the point where the Real World Narrative and the Player’s gameplay unite: Because Taylor has dissociated his consciousness from his DNI, the Player’s consciousness, having made the journey into his cybernetics with the Corvus entity, now assumes control of Taylor’s body in the Real World.

The Zurich arc of the campaign does take place in the real world: Hendricks has actually launched an invasion of the city, actually takes the Coalescence executive hostage, and is actually killed by the Player-as-Taylor. When the Player supposedly kills themselves, Corvus actually takes the Player into its DNI Afterlife right before they actually pull the trigger, and the virtual Taylor that assists the Player in the battle with Corvus is actually the Real World Taylor’s consciousness, reasoning that his forcible dissociation with his DNI that resulted in the Player assuming control of his body in the Zurich mission has made him a “glitch in the system”, able to act in Corvus’s DNI Afterlife despite his body still being alive in the Real World.

When the Player activates the DNI purge to end the campaign, their consciousness is gradually re-overwritten with Taylor’s, and their identification of themselves to the security officer as Taylor is them willingly giving up control of the body back to Taylor’s consciousness as they blink out of existence.

Well, that’s a fine load of doodoo you just pulled out of your craphole, the reader might suggest. Is there any textual evidence to support this? There is, in fact!

First, when the player undergoes their virtual training with Taylor, there is a very brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene where the simulation glitches out and the Player briefly sees Taylor desperately reaching out to them while being pulled away by doctors. This is to be understood as the moment of the Player’s death in the Real World. Also, when the Player “wakes up” from the surgery, they wake up to a bandana on their bed’s side table and a woman leaving the room who Taylor, standing directly over the Player, never seems to acknowledge.

Second, the very first moments of the post-time skip in the Simulation Narrative, the Player, in a complete daze, asks Hendricks where they are and what they’re doing, going “Oh, yes, that’s right” when Hendricks fills them in. On a surface level, this can easily be read as the narrative onboarding the player (not the Player) into the context of the campaign, but remember: the Player did not actually go through any of the five years of the supposed time skip up that point. They as well as the person playing the game have been suddenly blinked to that moment in time, and they have no idea what’s going on.

Third, there various moments throughout the campaign where characters appear to address the Player as Taylor, which the Player interprets as the characters talking to them about Taylor. This comes to a head in the penultimate Cairo mission where Kane panics and loses her nerve, begging the Player to leave the military and live with her. The Player reaches out to her in a tender moment and quietly reassures her that what she wants can’t be done, to which Kane longingly looks into the Player’s eyes and says “Taylor…” The Player, in the ultimate Smooth Move, Doofus fumble, responds “We’ll find him.”

Fourth, one of the people the Player rescues in the mission in the first game is a character named Lieutenant Khalil, referred to by Hendricks at Taylor with the line “Does that sound familiar? The hero of the Cairo Uprisings?” This makes it seem very, very weird when in the course of the Simulation Narrative, the Player touches off the Cairo Uprisings all over again and Khalil again goes missing. It’s not history repeating itself, nor a plot hole, it’s that the events of the Simulation Narrative already happened in the real world leading up to the rescue mission at the beginning of the game.

Fifth, when the Player defeats Taylor, they are seriously injured. This doesn’t seem to be much of an issue at first glance, but the injury depicted is a rebar stud directly through one of their cybernetic arms, an injury that earlier in the campaign the Player is pointedly shown as shrugging off without a problem, simply pulling the shard out of their cybernetics. Further, in response to these injuries, the Player… Goes in for cybernetic surgery. Which, if the Simulation Narrative were real, had already happened after the rescue mission. The injuries had actually happened to Taylor and were the catalyst for his cybernetic surgery. Furthermore, the hospital scene I vaguely alluded to while summarizing the Simulation Narrative involves Kane leaving her bandana on the table and leaving the room, the last two seconds directly mirroring the moments before the Player looks at Taylor standing over their bed directly after waking up from their surgery in the beginning of the Simulation Narrative.

The final piece is the loading screens themselves. It is Black Ops series tradition (as much as a sub-series that at that point had only had two games in it could have “tradition”) that missions open with a bunch of scrolling text that the game plucks words out of to form the mission title, time of day, and location. Pausing the video on the loading screens, or simply extracting the text, reveals that the text on these screens are Taylor’s journal entries about the Real World Narrative version of the missions the Player undertakes in the Simulation Narrative.

Post-publish edit: I knew I was going to be leaving myself open to Problems by writing this post before I actually finished my replay of the game, and sure enough doing the last third of the last mission revealed another huge Piece of the Puzzle I had forgotten about, which is that during the final confrontation, the Player reflects as Taylor in reflective surfaces and repeatedly rants to Corvus, in the Player’s voice, about how much they hate Corvus and will destroy it for “the sake of my team”, the only problem being that the Player never actually had a team, only Hendricks, implying that Taylor is speaking through the Player. Tossing it back to Three Hours ago me to write out the last two paragraphs.

All of this leaves only one question, which is why Hendricks actually launches the invasion of Zurich, and for this I have to turn from the text and engage in my own Original Speculation. It’s textual in the Real World Narrative that Hendricks becomes very agitated and broken over its course, openly questioning the WA and brawling with Taylor multiple times about the morality of their mission. In the Simulation Narrative, Hendricks becomes extremely obsessive about learning what the “Frozen Forest” is, which turns out to be Corvus’s DNI Afterlife. I speculate that the Real World Hendricks also became heavily influenced by the idea of attaining the Frozen Forest through his interactions with the corrupted other black ops team and, as opposed to undergoing the cybernetic surgery in solidarity with the Player, does so with the intent of acquiring his own DNI and directly communing with the Corvus entity, invading Zurich afterwards.

This is probably the most anyone’s ever written about Black Ops 3’s campaign, and for good reason. It’s downright confusing and on a surface level just seems to be riddled with inconsistencies and plot holes. But undertaking this project, especially in the context of having played every single other Call of Duty game up this point, has given me a better appreciation for what Treyarch was trying to do here. Coming in I regarded this game to be barely better than Modern Warfare 3’s campaign, which I rate as the second worst, but now I hold it in a greater esteem comparable more in line with the first Modern Warfare 1, upper middle of the pack. If you have enough interest in AAA broshooters such that you made it all the way down here, perhaps consider revisiting it yourself with this context in mind and see if you like it any better, yourself!