Riley is the best trained dog on the planet: Press a button and he sits; press a button and he stays; press a button and he attacks. One of the main characters of Activision's Call of Duty: Ghosts, the most successful video game ever released, the outsized German Shepherd is the first virtual canine to play a starring role in a widely-released first person shooter. He's also based on real-life service dog owned by Stephen Gaghan, the writer behind Traffic and Syriana.
"I'm what you'd call a 'dog person,'" says Gaghan, who crafted the plot of Ghosts. "My closest friend ever, Charlie, was a service dog." In part, dreaming up a canine character was a way for Gaghan to bring back his friend, who passed away a few years ago. Though Riley is a furry weapon – his movements were based on a real-life military dog named Ruger – he's got a sweetness to him despite the kill count. Like Gaghan's Akita-Lab-Retriever mix, he's attentive and loyal.
That's why no one wanted him to die.
"Second only to the feeling we wanted players to have at the end of the game, the life or death of Riley probably occupied the most amount of brain space," Gaghan recalls. "We liked him too much."
Ultimately, Riley took a round to the chest and survived. That scene, the most emotional in the game, sees our canine protagonist caught in a Las Vegas firefight. His whimpers are gut wrenching. His ears, normally perked up, lie flat. "There's a famous old expression in screenwriting: 'Pet the dog,'" says Gaghan, who came up writing shows like NYPD Blue. "It's a way for the audience to like a character because he's kind to animals." In Ghosts, Riley's injury gives players a chance to like themselves.
And Riley's presence makes the Ghosts a more accurate representation of secret ops missions, a bonus the game's architects hadn't expected. "I just thought we were making it up," Gaghan admits. "What we had been imagining hadn't gone far enough."
The writer became particularly fascinated by remote canine patrols, during which military dogs are outfitted with cameras and issued commands through a radio. The practice allows soldiers to get visuals of dangerous spots where human patrols might become targets and puts trainers in a similar position to game players trying to control Riley. The stakes are clearly lower in the game, but they feel high. It's impossible not to care about a dog.