The Missing Conflict: How Call Of Duty’s Stories Went Awry

By John Walker on November 7th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.

Here’s the thing. The Call Of Duty modern campaigns really don’t need to be dreadful. I think, after so many ugly, stupid attempts, there’s a perception that it’s just the way it is, the limits of the genre, the best you can hope for. And this simply isn’t true. Sadly it isn’t the case for the latest release, and I think I know why. There’s a conflict that’s gone missing, and they need to get it back.

When COD shifted to the modern era, people immediately assumed that simply this would see it lose its gravitas, trivialising itself now it lacked the pre-built backdrop of a real, hideous war. These terrorist-fuelled guns-and-gadgets shooters just surely wouldn’t match up. But no, it’s not that simple. Because let’s not get rose-tinted here – there were a lot of awful World War 2 games. There were so many, in fact, that in the early 2000s the subject matter was met with the same weary disdain as yet another zombie game is now. There was a glut, and most of them were tacky and offensive, lazily importing the backdrop to save doing the hard work for themselves. COD stood out from this. Because they were damned great games, and they took their setting incredibly seriously.

This was, I think, because of a tension with which the games were made. I remember attending preview events for both CODs 2 and 3, and at both the same tension was incredibly apparent. People from one part of the development team would talk about how crucial it was to be authentic (and actually mean it), showing videos of interviews they’d conducted with WW2 veterans, weeping old men remembering the devastating horror that deeply carved itself into their lives sixty years before. The developers said, certainly with some puff, but also genuine sincerity, that telling those stories had become important to them, and they wanted to do it with respect.

Then someone else would get up and say how bloody incredible the explosions were going to be. Look! they’d exclaim, as they showed footage of a building on fire, and a tank being blown to smithereens. These people cared about authenticity too, but the authenticity of the fireballs, of the bluster and show. They wanted to sell the game on its spectacle.

These two extremes worked so well together for two or three games. It was this that was increasingly lost over the course of the Modern Warfares. Rather than speaking to broken veterans who told devastating truths, they spoke to current operatives in current wars, who gave government lines and speeches of patriotism and bravado. Honouring this meant abandoning honesty, because those whose lives they were attempting to portray were in no position to tell the truth. As a result, the games became unwitting propaganda, gung-ho demonstrations of a nation’s power over the inferior upstarts. Things had changed from the miraculous successes of scrappy, ill-prepared teenage troops, to giants with magic buttons crushing poor brown people.

With this, the spectacle side got to take over. Reverence for infinitely rich, ludicrously powerful armies is cheap. Rather than the near-anonymous cannon fodder of the early games, instead they attempted to generate pathos by giving us backgrounds to the soldiers we sort-of played, giving them conversations and character arcs. Where COD 1 had you play as a barely identified soldier for a few brief moments, before transporting you to the body of another unknown man, fighting for another country, in another place, Modern Warfare 2 and onwards had you playing as BIFF, TANKFACE and GRRRRR, or whatever they might have been called, and they swapped pseudo-bon mots with each other in elongated cutscenes, until one of them died in a non-interactive scene near the end. We were supposed to care because they were HEROES! And they were HEROES! because the game kept telling us they were, rather than because of anything you actually saw them do.

And you certainly didn’t get to feel like a hero yourself. Somehow, in this transition, the player character went from being an anonymous nobody who does his extraordinary best in horrendous situations, to an anonymous nobody who follows behind a bunch of shouting meatheads, sweeping up behind them. So crucial did the display of the events become to the development that the player could only get in the way of it all. If you allowed a person to control a character, run left or right, they might not look the right way as the skyscraper fell over! So dammit, take away their option to run right, and in fact take away their controls entirely to make sure they’re watching.

In fact, to ensure a player always goes precisely where you want them to go, the easiest thing to do is have them follow. If the AI is always just in front, showing you the path, then you can’t put a foot wrong. Sure, that means they open the doors, pick the pathways, decide when to stop and when to start, and encounter the enemies first, but at least the player won’t be distracted when the passenger jet crashes into the cruise ship. They spent two million dollars making that happen, and you’d better not be admiring a texture on a rock when it does.

With spectacle fully in control, and nothing honest to say about the lives of those fighting, there’s no room left for players. All you can do is make it go wrong, not follow the invisible script as they need you to. So instead you’re placed in the museum’s monorail cart, and told when to press a button to trigger the next display. Shooting other soldiers isn’t about gruesome survival, it’s about activating the next cutscene, turning the game’s so very expensive pages.

But post-9/11 war gaming doesn’t need to be this way. People very often cite Spec Ops: The Line at this point, and I’m not going to. Firstly because I think the game has its cake while stuffing it down its trousers, and secondly because it doesn’t need to be arch, satirical, or even openly critical to be a valid tale of modern war. It just needs to have some truth to tell.

Earlier I said that COD stood out from the wall-to-wall WW2 shooters of last decade because, “they were damned great games, and they took their setting incredibly seriously.” There’s no reason why this couldn’t be the mantra for the new games. Although it involves understanding the difference between taking something seriously, and taking yourself too seriously.

Modern Warfare, Black Ops and Ghosts all take themselves incredibly seriously. They present stories that range from infantile to outright offensive as The Most Significant Texts Of Our Time, with cavernously empty characters booming their leaden clich├ęs as if each word is life-changing, while shit falls down all around them. Pathos is gone, entirely replaced by bathos, trite platitudes exchanged with faux gravitas under the moody green lighting of a high-tech radar screen. Nothing-men with a deranged belief in their own significance, explaining to each other just how IMPORTANT the situation is, and how little time there is to lose. With a meticulously animated frown on their ghoulish console-face.

Rather than taking their stories seriously, these are games that instead only tell you that they’re being serious, over and over, in the hope that you’ll eventually believe it. They’re fatuous experiences, delivered po-faced, by a mentality that believes only shouting provides emotional emphasis. And they need not at all.

The irony of it all being that those so effective and moving action epics in CODs 1 and 2 did it all having the characters barely speak at all. A letter written to home during a loading screen gave us a blink of insight into these soldiers, and then the war around them was the story being told.

A modern warfare shooter could present to me the realities of present (or imagined future) conflicts, without this chest-beating festival of roars. It could present it to me without having the characters feel the need to display their worn rubber band of brothers camaraderie at all. It could actually be about the war.

In transferring to the future, a peculiar mistake was made. In the World War 2 games, the stories told were those of real battles, real conflict, skirmishes from history books, testified by living former soldiers. They didn’t need to be about how gruff man with stubble was toward man with beard. They simply needed to say, “Bloody hell, war was utterly awful, and it went like this.”

Modern war is horrible. While people may want to be at war with certain groups, or want there to be conflict to prevent the actions of terrorists, no one (but for the mad) actively wants war for the sake of war. Except for the developers of Call Of Duty games. (And Medal Of Honor, and Homefront, and so on.) And that’s it – that’s the nub of it all. These are wars created and told simply because they want there to be wars. And this mentality, this creative ethos, leaks into everything the games become. It is war for the sake of war, and here are some gruff, brave men who are fighting it for us.

If these games could begin with an imagined hindsight, a conjured perspective on the aftermath of a fictional conflict, and then go back to tell the stories of the events that got them there, I think they could be incredible once again. It doesn’t need to be pessimistic, and it doesn’t need to be anti-war rhetoric. But it needs to be built upon a desire for honesty. Instead of telling us how ACE, TRUCKBOY and PUNCH prevented the foreigners-du-jour from blowing up the president’s grandma, they could tell us how the Bostonian battle between America South and the invading Swedish Imperials was turned by the deployment of the 19th Division during a tropical storm. There are your explosions, your enormous effects, your spectacle. But this time it’s not about five blokes. It’s about that battle, why it turned around, how America South defied the odds and repelled those Swedish scoundrels. The reverence might be imagined, but it needn’t be insincere.

It’s tougher in the present or future times, I admit. The relative simplicity of guns or guns with spikes on the end when it came to battle gives greater opportunity to a developer to capture the moments. When a war is fought with unmanned drones and bomb-delivering robots, controlled by buttons and levers in rooms in other countries, the gritty, feet-in-the-mud nature of war can be lost. But the games ignore this anyway, still portraying you and your invincible gang as needing to wade through rivers in order to shoot 1,500 identically skinned men in their distant faces. So continue ignoring it, and give us those battles in context, without fear that the player’s only contact with anything of substance would be missed if they ran to the left of the tree rather than the right of it. If the game was made of substance to start with, the paranoia that they’re looking when the fireworks go off would so quickly fade away.

Freed of the need to have the player follow, and instead allowing them to be one of many brave or unfortunate men in desperate circumstances, once again the Call Of Duty campaigns could breathe. They could be epic, awesome, dramatic and terrifying, in a way that they clearly so desperately wish they could be. But instead of trying to deliver it in such a clingfilmed world of falseness and characterless-driven plots, they could retell the tales of battles never told.

They need that tension back again, a group of the development team to pull against the spectacle team, to wrestle things back to that place in the middle that works so well. I think it could be done.

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289 Comments »

  1. Mister_Inveigler says:

    Excellent piece. Pretty much sums up why I haven’t played a CoD in years.
    I don’t do multiplayer (none of my friends are gamers) and the quality in many FPS single player has hit the ground so hard that it has created a new definition of ‘flat’.

    Maybe this is the big issue of our medium though, too often we keep it ‘safe’ and just don’t want to push the envelope anymore. (Or at least with AAA gaming)
    Personally, I think it’s a phase the industry is going through. And it’s one I hope this industry breaks through soon. Articles like this just help us get there that much faster.

  2. Megakoresh says:

    Too late, gonna read this tomorrow.

  3. chestburster says:

    Another day, another RPS COD-bashing click bait.

    Why can’t you just accept that COD MW is never MEANT to be what you demand of it? Seriously, it is absurd to demand DEEP, intellectual content out of a Michael Bay movie. If you don’t like it, you just avoid it but it’s just a part of life that millions of dimwits (and even some intellects that willingly shut down their brains) like it.

    And why can’t you just treat a COD game like an interactive Micheal Bay movie? It’s dumb, it’s flashy and it is unashamedly so. Treat it like “a baby’s first vidya game.” One can always start with COD and then move on to better deeper things like STALKER.

  4. Megakoresh says:

    They should have showed the conflict from both sides. COD is a cliche game where good ‘Murica kills bad Russians with explosions. In MW2 there was one thing about the general that turned out to be corrupt, they could have explored that more. If they showed the conflict how it is: contrived and unnecessary, invented by corrupt governments, and they showed it from both sides of the spectrum and did it without the ridiculous handholding, that would be enough.

    All they need to do is to take their own flaws and make the game about them instead of with them. Take the unnecessary war and show how unnecessary it is. Take the handheld trooper and show him how the brass attempts to handhold him, without making the game do it at the same time.

  5. NoStall says:

    Excellent discussion of the CoD series: And i agree that the first three (CoD, CoD United Offensive, CoD2) were perhaps the best and for the reasons given. Another game series, perhaps the better of the two, that spent a lot of time researching actual battles of WWII, then developing a fairly open game with them, was/is the Brothers in Arms series. Perhaps they lost popularity because it took them so long to publish, but they were really true to the actual battles depicted.

  6. unangbangkay says:

    Maybe it’s because it’s late over here, but I’m not sure if I understand Your proble,, john, or your proposed solution.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I read the article as follows: Older cods were better because they could take advantage of being about an actual war and thus treat their abject matter with more respect while still indulging that Hollywood spectacle. Hence there was something approximating balance.

    But your solution to the problem of modern cods being about false wars and false soldiers…is to be about fictional wars, presumably fought by fictional people? howis that different from nearly every modern vod game? (I.e that aside about the fictional battle)? Isn’t that what call of duty is? All the wars in every cod (with the partial exception of black ops) were fictional, and to a hilarious, unbelievable degree. I fail to see how taking things further away into the realm of more speculative fantasy would help.

    If you have a problem with jingoism, that much I can agree with, but will “depoliticizing” cod by making it even more unreal, more fictional, really make it better? Right now, at this late hour, I fail to see how it would even make a future cod game that subscribes to your theory would even be different from what’s out now.

    I mean, the war in cod ghosts is somewhat closer to this ideal you propose as it is, being about a fictional war between the nonexistent federation and a largely nonexistent America.

    I’m not saying john is wrong, here, but I need a bit of help to understand how he’s right.