“Those who do not learn from from history, are doomed to make another World War II videogame.” A famous saying, and one we all know well. So when Activision hosted a live presentation for the reveal trailer of their latest shooter, Call of Duty: WWII [official site], I watched and felt nothing but a tired wave of low-burning resentment for everyone involved. During this presentation the word “visceral” was said a total of eight times and our own news editor Alice silently got up from her desk, walked solemnly out of her house, and never returned. If anyone has seen Alice, please call us.
It was a monstrously cringe-worthy event, sadly typical of our industry. Among the performers, the words “boots on the ground” and “back to our roots” were hammered out multiple times, everyone on stage seeking to remain desperately, forlornly on-message. But the real message, which we received loud and clear, was much simpler than the mish-mash of platitudes and marketing. Simply: we are going back to World War II and we are trying, with all the desperation of a wet cat, to convince you that this is a good thing. Thus the images of the beaches of Normandy we are all accustomed to, thus the US soldiers arguing over duty and lives, thus the shadowy Nazi, harbinger of the manshoot and eterno-foe of the videogamer. The developers even had the brazenness to suggest that the reason for revisiting the second world war was to "ensure this sort of conflict doesn’t happen again", as if making a balls-to-the-wall action-soaked FPS was the best way to do that.
But it isn't. For some, including our own John, the series returning to WWII presents a hopeful opportunity. For me, it's the worst thing they could have done. "Getting World War 2 right is incredibly important to us," said Glen Schofield of Sledgehammer Games at the event, failing to acknowledge that they could not even decide upon a single tone for the reveal event, never mind the game, flopping between reverence for fallen soldiers and wide-eyed celebration of all the "authentic" firearms with which you'll be killing people and the "immersive" bullet sounds you'll be hearing as you come under fire. This is a principle failure of many Call of Duty games: a thunderous clashing of tones. Now, I don't think that games about this war should not exist - any war is up for grabs as far as I'm concerned. But I am not convinced, based on both the rhetoric of this event and the series' past outings that CoD is the franchise to do it "right".
In looking to world history for its inspiration, Activision and Sledgehammer are neglecting to inspect the history of their own industry. Games have grown up slightly since the glut of WWII shooters in the 2000s. Back then, you could put an M1 Garand in the player’s hand, tell them they are a member of the O.S.S and kick them out the door. We would shoot absolutely anything, so long as we heard that hot, hot “ping”. Now, if a WWII shooter is made, it either goes for over-the-top nonsense, like in Wolfenstein: The New Order, or it neglects to add any singleplayer mode at all, a la Day of Infamy. Wolfenstein often gets its free pass unfairly, I think (but that's a whole other article) but it at least presents a mostly-consistent attitude - ie. "let's shoot some fascists on the moon with a gun in each hand, yeeeehawwww!" And Day of Infamy ignores story altogether, turning their players into not much more than a gung-ho reenactment society.
These recent games have aimed for such a consistency of tone because their developers have garnered the sense to realise that history is complicated, and it is hard to tell a serious tale about the cost of war with a game that is, at its core, about shooting hundreds of people in the head with a machine gun. Call of Duty, as a series, has never learned this, even when it went to Mars. Likewise, Battlefield 1, for me, made the same mistake with its War Stories – a campaign so clashing in competing tones that it was like hearing two pianos having an argument.
The truth that Activision (and Dice, to a lesser extent) fails to see - or chooses not to see - is that their high-powered blockbuster shooters rarely approach the subject of war with any sophistication or grace. Nor do they approach them with a purposeful silliness or stupidity that would absolve them of their choice of setting. Instead, they usually try to have everything - the horror and the gung-ho - resulting in a disjointed mess that attempts to flip-flop between conflicting emotions as often as you swap grenade types. And worse than simply being inconsistent of vision, they often exude a pungent aura of jingoism, duty, machismo and heroism that would not be out of place in any boy’s war comic of the 1950s. Nowhere do videogames more clumsily reveal their immaturity, comparative to other mediums, than in tackling wars via big budget multiplayer-focused shooters, in which the closest the player comes to achieving a deeper understanding of conflict is in pressing ‘F’ to pay your respects.
On top of that, nowhere do games spout more US-centric ideas about the necessity of conflict either, exploring loose themes about foreign invaders, surprise attacks, terrorism (and “narcoterrorism”) in such a narrow and limited way that, in any other era, it could easily be labelled propaganda. All these messages and more are served up between explosive set pieces and "visceral" gun fights. Then, with the last explosion ringing in your ear, your friend is shot dead. Isn't war hell?
Some readers might grimace at those complaints, seeing only a vague anti-Americanism in my argument. That's not what I'm getting at. I only want to say that it is hard to believe Sledgehammer Games when they say they want to tell a "diverse" and "global" story (and this is what they really said). Because they have once again put you into the combat boots of a United States private. Nothing invites tunnel vision like exploring a complicated, vicious and worldwide conflict via the iron sights of a US infantry man. We’re told that there will be a playable moment with a woman in the French Resistance, along with others, but how brief, long, or significant those moments are, we do not know. It wasn’t mentioned in the trailer, and the three actors brought on stage during Activision’s presentation were all men playing the main roles of the US soldier boys. They then spoke about how the bonds made in the recording studio were reflective of the bonds between soldiers fighting in a deadly and chaotic environment. OK.
My point is that a clashing of tone is just one problem Call of Duty will face going back to the war we all know. It is also a common failing of big budget first-person-shooters that they rarely visit unknown territory or alternative viewpoints. The gesture to the women of the French resistance feels like a token one and the safest possible option. As far as we know, there are no soldiers or spies from the Phillipines, India, Russia or Hong Kong. It is even more unlikely that we'll be playing any levels from the perspective of a relateable Axis soldier or citizen. After all, a blockbuster must have its “bad guy”, even if that bad guy must encompass entire nations.
There's nothing wrong with choosing to focus on one set of participants in a war, of course. But Sledgehammer Games are asking you to trust that this story is "diverse", that it accurately represents this global conflict, that they are "getting it right". I can't speak for fans, but I can't take what they say at face value when I watch the CoD: WWII trailer only to be greeted with the same old chiseled faces of US servicemen out to prove another point about how heroic they are in the most discordant manner possible. "Aren't we brave?" roars the lieutenant on the beach. “Isn't this hellish,” laughs the sergeant. A private lays in the sand and points to the bullet wound in his throat. “Look how visceral this is,” he gurgles.
Like I've said, there’s nothing wrong with returning to the second world war as a setting for a shooter, or any other story. If any other medium can travel from Normandy to the Rhine, games should be able to as well. But they have to step up when it comes to depicting that war with deftness, if that is what they are aiming for. And judging by the words of the developers at Sledgehammer, that is what they want to do. Unfortunately, the track record of Call of Duty does not fill me with hope. The writing in the most recent shooter, Infinite Warfare, somehow managed to feel like a loud song celebrating United States exceptionalism, despite being about shooting lasers in outer space. You might be relieved that Sledgehammer are taking the lead with this one, but remember that they made Call of Duty: Kevin Spacey. That history, combined with the recent cringing, babbling reveal event only reinforces my scepticism. Call of Duty is not good at depicting war - its reasons, its atrocities or its cost. It will, in all likelihood, not get World War II right.
There is room for any type of shooter the world can imagine, including traditional beach stormers, and it might seem silly for me to criticise a company who, despite selling lower numbers from their recent futureshoots, still manage to bring hundreds of thousands of players into fearsome multiplayer arenas of speed and death (the real reason most people play CoD, let’s not forget). However, if this does turn out to be another GI Joe comic book tale with thousands of headshots, while simultaneously mouthing “isn’t war hell?” to you between mortar blasts, I hope that every other developer will take note and seek to make something more nuanced and intelligent should they seek to exploit the same era. Because those who do not learn from history… well, you know.