Death Without Dignity: How Call of Duty became a parody of itself
Something has been happening to Call of Duty for quite some time. What used to be a series lauded for its strong, poignant experiences has changed into something else entirely. The latest entry in the series, Call of Duty: Black Ops, encapsulates those changes perfectly in a single moment:
This is the last thing you see in Call of Duty: Black Ops. Your embattled hero, having survived countless high-adrenaline firefights and explosive narrow escapes, lands safely in the comforting embrace of the United States military. Battleships and men in fatigues line the horizon as the sun sets against a billowing American flag. Crunchy guitar riffs lend a tempo to the scene, which climaxes when three fighter jets swoop low in formation.
You can practically smell the testosterone.
And then we fade to black. You win! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Look, I'm okay with a game that wants to trumpet some nationalistic bombast every now and then. To be honest, I won't be rooting along with it, but I wouldn't let my personal anti-war philosophy dictate other people's right to expression. Still, orgiastic nationalism in videogames isn't the problem here.
What makes it troubling is that this is taking place in the Call of Duty series, which built its reputation on realistic, cinematic depictions of real-world conflict. It might very well be signaling the end of something essential in gaming — that is, a painstaking emphasis on creating a real, powerful, and meaningful scenario for players to get immersed in and to take something important away from.
Infinity Ward and the Transition to Sensationalism
The first two Call of Duty games were unflinchingly intense and cinematic in nature, but they had a purity in presentation and a reverence for the veterans of the wars they were recreating. Taking the groundwork laid by the landmark game Medal of Honor, it set a precedent for war games that were more like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers than Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. Series like Brothers in Arms and Company of Heroes tapped into that narrative of humility and thankfulness for those who fought against the Axis powers, and while they all tended to romanticize events at times, their hearts were in the right place.
But Infinity Ward — that studio composed of breakaways from the original Medal of Honor team that took World War II games to the next level — changed everything with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Rather than fighting in a historical context, players were now thrown into the front lines of a conflict that hits even closer to home. Gone are the massive military offenses, the European and Pacific theaters of operations; instead, players were subjected to the horrors of a guerrilla-style conflict loosely grounded in a contemporary setting.
Yet at its core, Modern Warfare was still a Call of Duty game. That is to say that it took its subject matter seriously, even if a few scenes near the climax of the game were totally unrealistic. There were a few heroes like Captain Price that stood out more as caricatures than real people, but the majority of the game succeeded in making the player feel like a human being stuck in a convincing, deadly conflict, with bullets zinging, buildings crumbling and death or serious injury almost inevitable.
The one thing holding it all together was its strict reliance on the first-person perspective for telling its story. Never once did the game break from the first-person view while events are unfolding. This made for some harrowing and groundbreaking moments, like the introductory sequence that places the player into the role of an ousted leader being led to his execution, and the infamous post-nuclear detonation where you play as a marine suffering through his final moments while a mushroom cloud looms on the horizon. These moments were raw, disturbing and convincing. They were remarkable. They mattered.
That would all change with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. But in 2007, that sequel was still two years out, which meant Activision would be calling upon its other Call of Duty production studio, Treyarch, to deliver the fifth entry in the series for 2008.
Treyarch and the Redefined Call of Duty
Treyarch first took the reins of the Call of Duty franchise with Call of Duty 3. Like its predecessors, Call of Duty 3 took place during World War II. While the consensus was that the campaign wasn't as strong or meaningful as the ones in Infinity Ward's games, the competitive multiplayer modes were lauded for their diversity and high replayability.
Arguably, it was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that made the series a critical and financial powerhouse, and that success was largely driven by the profoundly addictive and impeccably designed competitive multiplayer mode. Bolstered by the millions of copies sold and its dominance in raw numbers of players over Bungie's Halo 3 (which was released just months before Modern Warfare), Activision and Treyarch were dead-set on having lightning strike twice.
Call of Duty: World at War emerged as the fifth entry in the series. It was Treyarch's second venture with the franchise, and it brought the series back to its World War II roots. However, this wasn't the war as we'd seen in the first few games; instead, we had Kiefer Sutherland cursing his mouth off (as he is wont to do) and leading a brutal campaign through the Pacific theater.
The changes were dramatic. Limbs could now be severed with a magnum or shotgun, and the resulting death screams were louder and more excruciating. The story was darker, involving torture, executions and myriad brutal ways to kill the opposition.
Purely from a gameplay standpoint, it was more or less on par with Infinity Ward's games. But the changes in tone and philosophy were clear: Treyarch was not concerned about taking the high road in presenting a very real conflict. War is brutal, and everything that takes place in World at War probably actually happened in some form during the actual conflict. But there's no question that Treyarch's game sensationalized events at almost every turn. Still, it seemed likely that Infinity Ward would maintain its creative control on Modern Warfare 2 and deliver a game that portrayed modern conflict in a serious light.
Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops: The death and rebirth of Call of Duty
When Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty came out, fans weren't sure how to react. Rather than delivering a straight-up sequel to Metal Gear Solid, series director Hideo Kojima instead released a game that served as a profound commentary on videogames, sequels and violence. It forced players to confront their interest in games and their expectations for sequels by more or less having them play through the exact same game as the first Metal Gear Solid. It was a bold move, but it left a strong message that still reverberates throughout the games industry: there's more to a proper sequel than "bigger, better and more badass."
Infinity Ward apparently didn't agree with Kojima, because Modern Warfare 2 was exactly that. It took the scenario and characters from Modern Warfare and amped up the drama, action and explosions whenever possible. It made for a very well-playing game, but the imitation was so blatant that the experience was significantly compromised by it. Making matters worse was the sheer improbability of the game's more dramatic moments, which were either ripped straight from Modern Warfare or dramatized to a ridiculous extent.
In Modern Warfare, two of the characters you play as die in surprising, shocking ways. In Modern Warfare 2, two of the characters you play as are executed unceremoniously and without much meaning.
In Modern Warfare, a single, nerve-wracking shot in slow motion at a moment where all seems lost wins the game. In Modern Warfare 2, a single, nerve-wracking knife-toss in slow motion into the bad guy's eyeball results in a spurt of blood and a feeling of déjà vu.
Objectively, Modern Warfare 2 was probably a better game than Modern Warfare. But the core of the series — the heart-wrenching casualties of war, the dramatic moments of escapism where you felt like you were part of something greater — was gone.
It later emerged that there was significant unrest among the leaders of Infinity Ward, including studio figureheads Jason West and Vince Zampella. The details are still unknown as legal proceedings continue, but it doesn't seem like a coincidence that the key talent behind the Call of Duty series vacated Activision just as the series jumped the shark.
With Infinity Ward in need of restructuring, the stage was set for Treyarch to become the vanguard of the series. Black Ops and the new direction of Call of Duty
Black Ops is the anti-Call of Duty. Or rather, it's the new face of Call of Duty, eschewing tradition in favor of a new approach.
The story is told through a series of between-level cutscenes, which largely take place from the position of a central character named Alex Mason (not to be confused with this other bald, grunting tough guy with regenerating health), who is being interrogated and forced to relive the events that brought him to the present day.
The introduction of a central character to Call of Duty profoundly alters the tone of the game. Previous games made the statement that war is about more than one person — that it's about the millions who fought, suffered and died to defend something greater than any of us. Instead, Black Ops makes Mason into a heroic figurehead — a superhuman avatar for the player.
Confounding this shift in tone is a break with the series' measured, thoughtful emphasis on telling a story purely from the first-person perspective. While insisting on a single point of view may be seen by some as an unnecessary limitation, I would argue it can be the purest form of storytelling in games. By never severing the player's connection to his or her character, the immersion is unbroken. The Half-Life series is perhaps the best example of using that technique effectively, but Call of Duty has traditionally been just as effective.
Black Ops shifts to the third person frequently in its in-engine cutscenes, and this move never enhances the experience for the player. It has the effect of rote narration, telling rather than strictly showing. It's belittling to the player because it implies that their ability to control their perspective on the experience isn't sufficient.
But what's most damning is the sheer improbability of the story itself. Without spoiling the narrative for anyone who might be interested, it digs deep into the realm of conspiracy theories, complete with despicable secret Nazi experiments, Soviet treachery and Cold-War fanaticism. It might sound interesting on paper, but the result for me was an experience where I was constantly aware that I was just playing a military shooter videogame. Its conclusion, including the final twist in the game's epilogue, feels tacked-on and improbable.
All this adds up to the first Call of Duty where I walked away feeling like I hadn't gained anything from the experience.
There's an important distinction to be made here. Call of Duty: Black Ops is not a bad game. By most accounts, it's a very good one, albeit with a few major bugs and some inconsistent pacing. But Call of Duty is one of the most revered and well-regarded series in the history of videogames, and its fall from grace can't be ignored. Rather than depicting war in a meaningful way — in a way that elevated the medium from kill-'em-all monotony to significant, poignant storytelling — it has now become a rough, raw, overly masculine interactive action movie. The Steven Spielberg influence is gone; instead, the games have been given the Michael Bay treatment.
It's a loss for games as a creative medium, and it's a loss for players who heralded the Call of Duty brand as a positive force in progressive game design. But on the other hand, the stage is now set for a new series to take the reins and drive the military game into bold new territory. With West and Zampella developing a new game at Respawn Entertainment, and developers like Danger Close and Sledgehammer taking a stab at modern military games, it's anyone's guess what the future of modern warfare games will be.
I just hope that, for the medium's sake, everyone hasn't forgotten what helped drive these games to prominence and significance in the first place.