Patrick Stafford shows how Call of Duty lost its way.
By Patrick Stafford on April 13, 2012 at 11:22 am
“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”
– Ernest Hemingway
This quote has been broadcast across millions of screens in the past nine years. Those who have played the Call of Duty single player campaigns would be familiar with the practice – whenever you die, some sort of thoughtful, poignant or stone-cold truth from someone important flashes on the screen.
They are from soldiers such as Patton, or Churchill, or tyrants like Stalin. Some decry war, others lament its necessity.
They serve an important purpose. But they also confirm a harsh reality already known to most players – that the series, once a commentary on the depressing realities of war, now champions it.
There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all gory, but, boys, it is all hell. You can bear this warning voice to generations yet to come. I look upon war with horror.”
– General William Tecumseh Sherman
The first Call of Duty game was a landmark, and not just because of the immersive scripted sequences, the realisticsound design,or the way it forced you to take aim and consider your combat strategy.
Call of Duty remains impressive because it breathes new life into history. Your fellow soldiers all have names. You watch them as they are forced to die, attempting to fulfill objectives in recreations of actual battles .
Your mission briefings are shown on real maps, black and white photographs of bridges and towns. There’s an element of respect, here, that you’re dealing with something tangible, and that you ought to be approach it delicately.
In actual combat, you experience shell shock. You’re timid to look over a foxhole, fearing what might happen. And when the inevitable does, you’re faced with a shriek that quickly fades into silence and darkness – and then words fill the screen.
“If we don’t end war, war will end us.”
– HG Wells
The placement of these words directly after a battle sequence snatches the player back into reality.
This really happened. Men really died. And it should not celebrate or championed.
Yes, some of the quotes are humorous or attempt to glorify war. But it’s difficult to interpret them anything other than ironically because the game has just told you not to take them seriously – it’s showed you that war is hell and you won’t have it any other way.
They form an ironic partnership with the combat – almost as if the developers are giving you an experience, but warning that you ought not to enjoy it.
Money and success changes everything. Call of Duty was once up against some massive, blockbuster titles. Now, it markets itself to nine-year old boys.
As a result, the death quotes that deride war are no longer accompanied by thoughtful gameplay, and those that champion battle are taken much more seriously than they ought to be.
The first Modern Warfare title is less guilty of this than its next two sequels. Walking through Pripyat places you directly in a graveyard, frozen in time.
The iconic nuclear explosion is often cited as a bold and thrilling moment. But it’s the following minutes that reveal the game’s true message. When you’re dragging your blistered and bloody body through the wreckage, surrounded by broken steel and pools of blood, viewing the mushroom cloud in the distance.
“There’s no honorable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war. Except its ending.”
– Abraham Lincoln
It’s hard to walk away untouched from such a commentary on nuclear war. No one could argue these games were any sort of “tribute”, but at least they take a step beyond becoming pure entertainment.
These quotes suddenly make a lot more sense when you’re watching an entire city burning to the ground. They don’t when you’re storming a White House, living out a Red Dawn-esque fantasy. Or when you’re shooting men in their sleep.
How am I supposed to consider the words, “If we don’t end war, war will end us,” after I’ve been shot down in the middle of an adrenaline-pumping snowboard chase?
From the very most Modern Warfare, you’re introduced as a bad-ass. Captain Price smokes his cigar. You storm a ship, kill people in their sleep and attempt to stop a dictator from blowing up the rest of the world.
So much emphasis is placed on pumping you up so that you’re invincible. Even the introduction of regenerative health in Call of Duty 2 adds to this – you’re a war-machine. You don’t need your comrades to look out for you if you heal by yourself.
In the original, you’re just a guy doing what he’s told. And you’ll probably die.
Patton’s famous words, “the object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his”, serve as a commentary on nationalist exceptionalism when you suddenly switch to fighting a British or Russian campaign.
But when you’re sneaking up behind an African militia member and stab him in the chest, those words don’t mean anything because you’re told “it’s okay – they’re the bad guys”. You’re a badass. You’re doing the world a service. They owe you.
So how does that make sense when you take a bullet, go down, and see the words, “war is hell?” Is it? Really? Because what I just played told me that war was fun and that I should do it again.
And so you kill that “other bastard” with glee and anticipation – not lament.
“We happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother.”
– William Shakespeare, King Henry V
There is no band of brothers in Modern Warfare 2 and 3, or Black Ops. I switch between American and British soldiers, but the impact of the war on smaller characters is lost on me. I see the war from one perspective – and I’m the one in charge.
One of the biggest arguments against the sequels’ razor-thin plot is that it’s mass entertainment. It’s the lowest common denominator – a forgettable summer blockbuster.
But the original Call of Duty was much more than that. Released during the onset of the Iraq war,these quotes served as a warning. Now, as we’ve grown used to seeing troops overseas, the killing of innocents, we’ve become so desensitised that it’s become just another part of our mass entertainment.
“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.”
– Robert E. Lee
But we have grown fond of it. The way these games present these quotes is no longer a jarring reminder of reality, but a relic of a game with a stronger conviction.