The biggest surprise of the fall's AAA season, for me, was Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. The game is well-designed and well-paced, with surprisingly diverse gameplay beats that borrow touches from the likes of The Last of Us and Deus Ex: Human Revolution as much as they recall the gung-ho gameplay of previous entries in the franchise.
Advanced Warfare brought with it a series first, for me: a character I really cared about. No, I didn't give a shit about Mitchell, the blue-eyed soldier protagonist voiced by, naturally, Troy Baker. I'm talking about badass Atlas operative Ilona.
Not just a boy's club
In the game, Mitchell, an injured former US Marine, gets an invite to come work for Atlas, a super-powerful Private Military Corporation (PMC). There, the best and brightest soldiers, spies and scientists work together to take contract jobs and, ostensibly, promote world peace. Ilona is herself one of the most accomplished people in the organization.
Throughout the story, Ilona pops up often as a squadmate. A former Spetsnaz sniper, she's presented as the most skilled marksman in the entire Atlas organization (if you pay attention in the "Atlas" mission, her name tops every chart on the company firing range), and one of its smartest and most talented field agents. In missions, you'll see her acting as a spy (like at the beginning of "Manhunt"), and as a soldier, hefting a gun and mowing down the enemy with the best of them. When it comes time for the big "twist" in the story, it's Ilona that figures it out before everyone else.
It's not that Ilona is presented as a three dimensional person — no one is in this game. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is on par with a Michael Bay action flick. The characters, while often likable, are archetypes. There's the stoic soldier (Mitchell), the power-hungry CEO/leader (Irons), the grizzled vet going for glory. But it is refreshing to see a woman character portrayed as one of the best and brightest in this world, in the context of a military power fantasy. Ilona serves as proof women have a place in this world, that we can engage in this fantasy too.
Women in combat
I'm particularly interested in the way military women are portrayed in modern fiction. Women have been fighting in real-life wars since the dawn of, well, war, but in the United States Military, there are a number of combat positions that are only open to men. Women who are deployed to war zones right now are most typically in "support" positions.
Prior to my position here at Polygon, I worked at the American Civil Liberties Union, and one of the cases I worked on (in the communications department) was a suit brought by the ACLU challenging the Department of Defense's exclusionary ban on women in combat. Much of the argument in favor has to do with the facts of modern conflict: deployed women are in combat situations, and may not be given the appropriate training — or the appropriate pay and advancement opportunities — because of outdated policies.
The other side is a very basic equal access argument. A qualified person, man or woman, should have the opportunity to train for and work in a job that there's great need for. If a woman has the aptitude and the mental and physical attributes necessary for the job, she should be allowed to at least apply for it.
When we had a press event with four of our plaintiffs, all of them servicewomen, I was able to meet with some of the most truly badass people I'd ever encountered in my life. Each had stories about her own combat experience, and each just wanted to fight for what she felt was fair.
The special forces guy flying with her even turned to her and said "you can fly with me any day."
One woman, an Air Force Major and a rescue pilot, was shot down in a combat zone. She protected the injured soldiers under her care, despite taking shrapnel wounds herself, and she was the only one on that particular mission to return fire at the enemy. The special forces guy flying with her even turned to her and said "you can fly with me any day."
Two of the women were awarded Purple Hearts for their valor in combat (the Purple Heart is a medal given to injured service members). All of them had encountered combat while deployed. The overall ban on women in combat was lifted in 2012 (I like to think it had to do with the suit), but there are still many positions only open to men.
In modern fiction, we just don't have many great examples that illustrate the reality that women serve as bravely as men do. So, Ilona stands out. She's just as competent a soldier — in many ways, she's better — than the men she works with.
Ilona represented the women I met — and I wanted to see her through the campaign
Throughout my playtime with Advanced Warfare, I wrestled with my personal feelings about the military-industrial complex and the game's presentation as an endorsement of just how "cool and badass" war can be. Again, wanting to know what happens to Ilona kept me going. In much the same way that I cared deeply about military policy after I met with the people it affected, I felt something of a connection to this character. To me, she represented the women I met — and I wanted to see her through the campaign.
I may struggle with my feelings about real-life war and the bombast of Call of Duty, but I'm glad I played Advanced Warfare, and even happier that Ilona was such a big part of it. She's not perfect, but she offers a representation of a modern woman warrior that is hyper-competent, strong and smart. Just like the real-life servicewomen I met two years ago.