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Call of Duty: Press X to feel something

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

I have never been to a military funeral. I've only seen them in the movies and on TV. But a game invited me to participate in one yesterday morning.

In the opening scenes of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare I was invited to take time out of my busy game to pay my respects to the fallen. You do so by holding down a button.

The scene has already been roundly mocked on social media.

The funeral was for William Irons, a young U.S. Marine and my character's best friend. In the fiction of the game, Irons was killed in the line of duty in combat against North Korea. In his last moments pieces of him rained down on top of me, and chunks of the craft I helped him to destroy wounded my character gravely. Moments before Irons' funeral a cutscene showed me his horribly burned body on a gurney, one of more than 6,000 virtual American men and women who died re-taking Seoul that day.

The service seemed fairly standard, bordering on cliche. Grim-faced warfighters surrounded a flag-draped casket. A family in mourning, heads low. Kind words about honor and country. On one side tears, and on the other firm resolve and crisp salutes.

But here I was at my friend's funeral. Press X to "pay your respects," the game told me. And so I did.

My character looked down, past where his left arm used to be, and placed his right hand at the foot of Irons' casket. And we held it there, together, for just a moment.

It was a valiant attempt at pathos, the first time in a long time that a triple-A game was trying to communicate to me at a higher level. But at the same time, it felt hollow. Voyeuristic. Tawdry.

I've felt this before. What was I doing here? I didn't belong in this scene. I was sitting in my pajamas, holding a controller in my hands. There was a bowl of my daughter's leftover Halloween candy and a warm beer on the table next to me. I felt like a phony. Like a child.

Thankfully, Kevin Spacey was there to distract me from the guilt. But it was only temporary.

As he offered me a job with a private military contractor my controller gently shook three times. In the background a group of Marines were firing off a 21-gun salute. Apparently my character left the funeral of his best friend early. There was, after all, a game to get back to. More bad guys to kill with all this whiz-bang technology. We're here to be thrilled, the feeling of loss and gravity has only been borrowed, for a short time, from more effective media.

So much has been said about the immersive nature of games, how they allow us to inhabit characters and empathize with them. But sometimes, when that empathy doesn't quite work, we're left holding a controller and wondering what to feel instead. There is a tonal dissonance between the "fun" of the Call of Duty series and scenes like this. They feel like they're from different stories altogether.

We take a dogtag as a trophy. We press X to cut off the leg. We can vault over a child's grave. This was a scene that felt cheap back when Batman did it, and here we are again invoking the gravity of fallen soldiers by turning mourning into a quick-time event.

Sometimes games fail at showing dignity for their subjects, real and fictional. Sometimes they miss the mark, or sometimes players don't quite get the message. Games like Call of Duty often try to straddle the line between respect for real soldiers and their losses, while also doing everything they can to romanticize the act of war. They want to be the Expendables while also invoking Band of Brothers, and that doesn't work.

It's hard for an audience to comprehend a scene about mourning when it exists inside a game that also wants to sell them snack food.

Call of Duty wants us to take it seriously, while also making us think of how super-cool all these guns and explosions are. But there are players, like me, who are hung up on the internal contradictions.

I struggled through the next hour of Advanced Warfare's single player campaign. I kept trying to keep Will Irons in my mind. This was a formative experience for my character, and it would have shaped everything he did moving forward. He left the funeral. Soon, he was made whole with technology. After a little troubleshooting, he pressed a few buttons and got on with his life.

After a while, I began to think that I was the only one who remembered Will Irons at all. It was as if everyone, even his father — my new boss — had forgotten about him entirely.

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