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Why Call of Duty: WWII struggled to show the horrors of the Holocaust

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The team landed on a compromise that’s only partially successful

Call of Duty: WWII multiplayer Gamescom 2017 Sledgehammer Games/Activision

Call of Duty: WWII is a game that has to, on some level, be enjoyable for the player. Franchises that are this large and part of a marketing machine that’s this powerful can’t become dour looks at the bleakness of war. But they also can’t ignore certain topics when their latest game is set during the Second World War, especially if the developers want their story to be taken seriously.

So how does Call of Duty: WWII deal with the Holocaust?

The game steps away from showing a death camp in operation, instead giving you a sort of guided tour through a burning, abandoned environment. The tone is one of numb horror, as one character takes pictures to show others what they’ve found. It feels like a compromise between ignoring the reality of the Holocaust and running the risk of turning historical genocide into just another spectacle in the game’s campaign.

“To not touch on the subject would have been remiss, but it would have been really hard to do it justice in the way we would want to,” Michael Condrey, co-studio head and game director of Sledgehammer Games, told Polygon.

In designing the campaign’s concentration camp visit, the team looked at how other media set during World War II handled depictions of the Holocaust’s horrors. “When we were talking to the military advisor for Band of Brothers, they said they went to a chemotherapy hospital and that’s where they got the actors to shoot the scene for Band of Brothers,” he continued. “And when you see that scene, it’s incredibly impactful — at least, it was for me. It was one of the hardest episodes for me to watch.”

The scene Condrey is referencing is above. In Band of Brothers, soldiers walk through a concentration camp in a moment that’s stark and emotional — and the HBO drama actually depicts prisoners as well, unlike in Call of Duty: WWII’s version.

Emulating that scene with similar tone in a Call of Duty game would be next to impossible, as the technology and gameplay could risk making the moment seem either cartoonish or offensive. It’s why Sledgehammer ultimately decided on the approach that’s in the final game. You can watch that portion of Call of Duty: WWII below. Note: The video contains story spoilers from the game’s campaign.

“I think we were all very fearful that if we weren’t able to handle it with the delicacy it required, it would come off wrong,” Condrey said after a long pause when discussing the scene. “So yeah, that [depiction] was something we talked about a lot, creatively.”

The result is a part of the game that is only partially successful at conveying the gravity of the real-life Holocaust, but it’s hard to think of how the game could have handled the presentation better in context. It’s another area of Call of Duty: WWII along with its loot boxes and its difficulty level — where the tonal shift between the virtual heroics of the player and the reality of the conflict work against each other.

“The scene is presented as the worst the Nazis could muster, when the truth is, of course, far darker,” we said of the game’s portrayal of the Holocaust in our in-progress review. “The game clearly has no problem showing the all-out slaughter of hundreds of soldiers, some in incredibly gruesome ways, but when it comes to the intimate and targeted horror of concentration camps, Call of Duty: WWII opts for a more antiseptic presentation. The game aspires to be like the great WWII films, but is unwilling to go to the lengths those films to do present the truth, as grim and monstrous as it is.”