World War II. The Greatest Generation.
In the American lexicon, these phrases evoke much more than just the event and the people in question. The Second World War is perhaps the last military conflict for which we can say, without equivocation, that the U.S. got involved and fought for the right reasons — that we were on the right side of history. The people who served in that war grew up during the Great Depression; in the postwar period, they built up America’s thriving middle class.
As such, World War II is the most common subject for dramatizations of war — books, films, television shows and of course, video games. Nobody is going to have any compunction about shooting Nazis. But at some point in the mid-2000s, people grew tired of the glut of World War II shooters on the market, and game makers moved on.
This year, the Call of Duty franchise is going back to its roots, returning to the Second World War after a nine-year absence with Call of Duty: WWII. At this point, we don’t know much more than that; further details are coming in a livestream next Wednesday. But Activision did release one piece of artwork that hints at the direction of the game, with the tiniest of teases that suggests a story about a group of soldiers.
Or, you might say, about a band of brothers.
What do you see? Yes, that’s a soldier — U.S. Army, it appears from his helmet — bruised and battered, covered in the grime of war, clutching dog tags. But let’s take a closer look at his eyes.
What does he see? It appears that this unknown soldier glimpses four figures. They could be four soldiers, a group of comrades in arms. Or perhaps the silhouette on the right isn’t a fellow soldier — maybe it’s not a kneeling man, but man’s best friend instead. (This wouldn’t be the first canine starring role in Call of Duty history.)
If this fearsome foursome is indeed the squad at the center of Call of Duty: WWII’s story, it could be a tale that follows the group over the course of multiple engagements in the war. Players could get invested in the saga of these characters, and this narrative could provide a contrast between Call of Duty: WWII and the World War I shooter that Electronic Arts released last year, Battlefield 1, which featured a series of mini-campaigns that each focused on one character.
A group dynamic could also allow developer Sledgehammer Games to bring in multiple characters from Call of Duty’s previous exploits in the World War II setting. The original Call of Duty from 2003 introduced Capt. Price of the British Army and Special Air Service; he also appeared in 2005’s Call of Duty 2. (Incidentally, Capt. Price is the grandfather of Capt. John Price, a fan-favorite character in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series.) Call of Duty 3 brought in Sgt. James Doyle and Maj. Gerald Ingram, two SAS operatives who debuted in 2004’s Call of Duty: United Offensive, which was an expansion pack for the original game.
A modern link to World War II
The last Call of Duty game to be set in World War II was Call of Duty: World at War, which was released in 2008. While the war is still a common setting for films — consider Hacksaw Ridge, which was nominated for multiple Oscars this year — it fell out of favor with gamers a long time ago.
World War II is the kind of history-defining event that can provide endless material for writers to explore. And every generation interacts with that conflict through different stories. The parents of baby boomers, of course, lived through the war and fought in it. Baby boomers were thus immersed in the war, even if their fathers may not have spoken openly about their battlefield experiences.
People born in the last two or three decades of the 20th century, like me, experienced World War II through popular culture — and largely through the work of Steven Spielberg: films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and the seminal HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. On the video game side, we stormed the beaches of Normandy in Medal of Honor: Frontline and took down Japanese fighter pilots at Guadalcanal in Battlefield 1942.
The next generation doesn’t yet have those kinds of cultural touchstones for the Second World War. HBO did follow up Band of Brothers with The Pacific in 2010, but it’s not remembered as fondly as its 2001 predecessor. A recent literary standout was Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See. World War II films in the past decade include Inglourious Basterds, Fury and the aforementioned Hacksaw Ridge, but nothing has been enshrined in the popular memory like Saving Private Ryan, which will be 20 years old next year. Perhaps Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk will inherit that mantle this summer.
It may seem somewhat silly to look to blockbuster video games for explorations of the deadliest conflict in human history. But it is undeniable that large swaths of the population have an understanding of, and connection to, World War II that was forged at least partly through series like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. (And after Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s stellar campaign and end credits, I trust Activision to tell a war story with the appropriate gravitas.) Perhaps Call of Duty: WWII will bring the next generation in touch with the Greatest Generation.