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Call of Duty games may need to stop pretending they can be ‘complex’

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The Call of Duty franchise does many things well, but nuance is not one of them

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare - lone soldier walking down a rainy street at sunset Infinity Ward/Activision

It’s becoming progressively difficult to make games in which the player kills their way through realistic scenarios in a world in which it can be hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys at a glance.

You could argue this has always been the case if you’ve spent a few minutes learning about literally any of human history, but the people behind our pop culture representations of that violence want us to know that they, too, understand that solving problems has much more complicated than knowing who to shoot.

This is communicated to the player by putting them in situations in which they have to figure out who to shoot, while the scripted nature of the game makes it clear that they should very conflicted about whoever they’ve decided to shoot. It’s a bizarre tension between wanting to make violence into entertainment — which is a noble pursuit, if you ask me — and wanting to make pop culture that feels important and “authentic.”

And it’s a tension that will likely never be adequately released by the Call of Duty series, even if the first promotional push for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare would like to pretend otherwise.

A history of violence

The Call of Duty franchise has been built on tightly scripted stories that give the players almost no say in what’s going on, but also increasingly meditate on the nature of, to coin a phrase, modern warfare. The politics involved in the act of flying somewhere to kill people as part of a military action have never been murkier, or more complicated, and games want in on that perceived moral ambiguity. Nothing is more real!

This is a piece of Polygon’s preview of Modern Warfare:

[Taylor Kurosaki, studio narrative director at Infinity Ward] referenced modern military films like Lone Survivor, American Sniper, Hurt Locker, and Sicario, which he said “are not about black and white” characters, but about people “navigating a tough world,” as influences on his new game.

While I only have a very limited amount of gameplay footage to go from when it comes to describing the upcoming Call of Duty game, the series has historically not let the player “navigate” anything. And I say this as a fan of the single-player campaign in almost every Call of Duty released.

They’re thrill rides, even if the thrill only lasts through the first playthrough, before you know exactly what’s going to happen and when. There might be one or two moments in which you have to make a decision about what to do, but overall the action will always play out in front of you, showing the carnage as if it were a diorama arranged purely for your benefit.

The single-player campaigns are amazing and I always find them thrilling, but they are not complex, nor are they authentic. They present complex issues as a sort of violence tourism, allowing you to feel conflicted about what you’re doing without actually asking you to engage much in your actions or their consequences. Your stomach may turn as you dispassionately kill the enemy using the long-range weapons of a modern gunship, but what’s the point of that provocative moment if the game barely even acknowledges your discomfort? The Call of Duty series, for good or ill, confuses the act of showing something with the act of saying something.

But the games are trapped between the reality of what they do well — linear, often stunning stories with twists and turns that play out the same way every time — and what they feel they must do in the modern industry, which is try to present a conflicted view about picking up a gun and pulling the trigger.

The series has been trying to explore how complicated this world can be, but those efforts are completely hamstrung by the simplicity of what the player is actually asked to do in each mission. Each Call of Duty release paints an increasingly vivid world in which the player does basically the same thing, over and over. No matter which character you play, in whatever part of the chain of command, Call of Duty isn’t decided to offer any player agency in a way that would actually lead to meaningful complexity or choice or consequence. And I doubt the latest entry will be any different.

Call of Duty, as it currently exists, just doesn’t have the design vocabulary to allow that kind of introspection, nor will the players take the idea of a complex world seriously if the only choices they are given boil down to whether to continue playing. If armed conflict is the result of an almost impossibly intricate mixture of social, economic, and political pressures, how can you tackle the subject in a realistic way if you’re always either carrying a gun, or trying to hide from people carrying a gun?

And I want to stress again that I love the Call of Duty campaigns; I play them every year on the biggest TV I can find through the most powerful console or gaming PC I own. I want them loud, splashy, and ridiculous. And the stories tend to deliver on those goals over and over, and it’s due to the talented men and women who love to entertain me with exactly that kind of experience. They’re successful, and I’m happy they do what they do so well.

My biggest complaint is that each year the series tries to convince us that it will be important in some way, or have something to say about the violence it’s selling and, unquestioningly, glorifying.

These aren’t complex games, and they really can’t be unless they switch genres and allow the players to make meaningful decisions that impact the world or address the root causes of the violence that makes Call of Duty what it is. The games can never be complex, even if they keep trying to become narratively sophisticated enough to at least nod at the reality of modern warfare.

But every year the marketing materials will pretend that this Call of Duty will have something to say, even if we all know that statement, in practice, boils down to how much fun it is to shoot beautifully rendered people in games that seem to be saying this is all fine, as long as they do their best to make you feel a bit uncomfortable as you play.