At this year’s E3, Infinity Ward showed off a private demo of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare for the press. It’s the best looking Call of Duty game that I’ve ever seen, and the style and pace of its combat seems right up my alley. The team says the goal is to depict the realities of modern combat, but in the end some things just can’t be shown in the final game. Specifically, the team is hesitant to portray the true effects of chemical weapons.
Jacob Minkoff, single-player design director at Infinity Ward, stressed before and after the demo how committed the team is to realism. For example, Infinity Ward didn’t always use actors for its motion capture sequences. Instead, it captured the performance of a full team of Navy SEALs. Seen storming a four-story compound in the demo’s opening sequence, the result is a powerful display of devastating, yet carefully controlled, lethal efficiency.
Joel Emslie, the studio’s art director, said that the same level of detail extended to his team as well. For instance, they researched the history of night vision optics dating back to World War II in hopes of recreating the true the look and feel of modern multi-spectrum panoramic NVGs. They didn’t simply create character skins from digital tools. They purchased actual uniforms, weathered them in a Hollywood-style prop shop, and then used photogrammetry to place them in the asset library.
Imagine my horror, then, when in a later mission a group of renegade Russian soldiers began dumping canisters of nerve agent at the feet of civilians.
But, rather than displaying the true horror of chemical weapons — the vomiting, shortness of breath, loss of bladder and bowel control, and back-breaking muscular convulsions — the camera turns away. Later in the level, the aftermath of the chemical attack is seen through the eyes of a child. The player can actually lean in and look into the empty eyes of a dying woman as she twitches on the ground. It’s horrifying, but it’s also not nearly horrifying enough.
How does a game about modern warfare, a game dedicated to realism, justify how it picks and chooses what realities to portray in its game? I asked Minkoff about Infinity Ward’s reasons for pumping the brakes in that scene. If Modern Warfare is truly about realism, and using that realism to create empathy for the warfighter and for the civilians caught in harm’s way, then why not go for the same level of fidelity in this scene?
Polygon: The effects of nerve agent are much more dramatic and terrifying than what you’ve shown there in that sequence. [...] Don’t you have a responsibility to really show the effects of things like nerve agent in your game? To truly explore this area of modern warfare as well?
Jacob Minkoff: I mean, we definitely talk about what our responsibility is. We always talk about being respectful, being tasteful, and —
But if realism is the goal, what’s tasteful about not showing what nerve agent does to the human body, in all its horror?
In some cases, it’s a question of — because we’ve tried these things and, in some cases, it’s just a question of limitations in technology, and what we think that we can, or how well we think we can convey the nuances of performance necessary to convey emotion or distress or things of that sort. It’s not that we specifically would shy away from showing the accurate results of specific weaponry on people. It’s more a question of what feels right in the story and the game that we’re making, given the things that we want players to focus on emotionally and narratively, given the technology that we have available to us. I know that that’s not a terribly clear answer, but it’s not a terribly clear problem, you know? It’s always something that we just have to try different methods and iterate into.
So what I’m hearing you say is that it’s not that you don’t want to show that horror, but you don’t feel comfortable with the tools you have to do it justice.
I think we’ve got a really powerful engine and really great artists and great performances, but there was never a point where we said to ourselves, “We shouldn’t show this.” What we want, though, is to make sure that we’re showing the right amount so that the story of this game, and the story that people tell about the story of the game, isn’t all about the distressing things they’ve seen on screen. Because there’s so much more to the game than that.
But at the same time, you’re talking about elevating the warfighter, those with the training, that fighting spirit, and the honor, and the professionalism. And in the same conversation, you’re also saying, “But we had to pull back on the effects of the weapons that are used on the battlefield.” Aren’t those two very conflicting statements?
I mean, I don’t really see it that way. Because it’s such an incredible challenge to try to walk that line, right? To make, ultimately, something that is a fictional entertainment product, and yet also respectfully portray the type of subject matter that we’re showing. It’s so complex and multifaceted that we’re always dialing in so many different elements of it. I think that where we’ve landed is a place that I feel confident about my ability to stand behind and say, “We are representing this as best we can and in the amount that we should be, given the story we want to tell and the game we want to make.”
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is coming to PlayStation 4, Windows PC via Battle.net, and Xbox One with cross-platform play. The game will be released on Oct. 25.