CALL OF DUTY’s Attempts At Gravitas Will Always Fall Flat

It always comes down to kids yelling at each other in multiplayer.

“What defines modern warfare for us, or what do we believe defines it in the world we live in in 2019?

That is, according to Infinity Ward narrative director Taylor Kurosaki, the mission statement of the latest entry in the neverending Call of Duty franchise, due this October and subtitled Modern Warfare. If the title sounds familiar, it's because the series’ fourth major entry, way back in 2007, was called Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This one is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Activision's marketing department is presenting it as a reboot of that game and of the whole franchise, with an increased emphasis on the realities of warfare in the modern age. 

That would be a noble goal, if we weren't talking about a Call of Duty game.

On one hand, the title implies that this is a Modern Warfare game, which has baggage. The original Modern Warfare, considered a series high point by many, turned the franchise into the high-octane online shooter that it is today, taking its military fetishism from the relatively safe Saving Private Ryan-y arena of World War II to the much more incendiary political landscape of today. Thus, this game too will likely have high-tech guns and high-tech gadgets, all of which players will likely use to kill people in low-tech countries.

On the other hand, publisher Activision is trying to have its cake and eat it too, by claiming that this Modern Warfare is an all-new one - a reimagining of the whole franchise. Fan-favourite characters like Captain Price are returning, but the graunching disconnect between the concept of “fan-favourite characters returning” and the more hard-hitting story the studio is trying to tell is palpable even now. 2019 sees us occupying quite a different world than that of 2007, after all, and the game’s messaging sits uncomfortably between them.

How hard is Infinity Ward going with its Big Drama ambitions? In a presentation to the press earlier, Infinity Ward showed off several sequences designed to illustrate that ambition. One featured the player controlling a young girl being raised as a child soldier. Another saw an SAS trooper sorting terrorists (shot) from innocents (spared) in a London townhome, including a mother and child (who it seems the player can shoot, after which “allies will chastise you and eventually, the game will boot you out of the game”). The pitch included phrases like “authentic and gritty,” “relevant headline situations,” and “social commentary.” It also included the word "badass."

Kurosaki told Variety that the studio showed those scenes “to show that modern war isn’t always pleasant, it’s serious business and it can be kind of messy.” Putting aside the head-shakingly weird assertion that “modern war isn’t always pleasant,” there are serious issues with a Call of Duty game doing things like this. And it is specifically Call of Duty I’m talking about. Kurosaki rightly chafed against the notion that video games can’t deal with serious subject material:

“Film and TV get to talk about these concepts...We’ve seen these concepts explored in ‘Lone Survivor,’ ‘American Sniper,’ ‘Sicario,’ ‘Hurt Locker,’ ‘Zero Dark 30.’ These films are talking about the vagaries of war. As an audience you can have a level of empathy. The difference with the video game version is that if you really want to empathize with a character and know what it’s like and be in their shoes, why not be in their boots? Experience first hand what modern warfare really means.”

He’s not wrong. It’s entirely possible - maybe even vital - for interactive media to create that kind of empathetic experience. The important thing to note about all his comparison films, though, is that they’re standalone stories, setting their own rules and standards. Call of Duty doesn’t exist in a vacuum; a dozen-plus games preceded it, and Modern Warfare will be released into that context, flying in direct opposition to the Call of Duty brand. To be clear, I'm not talking about the way the games have been marketed, which have all paid lip service to notions of sacrifice and comradeship and other culturally-acceptable military themes (amid the odd attempts at making bigger political statements). I’m talking about the actual Call of Duty brand, which is defined by the actual contents of the games. 

The series’ story campaigns don't really matter to most Call of Duty players, who come for the multiplayer component and little else - and Activision knows it. Call of Duty's multiplayer is an exceptionally well tuned, high-speed first person shooter that's all about badass gunplay and not very much about the meaning behind it. Most franchise entries now boast a sizable, extremely over-the-top zombies component, set in increasingly insane scenarios and featuring increasingly meme-ready celebrity cameos. Like other Calls of Duty, this game will almost definitely have an international e-sports championship attached to it. Making a statement is not what this series is about. It’s ultimately about the dopamine rush of shooting people in the face. Nearly all the series' attempts at gravitas (“press X to pay respects”; Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission) have been met with scorn or laughter, and that's because they don't gel with the bulk of the gameplay, whose body glorifies warfare regardless of what its mouth is saying.

It’s tragic, in a way. You can almost feel the narrative designers chafing at the edges of their franchise, desperate to tell a story that means something to them. In a different game unbound by franchise expectations and baggage, a child-soldier sequence could be a standout moment in interactive storytelling, rubbing the audience's faces into the violence they’ve been gleefully committing for years. In Call of Duty, it almost doesn’t matter how good the sequence is; its mere association with the franchise dooms it to seem hacky at best and outright disrespectful at worst.

If Activision truly wanted to make a weighty Call of Duty game, this isn't the way they should go about it. It isn't brave to tell such a story if it's a marketing bullet point. If they really wanted to put their money where their mouth is, they’d market this game in exactly the same manner as every other Call of Duty, then punch us in the gut in the middle of gameplay. That’d get big headlines upon release, and it wouldn’t create this icky feeling of the developers patting themselves on the back about how smart they are for doing it. Spec Ops: The Line was fairly successful with this tactic, smuggling into a generic-looking cover-based shooter a Joseph Conrad-influenced story that made the player culpable for full-blown atrocities, but even that game had to indulge in military violence fantasies in order to get there.

I’d love to be wrong here. I’d love to believe Call of Duty can turn itself around and make something that truly breaks boundaries and moves people and does something new. It’s even possible that Modern Warfare’s campaign will do that. But in a series where campaigns tend to be either ignored, or blown through in order to get to the multiplayer maps themed around them, it’s hard to see the target audience being receptive to it. The presumably world-class developers working on the game are probably very proud of their creative decisions, aiming to subvert expectations in a big way. Subversion requires audiences to be open to that subversion, though, and just don’t see 12-year-old ScreamyKiddo69 (or 35-year-old RacialSlurLuvr420) seeing those decisions as anything other than a bore - or worse, comparable to the fun-time shooting they'll be doing in Modern Warfare online. That's just what Call of Duty has come to represent.