Once, we jumped from airplanes to fight Jerries in quiet French villages. We crossed the Volga River and watched our comrades be gunned down by their own commissars. We stopped the launch of V2 rockets. All of it was completely unrelated. And it was good.
Well, it wasn’t completely unrelated; it was all part of the same war, of course. But none of it needed to be tied together with plot schlock in order to convince us we were playing a summer blockbuster. We were in the moment, doing what the mission required of us, and understanding that we were just a microcosm of a larger conflict.
When Modern Warfare (that’s MW1) came around, it offered something different: it wasn’t just an over-arching narrative, it was a peculiar insight into the nature of modern war; insight that seems to have been missed since. That insight was this: the battlefield is getting smaller.
Consider the differences in the campaigns of MW1: the SAS and USMC. As a Marine, players rode into battle in advanced helicopters, and struck at the enemy with completely overwhelming force. To even raise a weapon against such an offensive was suicide. And yet, what was accomplished? Al Assad (the antagonist) always remained elusive. The heavy tanks and attack helos, the most advanced war machines on the planet, became more liabilities than assets. Then, there was that moment where the struggle, training, and sacrifice of the marines all came to naught in the heart of a nuclear fireball.
Contrast this with the SAS campaign. Oh sure, you got a few toys. But you were always behind enemy lines, always outgunned, and always one mistake away from blowing the whole mission. Yet, look at what it was able to accomplish: both Al Assad and Zachiev were killed, nuclear Armageddon was averted, and the campaign ended not with some prolonged quicktime event but with three perfect shots while surrounded by the corpses of your comrades on some random bridge.
The ‘Dute’ has often been accused of being jingoistic fodder for neo-con fever dreams. But Modern Warfare was anything but. The ambiguousness of the ending caused us to pause and wonder what our struggle was about. What business did we have with Al Assad’s country or even in Russia for that matter? Did we make things better or worse? Are we, in fact, manufacturing our own enemies? These are the sort of considerations that have been plaguing the NATO powers, particularly the US, since the Cold War. To have this reflected in game form was truly a thoughtful and uncompromising exploration of ‘modern warfare’.
Rather than continue along those lines, delving further into the War on Terror or other aspects of Western interventionism across the globe, Activision instead decided that the next Modern Warfare game should feature an invasion of the continental United States.
There are many military axioms that have developed over the years. ‘Italy must be entered like a boot’, ‘never fight a land war in Asia’, and ‘never invade Russia in winter’. I’m not sure if any exist about the United States, but at least this one should “They’ll always have more. guns than you’ll have soldiers.”
I’m not saying that a US invasion scenario can’t make for an interesting story, but it’ll always lack credulity and makes for a poor pairing with the otherwise thoughtful and self-aware approach of MW1. One such scenario might be forgivable, however, (excluding World at War) every major console release of Call of Duty since then has centered on an outright or planned invasion of the United States.
So why is this a problem? Because, frankly, it displays a complete lack of understanding of not only the global political landscape but of entire cultures as well (and not just foreign ones). It reinforces the notion that America is a land scared witless of ‘not America’. While Russia had historically been a feared opponent militarily, it is not some mad dog liable to or even capable of invading multiple continents at a moment’s notice. A South American ‘federation’ using ‘ancient Amazonian voodoo’ to turn soldiers against their own nation (CoD: Ghosts) is just absurd on its face. And uncomplicated mercenary work will always be more profitable to a PMC than attempting to overthrow a military superpower and set up a totalitarian corporate state (Advanced Warfare).
Moreover, setting up the United States of America; one of the largest (if not the largest) active military superpowers in human history as a perpetual ‘underdog’ smacks a fair bit of the paranoia one might find on certain AM radio frequencies. While this article is not meant to be political, one has to admit that any ‘American invasion’ scenario is far more likely to have America as the invading force than the other way around.
But how do you ‘go bigger’ than barely averted nuclear holocaust? How do you raise those stakes? Well, who says you have to?
Who says that your narrative has to be consistent within a single arc? Who says that the only thing that’ll keep players interested is the end of the world? The great thing about First Person Shooters is that you can keep the scope of your narrative nice and personal. You can explore the nature of the conflict, rather than be distracted by the contrivances of a larger plot. You know… like how Call of Duty used to be.
The developments in Crimea aren’t liable to reduce the world to cinders, but the conflicts and dilemmas simmering there are of a great concern to a great many people. A southern invasion of the United States is not credible at all, but a US military action in Mexico in order to deal with the growing threat of drug cartels is something not so far-fetched.
Yes, these situations lack the ‘glamor’ of a straight army vs. army engagement scenario. They lack the clarity of ‘we: good guys, them: bad guys’, but isn’t that the quintessence of ‘Modern Warfare’? At the end of the day, what would truly be lost if Activision and CoD Devs pursued something like that? They would still be able to bounce around to different theaters, they could still have their action set pieces, and they could still have a story. The only thing that would really change is that if your character falls, the world will still keep turning…which is probably more powerful than any maudlin imagery of a thousand tattered American flags waving mournfully in the breeze.
Recall again the bridge in MW 1. Recall how, as your limp and bleeding body was carried skyward, a snippet from a news broadcast was heard. Recall how it dismissed everything you and your comrades fought and died for as nothing more than a ‘test’ because that was the illusion your government chose to sell. Should you have died, the world would not even pause to note your passing. What higher stakes could there be than that?
Ryan J. Hodge is a sc-fi author and works for Konami Digital Entertainment (all opinions are his own). His latest book, Wounded Worlds: Nihil Novum, is available now for eBook and Paperback.
Check out his thoughts on other things here.
One thought on “Why Call of Duty Needs to Go Smaller!”
My thoughts exactly and why I was so burned out while playing Ghosts. I think a campaign where a special unit goes into the middle east and takes out Issis leaders and priority targets would make for a fresh campaign. But I know it is probably too soon for that, given that “Six days in Fallujah” wanted to make a game based on a recent real world conflict and was met with controversy and ultimately was never released.