The BO:CW trailer is pretty damn cool. The trailer doesn't feature any gameplay footage whatsoever, instead splicing various clips together in a well-edited, suspenseful fashion. But what's so cool about the trailer is that using clips of a Soviet Defector, Yuri Bezmenov, it pointed claims that there is a conspiracy to undermine the United States – showing pictures of riots, protests, destruction of cities, the Vietnam War, etc. – a genuinely interesting premise for the game.
It's a kind of step forward for Call of Duty for it to be talking about issues like this, when previously Call of Duty skirted around controversy-
The Politics of Call of Duty
In 2019, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a reboot of the series' arguably most famous subseries, was released. This trailer also makes great perusal of political themes – the famous line, 'We Get Dirty – and the World Stays Clean' featuring prominently in it. It teases the usage of chemical warfare, the featuring of civilian deaths, and overall are more gritty take on war.
The game's campaign is… brilliant fun. The Clean House mission is as suspenseful and entertaining as it gets, and the focus on precision kills is a new step forward for the series. You really feel the tension as you creak open the doors of the townhouse's rooms, the enemies panickedly reacting as they notice. It's generally well-paced and really heightens the sheer immersion of the mission. It's fun.
Wait. Hang on, there's something very wrong there. Why is… breaking into a civilian home in suburban London… fun? No, I don't mean the well-designed game mechanics that help to create this sense of tension and accomplishment as the mission goes on, I mean the very fact that the game is turning the extrajudicial murder of alleged terrorists into a fun time. It doesn't help that one of the trophies for Modern Warfare, the Golden Path, is you killing all of these people as efficiently as possible (take no damage, one bullet per hostile).
It's because there's no critical thinking here. The game gives you a premise that there are definitely terrorists in the building and they are definitely behind the bomb attack featured earlier in the game. You are most certainly crossing some moral and ethical lines here, but the game refuses to let you consider that. You should be focused on getting the bad guys, instead. This writing extends throughout most of the game – the vast majority of the enemies you shoot are definitely bad guys. They rape, murder, kill, commit war crimes, and engage in torture. General Barkov, the penultimate villain of the story, is so megalomaniacal you don't really get a good justification for his actions. He just does whatever he does because he's Russian, and that's kind of all the real justification the story gives for his actions. His motives are never shown, instead you have to infer from his angered rants about terrorists and protecting Russia that that's what he thinks he's doing, and for the most part, you barely get any time to understand those motives. You should really just kill Russian soldiers. They're the bad guys.
Seriously, in the very first mission of the game – Fog of War – Alex mentions that you shouldn't kill Russian soldiers, you're not engaging them. But you end up killing Russian soldiers unknowingly because the game makes it too dark to clearly see that they're Russian government operatives, and the rest of the team is like 'oh okay we had just better get out of here'. The game then launches into a long cutscene where you rather forget that you just committed acts that might trigger a war between two sovereign nations, and the game just never questions it again. The game's presenting stakes to you and taking them away when it realises it means you might have to consider your actions rather than go shooty shooty boom boom – and so, your actions in that mission don't directly impact anything in the rest of the game. Alex does the only actually impactful thing in that mission out of your control. And this narrative issue extends throughout the entire game.
Which brings us to, in my personal opinion, the worst scene in the entire game. Following close behind is the mission where you avoid a Russian soldier as a child while trying to stab the shit out of him in a way that trivialises the crimes against children committed during war, but this is what I consider the worst.
You've just captured the Butcher. He's a really bad guy, he killed civilians in front of you without remorse back at the Embassy. You need to extract information from the Butcher to stop a terror attack on Russia, but he doesn't seem like the type to spill. So Captain Price kidnaps his wife and child and uses them as hostages to force him to speak. During this mission, like everything else, you don't really get a real choice throughout the entire thing. Not following exactly as Price says will get you a mission over or prevent you from continuing it; but that includes pointing a weapon at two non-combatants. The only way to continue the mission is to pull the trigger on his wife and child the first time, upon which it's revealed the revolver is not yet loaded. You have no autonomy over how any of this goes, and once the interrogation is done, the game literally lets you just shoot the Butcher while his wife and child yelps. There are no actual stakes in this mission, because the game has no flexibility whatsoever for anything but the response it wants you to take. You can even choose to literally just not participate in the interrogation and you get exactly the same result. Also, Price is literally committing a war crime here but he shrugs it off with 'We get dirty, and the world stays clean. That's the mission'. That's what this Call of Duty is about. You're heroic so long as you follow whatever the mission is. You did what these mythical 'others', that in Garrick's words wouldn't 'let the bloody gloves off', wouldn't. You hero.
In the real world right now, literally RIGHT NOW, acts of unspeakable brutality are being committed against civilians across every major continent by law enforcement groups and national militaries. Modern Warfare's message is simple: that's fine – when it's us. When we're doing it, it's heroic. When they're doing it, it's bad. And anyways, we kind of keep it to a minimum, which definitely makes us the best choices here! Yes!
Which brings us to the greater problem with Call of Duty: that none of this is exclusive to 2019's entry.
The original Modern Warfare 2 features an entire mission where you are an active accomplice in a civilian massacre and cannot stop it (No Russian). Modern Warfare 3 features a cutscene where you are literally gassed to death by chemical weapons (Davis Family Holiday). In Black Ops 2, the main villain is a man who lost his sister to American military activity and plots to take down the entire world order to get his righteous revenge, and he's essentially played as a megalomaniac who just wants to kill for the sake of killing so you can feel good if you choose to down him in the noggin at the end of the game.
Call of Duty uses politics as a shitty smokescreen to hook gamers in. Modern Warfare 2's main plot is taking down a self-indignant nationalist maniac trying to restore American power in the world. The plot of Black Ops I is literally attempting to stop a mass conspiracy against the United States to destroy it by the Soviet Union. These plots are inherently political, but they're defanged for the benefit of creating stereotypical shoot-em-ups with fun set pieces and multiplayer, and as a result players literally don't recognise the political themes in these games and don't care. It's genuinely disappointing.
So let's get back to Black Ops: Cold War. It seems interesting, but somewhere in my heart I already expect the same old trickery: bringing up these issues and then brushing them aside so you're just the hero. I'll probably end up getting it for the companionship of old friends who buy the game every year. But with Call of Duty nearing its twentieth entry, and a nearly decade-long fan, I felt like discussing this issue again, especially after watching an excellent video essay by the venerable Jacob Geller on the topic (which probably influenced the writing of this to a large degree).
Thanks for your time.
What do you think?
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