Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare has a better story than it has had for some time. And one of the reasons is that Activision’s Infinity Ward studio recruited a couple of veterans from Naughty Dog, the maker of narrative-driven video games such as Uncharted and The Last of Us.
One of the new recruits was Taylor Kurosaki, the narrative director at Infinity Ward. He helped get the studio on track after the heavily criticized Call of Duty: Ghosts from 2013. That game had to be made in just two years even as it tried to span the platform transition between the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 and the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The result was kind of a rush job. But Activision created a new studio, Sledgehammer Games, that started making Call of Duty titles and allowed Infinity Ward the luxury of working on a game for three years instead of just two.
Kurosaki and the team took advantage of that to build a deeper narrative for the story. He focused on a single character, Nick Reyes, who is forced under pressure of a surprise attack to become a leader in a war that spans the solar system. That story had to hold up under the scrutiny of Call of Duty’s shift from a modern warfare setting to science fiction. I’ve played all of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and the results are quite satisfying. Through battlefield promotion, Reyes has to deal with the change in fighting for the elite soldiers next to him to the responsibilities of being a commander in charge of giant space vessel.
After I finished the game, I talked with Kurosaki about what he tried to accomplish. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. Check out our other interview with Infinity Ward studio head Dave Stohl and our review of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
Editor’s note: This story has some spoilers, but we’ve tried to minimize them. We recommend you read this after you’ve played the campaign.
GamesBeat: When did you come over from Naughty Dog?
Taylor Kurosaki: I started in the summer of 2014. I came over with a very dear friend of mine, Jacob Minkoff. We’d worked together at Naughty Dog for many years. He was the lead game designer on Uncharted 3 and Last of Us.
It’s an odd story, probably boring, but Jacob decided he was going to move down to Peru and live in the jungles. He sold his house and his truck and gave away a lot of his earthly possessions. He was staying with my wife and I for several weeks, waiting for his tax returns to come back and sew up loose ends before he left.
I was talking with Infinity Ward about working there. He and I, at my house, started watching war movies, started going back and playing the old Call of Duty games, and it was just fun brainstorming with him, thinking about what we’d do if we made Call of Duty. Then he took off. I sent him an email and said I was going to Infinity Ward. I said something like, “I’m sure you’ll get this in several weeks, the next time you trek into town or whatever, but it would be fun if you were with me on this. I’m thinking about you.”
I got a response the next day. He said, “Funny thing. Malaria is not really a lot of fun. A lot of people down here have it. I think I want to come home.” Within a couple of days he was taking a call from Dave Stoll, the studio head at Infinity Ward, in a phone booth in—he said there was water coming in the corner of the roof. He was back in the states and we got to go on this fun journey together.
We were really students of—we’d worked on these games for a long time at Naughty Dog. We were always searching for these sources of pressure to put on our characters. When you put pressure on characters, that reveals their real nature. You learn more about them. That’s storytelling. A zombie pandemic is a source of pressure. There are other good sources of pressure we invented for things like Uncharted. But a great source of pressure is war. It’s a rich genre. There are some amazing stories told in that genre — great films, TV shows, books. We thought this would be fun.
We studied. We found a couple of predominant sort of lenses through which we could look at war. One was the lens of a grunt in the field, the new guy, however you want to call it. Black Hawk Down is that kind of story. The theme in all of those stories is that you never leave a man behind. Black Hawk Down, we’re gonna go back and save those guys, because that’s what we do. Then you see another batch of stories told through the eyes of a leader. The theme of those is almost exclusively that the mission comes first. The mission supersedes all.
We thought, what if we told a story that was about the journey of a guy who goes from a mantra of fighting for the guy next to you, and then through the course of our story and the pressure put on him, he has to evolve to the mantra of the mission coming first. That’s Reyes’ story. He and Salter, they’re the best. They’re these SCARs, soldiers that are half SEAL and half Top Gun pilot. We hope that it feels like they’ve been friends for a long time, wingmen for a long time. They have this unstated pact. “We’re the best. We’ll keep making it home. We’ll bring all our buddies home.” And they’re faced with an event, a sneak attack, where that doesn’t happen.
They almost double down on that, because that’s what people do. They reinforce their beliefs, what they hold to be true. They like stability. People don’t change unless they’re forced to change. They both openly question Captain Alder’s decision [redacted to avoid spoiler]. “There had to be another way. I don’t sacrifice my crew when I’m overrun.” And through the events of the story, Reyes ends up doing what Alder did and then some. He’s forced to evolve to a place where the mission comes first.
GamesBeat: When you came in, what was the direction? Did you have any particular marching orders, a charter to do anything specific?
Kurosaki: No. We came in the summer of 2014. Ghosts shipped in the fall of 2013. The team had—everyone takes a much-needed vacation. There’s not a lot of activity. When you ship a holiday game – I’ve only ever shipped games for the holiday – nothing really happens until the new year. But even so, those guys had four or five months to think about what they wanted to do next, and they had some interesting ideas. A lot of those ideas matched perfectly with stuff Jacob and I believe in as game-makers and storytellers.
They wanted to question the structure of the Call of Duty games, which is “do a mission, have an interstitial graphic thing, jump to another part of the globe, do another mission.” They wanted to do a seamless game. Lo and behold, Jacob and I had made games that were totally seamless for many years, where there were no loading screens, where you hit start and you’re in the action. Of course we were into that notion.
They were big on mission choice, on giving a non-linearity to it. That’s something we’d never done before. We’d only made these linear stories. Call of Duty had only been—I guess in some games you could pick. But most of the campaigns are very linear. That was a new challenge for us. Had it been a story of a soldier in the field, I probably would have said it wasn’t worth it. But when you’re going to tell a story about a leader, unless that’s just window-dressing, you have to have the power to make choices.
So how do we incorporate side missions in a way where—as a player I love that. When I first played the campaign, once it all hung together and was progressable beginning to end, I did some of the Jackal missions, where you assault the Jackal squadrons. I did one, and then I did all of them. It was fun. I was into that flow. As a player I appreciate being able to play at my own pace and choose what I want to do. And again, to make a story about military leadership, we had to do that.
That was a big challenge for us. How do you have a sense of urgency and pressure, but also have the chance to go and do these side missions? You can do them in any order. You want the characters to still feel present, but you can’t have events that happen in the side missions that then alter what happens in the main missions afterward. We can’t afford to do a huge tree of possible permutations. I think we did an okay job at allowing you to do that.
The other thing they were already thinking about was this idea of taking Call of Duty to a new setting. What I bought from the get-go was the reasoning behind that. They weren’t doing it because, “oh, we like sci-fi.” They were doing it for very practical, design-oriented reasons.
Zero-G combat is an extension of the traditional Call of Duty loop, where you assess the combat space, find a piece of cover, and strategically move through cover to flank your enemies. It’s exactly that, but now in a more 3D space. You have the grapple mechanic. When we talked to our Navy SEAL advisors, we said, “If you were fighting in zero-G, what would you do?” “Well, you’d want to get in cover really quickly.” That gave birth to the grapple mechanic, where again, you assess the combat zone and flank your enemies with that mechanic.
The Jackal is the same thing. It has a hover mode. You can strafe. It has a primary and secondary weapon. The ADS button is the lock-on button. Jump button ascends, crouch button descends. It ports perfectly to those FPS controls. In a lot of ways, the Jackal is an extension of the Call of Duty control scheme and feel. An aerospace fighter in zero-G with RCS thrusters ports to that. That was the impetus for taking it to the new setting. It wasn’t just for fashion’s sake. It was based on mechanics.
GamesBeat: It seemed like the Call of Duty story was always that the hero doesn’t really die. You’re a super-soldier who saves the world, and usually your friends make it to the end with you. Maybe someone dies early on as a motivation, but for the most part, the good guys always win.
Kurosaki: Being a soldier means that you are willing to put your life on the line. Being a military leader means that you’re not only willing to put your life on the line, but you’re willing to put other people’s lives on the line, and then you have shoulder that responsibility. We wanted you to feel what it was like to be a military leader. To have to move forward, despite the fact that maybe some people you’re close to didn’t make it. There’s still an overarching mission you have to focus on despite those losses. That’s a tough circumstance to be put in, and we wanted you to be in those boots.
GamesBeat: You did seem to show that Reyes has real trouble moving from foot soldier to commander. I even saw it in who opens the doors. Sometimes you’d get your assistant to open the door for you, or Salter would say to him quite often, “Help him with this door.” She gives the commands. He’s holding the door open for all the others to go through. Something about him doesn’t really accept the officer’s point of view. He’s always trying to be a doer.
Kurosaki: In the circumstances he’s in—when they come back to the Retribution and they ask the air boss how many made it back, she says, “SCAR 2s are in the net and after that you’re it.” Meaning that all the other SCAR squadrons were lost in the battle. You’re so shorthanded that you don’t have the luxury of staying back on the bridge. Even Sergeant Omar says, “This is a ground assault. Captain’s place is on the bridge.” And Reyes says, “Not this captain. Not today.” It’s not bravado. It’s saying, “I’m the best we have. I have to go out there and do these things to.”
The fact that he’s still the tip of the spear, still going out on the front lines, makes it that much harder for him to have that metamorphosis, to truly behave like a leader. He’s having to wear both hats. Like I said earlier, we’re all creatures of habit. We don’t like to change. He’s going to double down on his MO until he’s basically forced to change.
GamesBeat: You have a character who has to change, a character who makes choices, and so you get an arc to this story. That’s something we haven’t seen in a lot of shooters.
Kurosaki: Another thing that was new for us was doing a first-person shooter. All the games we’ve made before were third-person. There’s a big difference between seeing the protagonist on the screen for the whole game and not. Reyes has to—you don’t get to see, unless you’re in a cutscene, if he’s getting angry, if he’s about to lash out at someone. You don’t see his face or his body language, the tells that we all give off.
Having a character that is relatable to our players – letting our players feel parity with the protagonist – I believe that’s key to our goals, putting you in his shoes. If he seems passionate, but you weren’t feeling the same way, there’s a disconnect between the character and the player. We don’t want that to ever happen. You are seeing the events unfold through his eyes. You don’t have a privileged point of view. There’s no, “Meanwhile, back at enemy headquarters…” He learns things when you learn them. All these things are designed to keep you in emotional sync with him.
Reyes does make choices. They may not always be the choices that our players think they would make. But if you do understand who Reyes is, and you understand why he makes the choices he makes, we feel like you’re in relative emotional parity with him.
GamesBeat: You have a more diverse cast than usual.
Kurosaki: We’re part of a federation called the UNSA. It’s a multinational organization. There are representatives from many different member nations. We wanted to reflect that in our cast. We also have—again, because it’s a first-person shooter, you are the cameraman, basically. You’re the cinematographer of the story. The person who’s really the lead is Lieutenant Salter. She’s who you see on screen more than anyone else.
We were very big into representation in our other games. It was important for us to show you a woman who’s a leader in her own right. She’s an officer. She calls a lot of the shots. To have that representation in this game was important to us, especially in a game as big as Call of Duty.
GamesBeat: She’s an interesting character in that she gets the bad news about somebody disappearing from the team, and she doesn’t crack. You think that maybe she’s about to break down, but she doesn’t.
Kurosaki: She’s a professional. She has a job to do. It’s interesting how people respond to crisis situations and just compartmentalize things to get through what they need to get through. I don’t think there’s any reason why she would be any more emotional or have any reason to cry any more than anyone else would. If we had her do that, the obvious conclusion people leap to is, “Well, she’s crying because she’s a woman.”
It was also important for us to show two characters who are comrades. They’re professional partners. There’s no reference to anything about anyone’s sexuality, anyone’s personal life. It’s just not germane to what’s going on for them right now.
I think she shows the right amount of deference. When she learns that [redacted] didn’t make it, or that [redacted] didn’t make it when Reyes finds her at the crash site on Mars—you can tell it’s a blow. But okay, we have to get back to work now. They lost a lot of people that day.
GamesBeat: It really does feel like just a day in the life.
Kurosaki: Right. It’s that kind of video game real time. It’s probably about 24 hours. Again, that was by design. We didn’t want to have Reyes say, “Hey, I’m going to get some shuteye” and then he comes back like, “Okay, now I’ve thought about things.” He doesn’t get the luxury of being reflective. He has this relentless foe that’s going to keep coming for him, who’s not going to rest, so he can’t rest either. This is a war that’s being dictated by the enemy. Salen Kotch started it and it’s on his terms.
GamesBeat: Right. I just think of him as Jon Snow from Game of Thrones.
Kurosaki: Yeah, the actor is Kit Harington. He’s designed to be the perfect foil for Reyes. This is Reyes’s first day at the helm. It’s definitely not Kotch’s first day. Reyes has to learn very quickly that you can’t bring everyone home and that the mission must come first. Kotch already knows that better than anyone else. The first time we see him, to demonstrate how much he gets it, he shoots his own man in cold blood. He says, “Care clouds judgment. That’s why you can’t win.” Not only is this a guy with experience, he’s a guy who gets what it takes to win.
And on top of all that, he has his whole fleet at his disposal. You’re down to two remaining ships. You were talking about how the good guy always wins the war. At the end of this story, you haven’t won. You’ve just prevented a loss. You stopped this war from ending the day it began. Now you’re at parity with them. They’ve destroyed the majority of your fleet at Geneva, you’ve destroyed the majority of their fleet based on the ship assaults you’ve gone on and taking down the shipyard. Okay, reset. Now the war starts in earnest.
GamesBeat: It wasn’t clear to me why he was so pissed off. I get the impression of oppression, or perceived oppression, from Earth?
Kurosaki: The SDF, the Settlement Defense Front, SetDef, they’re all originally from Earth. Our jumping-off point for the story—it’s a bit of a ripped-from-the-headlines, what-if scenario. Studying war stories, or studying war in history frankly, all wars for the most part are about resources. All the big wars have been resource wars. We took that as a given and we looked at the fact that we’re running short of things like rare earth minerals, peak oil, stuff like that. We have a scarcity of resources and energy here on Earth. If we’re going to continue life as we know it, we need a different source of energy and materials.
These things are in great abundance out in the solar system. Elon Musk is talking about how he foresees humans becoming a multi-planetary society with permanent settlements on Mars and moons like Europa.
GamesBeat: So it’s a bit like the colonies shaking off the British?
Kurosaki: You could see it that way? If the colonies were also dogmatic believers in martial prowess and brutal on human rights. That distance between Earth and where SetDef calls home has allowed this movement to take hold. They start to see themselves as the worthy inheritors of the solar system. They believe that not being free breathers – that they have to live in these harsh conditions – makes them more worthy somehow. They’re going to remake Earth in their own image.
GamesBeat: It seems to start in media res. You don’t see anything Earth might have done, so it seems more like a Pearl Harbor attack.
Kurosaki: We draw a lot of inspirations from things we see. The good guys are part of this loose alliance I talked about, this multinational alliance. We see here on Earth now, when Russia invades the Ukraine—we don’t do anything about it. We “strongly condemn these actions,” but no one wants to go in there, because you can’t get unanimous support. Some people are doing business with Russia. There are all kinds of entanglements.
If we need that energy and those resources that are out there, and you have a dogmatic movement that’s taken hold and they say, “We’re going to have Titan for ourselves,” and they kill a bunch of people in the process, then you have people on Earth saying, “Uh, what do we do here?” The SetDef is able to grow more and more brazen, and we start with them going into the black site that is Europa and taking it for themselves.
World War II had some analogous situations. America was only drawn into the war when it was directly attacked. It could have gotten involved much sooner. It’s a similar kind of thing. We wanted to paint things in pretty clear terms. The SetDef are the bad guys. We show that they’re the bad guys. They do bad things. When you’re on Titan, you see what happens when SetDef comes into a neutral territory.
All these places off-planet should feel hopeful. They should feel like places people will go when they go to work out on an oil rig, or they’re going to be an ice trucker, or a longshoreman someplace remote. It’s dangerous work with good pay and the promise of a better future afterward. When SetDef rolls in it’s the stormtroopers rounding people up. People just disappear. Did they escape? Who knows?
GamesBeat: You had a major event happen when a character dies in one of the missions. Was that a primary mission?
Kurosaki: Yeah, that was a main mission. The side missions flesh out what the SetDef is. They give you more time with your main characters to learn about their relationship. But yeah, [redacted] mission is the [redacted] that’s gone dark. The fleet depends on those resources getting back, so they can use them to repair the damaged capital ships.
Admiral Raines says, “Go find out what happened.” Now, he doesn’t say, “Go down there.” It’s just about ascertaining what happened. They go out in that Raven, get close, scan, realize that the temperature is fluctuating wildly, and Salter says, “All right, this place is messed up. Let’s go back to the ship and report to Raines.”
Raines knows that the mission comes first. It’s not about saving Reyes. He’s expendable, ultimately.
GamesBeat: And Reyes does fully execute the search and rescue mission —
Kurosaki: He turns it into a search and rescue mission. Again, he probably shouldn’t have done that, right? The mission from command was to go ascertain what happened to the mining facility. They get close enough to see what the temperature fluctuation is, and it’s probably a lost cause. Yes, there may be survivors down there, but is that really the best task to undertake at this time? Probably better for them to go back to their ship and keep hunting SetDef and take on the next mission from command. But I think Reyes’s judgment is clouded in that moment because he knows what it’s like to be left for dead. There’s the beacon and he says, “Search and rescue. Let’s go down there.” He’s the captain, so he gets to make that call, and against her better judgment Salter has to pilot the Raven down there to find out what happens.
Once he says that’s the mission, everyone falls in line. If you really break it down, that’s why [redacted] is lost…. It’s a tough lesson. There’s no do-overs. Reyes does the best he can and sometimes there’s a cost.
GamesBeat: This is perhaps a heavier narrative than earlier Call of Duty games. Kevin Spacey maybe took us part of the way there in Advanced Warfare. All indications seem to be that this is where gamers want to go, though. Complicated stories, deep characters, characters who change. These things never used to happen in games, or they were few and far between.
Kurosaki: It didn’t happen in Crash Bandicoot. [Laughs] I can only speak from my perspective as a gamer, but even with games where I spend more time in multiplayer, I really appreciate a good single-player campaign. It gives me context for that multiplayer world. For games that only have a multiplayer component, it’s hard to feel attached to the universe, because the universe is just the confines of that multiplayer map. If you have a single-player campaign, it suggests a world beyond that map. You know characters that inhabit that world. Multiplayer-only games tend to be less sticky, less longevity, because you don’t have those things to grab onto.
You could look at it from a purely economical standpoint and say, “Boy, they put a lot of resources into that campaign when players spend way more time in multiplayer.” But it’s an investment in the player. Even a game like Overwatch—it’s a multiplayer-only game, but they do it in a different way. They have those films, those animated shorts, that are just gorgeous. Overwatch isn’t just the game. It’s a larger universe. Even if you don’t enjoy the game, maybe you like the characters and the universe, and other games could use them. I’m a big proponent, obviously, of putting an emphasis on campaign, and specifically on narrative in campaign.
GamesBeat: Certain games have this tug-of-war going on. Battlefield deals with historical accuracy versus fun. Do you have a different tug-of-war between narrative and gameplay?
Kurosaki: Not at all. I never see that as a zero-sum game, where putting more emphasis on narrative means less emphasis on gameplay. They work hand in hand. The narrative supports the gameplay and the gameplay supports the narrative.
In our cutscenes, you might see that there are never any action sequences. Action sequences should be on the stick. Especially in a game like Call of Duty. You have a certain number of ways to express yourself as a player. Big, broad action moments, often with a gun in your hand, those are the core mechanics of the game. To have that in a cinematic isn’t using the right tool for the job. Also, it takes away the jeopardy. You know you’re going to live through a cutscene. You don’t feel any sense of urgency, any sense of peril, if we have an action moment in a cinematic.
Call of Duty is not a conversation simulation machine. Having meaningful conversations where characters express their feelings, that’s handled better in a cinematic. That relies on all the directorial language of camera movement to its best effect.
One of the reasons I came here to work on Call of Duty is I’d always admired how well they did those big blockbuster action-movie set-pieces. But my feeling was—if the guys that specialize in doing that stuff just do that again, they don’t have to outdo themselves. They just do the thing they do so well, and we can infuse context and characters you care about. You could have two equivalent set-pieces, and the one involving characters you care about is going to feel far more spectacular.
Again, the narrative is definitely in support of the gameplay. It helps enhance the game. This isn’t an absolute, but I think it’s fairly well-borne-out that some of the more successful in-game narratives are led by people who are game designers. Not by people who are storytellers in other media. The interactive medium is unique. It has its own set of rules.
If there were a tug of war between narrative and gameplay, I don’t think you’d see successful in-game narratives coming from people who—Neil Druckmann is a game designer. Amy Hennig is a game designer. These people are game designers who’ve also studied storytelling. My first job in the games industry was being the entire design department on Crash Bandicoot. We made the game with maybe seven people. I can’t think of a lot of fulfilling narrative-driven, character-driven single-player campaigns that were run by a movie director.