Activision unveiled the trailer and other details of Call of Duty: WWII this week. In this year’s Call of Duty installment, you’ll return to the roots of the series, playing a soldier in a squad in the 1st Infantry Division in the U.S. Army in the Second World War.
The game looks amazingly realistic as an unflinching yet respectful portrait of the sacrifices soldiers made in combat during a distant war. Joe Salud, art director, put a lot of effort into coming up with that art style. It involved sending the art team to Europe, to scour the battlegrounds that still exist in the landscape of modern Europe, and consulting with WWII historian Marty Morgan.
In 2014, I interviewed Salud about the art in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which featured realistic re-creations of actor Kevin Spacey’s face. Now, Salud showed me an image of Spacey’s face next to the main character of Call of Duty: WWII, and it’s a night-and-day difference.
Advanced Warfare was more about super soldiers and getting the player to feel powerful.
“This time around, the journey was more interesting,” Salud said. “It wasn’t just about pretty pictures. It was more about evoking emotion, telling a story, getting the player to feel something. It’s about being emotionally relevant and impactful.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What was it like to work on this, going back?
Joe Salud: It’s been an interesting journey since we talked about Advanced Warfare. When we last talked about AW–it was about being a tier one operator. It’s in the future. It’s about technology. The tone was different. It was about good guys versus bad guys, hurrah, high-five. From the art side, I had a lot of fun designing technological things, trying to make it a fantasy about being the guy in charge. Almost like a superhero, a super-soldier.
This time around, the journey was more interesting. It wasn’t just about pretty pictures. It was more about evoking emotion, telling a story, getting the player to feel something. Less about simply fighting. As a team, we had to transform a bit. It’s not just about making it pretty. It’s about being emotionally relevant and impactful. I think that’s way more powerful.
GamesBeat: What kinds of scenes are you thinking of when you talk about that?
Salud: A lot of movies or games, they’ll go this kind of route. I’ll look at that and I’ll think, “Well, all this does for me is communicate the historical timeline of events. Okay, I now understand the facts of what happened. I understand the story. But that’s it.” When you look at this, it’s the same picture essentially, but it’s communicating to me in a way that I can better understand. It feels less like a historical timeline and more like—it’s like seeing the feed off my Instagram. It’s in color. It’s digital. Today, the way we’re able to record light and re-create photography, idealize certain images—that’s how we read things now. If I can deliver a similar message to you, package it up in this digital way, that’s just one layer, but all of a sudden you’ll feel a bit more. You’ll feel like it’s closer to you.
If you look at this, this feels far. This feels like, “Why is that there?” It’s more powerful. And this as well. In black and white, I get it. Narratively it tells me something, and I can feel something for it. Seeing people’s faces, it’s a more direct communication. But if you look at photos from Syria today, there’s so much more information. There’s not much difference between then and now, storytelling-wise. It’s still people living through war. But because there’s more photography in Syria, because cameras are more accessible, I have more information about how to communicate that story.
Here you see rubble. I could make a game about how you’re fighting through here and you see this rubble – concrete, dust, wood, bits and pieces – but that’s not going to make you feel anything by itself. You don’t care about rubble. But if you look at photos like this from Syria, you feel something more. That vanity there, buried under the rubble, some woman used to comb her hair there. You see all these personal items from someone’s house sitting there crushed. It creates this metaphor for people’s lives. The whole thing is a metaphor. Crushed rubble on top of someone’s furniture – a life that’s been destroyed. It’s maybe a bit on the artsy side, but that’s how I want someone to feel as they’re going through our game, experiencing it. That’s what really happened. That’s important.
GamesBeat: You can fit in a lot more detail now, with advances in technology. Is that the kind of situation where you make use of technology?
Salud: It allows us to have a lot more options. I was telling someone earlier, back on the original PlayStation, I didn’t have many options. I can try to give an impression, but—the detail in the rendering has come so much further. Now I have lots of things to play with. Some things I can amp up and some things I can dial down.
GamesBeat: How do you keep up with the demand for art? It seems like there are so many more assets you have to produce for a game now.
Salud: Obviously it’s about manpower. That’s part of it. But it’s also down to tools. In the Renaissance you worked with a hammer and chisel. Now we’ve got power tools. We have tools that are automated or—before, when were doing prototyping, everything was hand-authored, forced and wedged until we had a proof of concept and we knew what we wanted to do. Then we’d figure out a way to streamline it and scale.
It’s because of the physical rendering that things are sometimes easier. Now you have a more predictable outcome, because it’s physically based. Because this is a physical world, I can take this mouse into a different room and it’ll look real no matter where I go. The way our lighting works, it’s all physical, and our materials all respond to light in a physical way. No matter what we build, as long as we follow those physical rules, we get predictable outcomes. It’s procedural.
GamesBeat: As far as automation goes, can artists do more themselves now?
Salud: It depends. It goes back to what I was just saying about—maybe in the early prototype phase, where we’re trailblazing, you still need an engineer to partner with and figure things out. Once it’s solved, the engineers figure out way to do it so you don’t need them anymore. They teach you to fish. That kind of thing.
GamesBeat: I suppose there’s plenty of historical art for you to look at, but how detailed is it?
Salud: It reminds me of a conversation I had earlier with some of the people I work with. I wanted to go on a photo reference shoot, and people said, “Well, all this happened a long time ago. None of that stuff’s still there.” But it is there. You just have to find the right people to show you where it is. We had these historians who’d take us all over France. There are these preserved towns that still exist today, almost like the French version of Amish country. We’d go through a town and practically scan the whole thing, virtualize everything.
This is an example of one room I was in where everything was preserved. It’s a school, and it looks exactly like it did in those days. We virtualized it, and here’s our version of a representation of that kind of scene. We try to make you feel like it’s real. It doesn’t have that distant look. It feels like going back in time. That’s what we’re trying to do.
There were all kinds of things like that. Right next to that town was a town that had been bombed in the war, and they’d preserved that too. We virtualized all the rubble and everything. It was fun. I got to nerd out big time. Are you familiar with photogrammetry? This is a crude example, but we went there and used it on everything. Even the skies, we captured those. We went to Normandy on June 6. Trying to virtualize that and bring that back, not just looking at images and movies, but actually going there and trying to experience it. Trying to give the player more than just immersion, but something empathic.