You can’t go home again is not just a book I haven’t read, it’s also a feeling I’ve had about the Call of Duty series as it returns to the “boots on the ground” combat of World War II. In the franchise’s latest entry, players take the role of an American warfighter in the European theater. This is a return to the origins of Call of Duty, but publisher Activision and developer Sledgehammer Games have not found the welcoming and warm embrace of familiarity with this game. Instead, they’ve made a game that doesn’t fit with 2017 — especially when it comes to portraying racism in the U.S. military during the war.
I have a lot of problems with the storytelling in Call of Duty: WWII. Most of my issues stem from how it sets up plots and then follows them through (or doesn’t). These include major narrative elements like an inexplicably, impossibly grumpy officer who gets an unearned redemption just before the final battle. And it also includes minor plot points like a Jewish American soldier who shows you he wears a Catholic charm that is never mentioned again — even when it would’ve saved his life.
But the worst of these is a sideplot involving a black soldier named Howard, who is a corporal in the Army.
If you’ve only played WWII’s multiplayer, you still know Howard. He is one of people in the online HQ that gives you achievement-based missions like “get 10 headshots in team deathmatch.” In the campaign, however, he serves as an awkward allegory for all race relations between soldiers.
Howard only has a few minutes of time on screen in WWII. He’s an engineer in an all-black division, and you first meet him when you’re trying to repair a radio during the Battle of the Bulge. During that introduction, your squadmate Frank Aiello makes it clear that he’s uncomfortable with the idea of a black soldier.
“I can’t believe they let them fight,” Aiello says to your character as he stands right in front of Howard.
“Yeah, they even let us die, too,” Howard responds.
As far as setups go, it serves its purpose even if the writing and composition made me roll my eyes. This moment comes about halfway through the game, and it is dripping with forced concern for “real” issues. Aiello makes his comment about “them” as if Howard isn’t standing right on top of him, and it all comes across as a sterilized performance of racism for your benefit.
But video game writers are often hamfisted in how they approach social problems and history, and the introduction is not the problem. And if this is your first time coming across the history of bigotry in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, it could even stoke your curiosity. But Howard’s plot falls apart because the game doesn’t follow through on that. It doesn’t pick that thread back up again until a clumsy resolution at the end of the campaign that violates the rule of threes, an effective storytelling trick, multiple times along the way.
In visual storytelling, setting up ideas and paying them off is crucial for building a satisfying narrative experience. If you have five minutes, here’s a good breakdown of the concept by Dan Olson of the media-analysis YouTube channel Folding Ideas.
In general, in a film or a game, you want to introduce an idea, remind the audience about it, and then resolve it during the third act. You can find multiple wonderful examples of this structure in Machine Games’ Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, which is a masterful work of setups and payoffs.
At the start of The New Colossus, hero B.J. Blazkowicz’s girlfriend is pregnant with his twins. During the intro, we understand that B.J. intends to marry her when he flashes back to his mother giving him a family heirloom, a wedding ring, that is dearly important to her. To ensure you don’t forget about this, an important mission has you returning to your childhood home to find the ring (and deal with some other problems from your past). Then, at the end of the game and after the danger has passed, B.J. digs into his pocket, and you as an observer and participant in this story know exactly what’s going to happen next. B.J. gets on his knee and asks Anya to marry him. It’s not even close to the most important plotline in The New Colossus, but Machine does the work to get you to invest in it emotionally. And it works because you saw it coming all along. As the game is coming to a close, you might even scream, “but what about the ring?!” And the game recognizes you for your cleverness with the big pay off.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is brilliant. Call of Duty: WWII is not.
After Sledgehammer introduces Howard, its writers don’t do anything with the framework it established alongside him. He joins your squad, and he helps you with anything mechanical. After that, Aiello and Howard do not interact again and don’t discuss one another in any cutscenes or obvious incidental dialogue. You do get moments where Howard risks his life for the squad, but the game doesn’t present this in context with Aiello or military segregation. WWII completely forgets that setup.
Call of Duty: WWII climaxes with a battle for the last bridge across the Rhine. Once again, Howard helps you get on a anti-aircraft gun to shoot down an immoral number of Nazis fighter planes. This leads directly into the final push.
Once the smoke clears and the Nazis surrender the bridge over the river Rhine, the final cutscene kicks in and Aiello and Howard both approach you.
“I believe I owe you an apology,” Aiello says to Howard with his arm raised for a handshake.
“You owe me a helluva lot more than that,” Howard responds while taking Aiello’s hand.
This moment doesn’t work. The trite dialogue leaves no lasting impression, and Aiello’s shift to embrace Howard comes out of nowhere. Sure, they’ve served together through multiple battles now, but you never see what that means for the two men as the player. As a result, this storyline feels like it’s only in the game because Sledgehammer realized it couldn’t make a game about WWII without talking about it. But what’s in the game lacks meaning or gravitas. It’s careless.
What’s frustrating is that this is how Sledgehammer chooses to deal with racism in its game. You can maybe argue that it shows the horrors of the Nazi’s prisoner of war camps, but you never see any Nazi soldiers actively participating in those atrocities. The most you get here is a chance to save your squadmate, Zussman, from a prison guard. The clearest racism we see is Aiello dehumanizing Howard.
In a world with actual Nazis marching in the streets of America, that’s tone deaf. It’s even worse because WWII exists in a medium alongside Wolfenstein II, which has a lot to say about racism and America’s infatuation with white supremacy.
In this reality and compared to Wolfenstein, Call of Duty: WWII comes across as an embarrassing, middle school production of Racism: The Play. It’s so bad that I wish the game ignored the issue. That’s not great either, but it’s better than the limp attempt that is actually in WWII. If Sledgehammer wanted to make a game about brotherhood in combat, it didn’t need to pay lip service to racism to do that.
Activision may find financial success bringing Call of Duty back home to World War II, but this series that was once so comfortable in this setting seems a lot more obtuse in 2017. And the creators of this game clearly knew they would have to grow Call of Duty to face this changing world, but it didn’t execute. And that is disappointing.