I have been a Call of Duty fan from the first game in 2003. But I have never wondered about this question before, until now. Should this particular game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, be made? The small glimpse I’ve seen of it so far tells me no.
Activision is announcing today that Modern Warfare will ship on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on October 25. It is an important game for a corporation that has been weakened by the loss of its Destiny franchise and the fizzling of Skylanders. To date, Call of Duty has sold more than 300 million copies.
The publisher’s Infinity Ward studio recently showed a part of the single-player campaign for an upcoming installment of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and it has scenes and gameplay in it that are very disturbing to me. It brings to mind the No Russian controversy, where civilians are mowed down in a Russian airport in 2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
I was quite uncomfortable as I watched a gameplay demo of Modern Warfare, which is more than just a remake of 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The demo, which will be shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) game trade show in June, has two parts. In both cases, the safety of civilians comes into question.
Infinity Ward developers got up onstage at a recent event at the studio’s headquarters in Southern California. Then they showed a press group the scenes. They warned us the game would be mature, authentic, and gritty. No longer would we be jumping about like superheroes. It is grounded in realistic, modern combat and “a complex world that mirrors our own.” Activision says the game has an “incredibly raw, gritty, provocative narrative that brings unrivaled intensity and shines a light on the changing nature of modern war.”
The premise is that the rules of war have changed. It’s not black-and-white — it’s gray, with a fine line between right and wrong. And yet, undoubtedly, this gritty single-player campaign will be coupled with multiplayer combat where killing is a sport. If you put these things together with extremely realistic human characters, it becomes even more disturbing.
A dream come true
Studio director Taylor Kurosaki and campaign director Jacob Minkoff explained some of Infinity Ward’s intentions. Kurosaki said that the team had to take into account that many of today’s players have never played the original Modern Warfare. So they decided to do a reimagining, rather than a sequel or remake. The team put the storyline to bed, took some of the good things (such as characters like Soap), and created it for 2019, inspired by “the world we are living in today,” Kurosaki said.
“The battlefield has never been less defined. Enemies more often than not don’t wear uniforms. That means collateral damage, civilians, is a greater part of the equation now than it has ever been,” he said. “Those situations are what our heroes are up against.”
This Modern Warfare is about characters thrown into moral conflict under the pressures of war, he said.
“This is the most authentic and realistic game we’ve ever made,” Minkoff said. “Taylor and I, as storytellers, all we ever really want to do is make players feel something. I remember playing the first Modern Warfare in the AC-130 mission. The aerial combat. You are firing down at enemies below. Thermal vision. There is no consequence. They cannot hurt you. All you are hearing deadpan is ‘Lots of little pieces.’ That feeling, I found profoundly uncomfortable. … It felt too easy. It felt dishonorable. It felt wrong. But I understood I was protecting my allies. I understood why this tactic is used in real life. It made sense. For the first time, I felt why it is emotionally uncomfortable. And then every time I saw it in the news from then on, I thought about that experience. That game made me think about the real world in a completely different way.”
He added, “We’ve done a ton of research coming into this game. What we’ve determined is social commentary like that has always been in the DNA of Modern Warfare. We’ve sent research teams around the world. Players have unanimously told us they want those emotional connections. They want complex, morally gray characters. They want gameplay that feels ripped from the headlines and delivers relevant, relatable, and provocative moments that only Modern Warfare would have the guts to show. For me, as a developer who wants to push the medium forward and do things people have never seen before, getting to work on a franchise, Modern Warfare, where that is expected, is a dream come true.”
Shooting unarmed women or terrorists?
In the first scene, terrorists attack central London. A team of British SAS operatives gathers in front of a townhouse that they suspect harbors a terrorist cell. In a manner that resembles a raid in Rainbow Six: Siege, they gather together to storm the house. The music is menacing. The military chatter is by the book. And the people look so real. If you passed by a TV with someone playing the game, you could easily mistake the game for a segment of a documentary about the war in Syria.
That’s because the game developers used a new kind of photogrammetry technique to render the backgrounder, character bodies, and character faces. The commander warns there may be non-combatants on the scene, so “check your shots.” The camera’s view is very close as the soldiers kick their way or vault into the house with guns drawn. The sound of breaking windows and gunfire is stark. They smash the door on the lower level while another soldier goes through an upper-story window. A dog barks.
As with Rainbow Six, the important choice that you must make as a soldier is to move into the room quickly and decide fast who to save or who to shoot. I did not play this mission; the Infinity Ward staff played it for us in a dark theater.
But the game differs from other gritty combat games based on who is in each room. The characters appear to be Muslim terrorist fighters in mostly civilian garb. But those characters include both men and women.
One of the women runs for a baby. Fortunately, the developers told me later, you cannot shoot that woman or that baby. She surrenders.
But in another room, a woman runs for a gun. She prepares to shoot. You have to kill her. Your silenced weapon makes muffled noises, and bodies hit the floor. Up close and personal. The same goes for other armed men in the place. In another room, shots are fired through the door before you can respond. One enemy is wounded and gurgles his last breaths. A woman cries in the background. One of your soldiers goes down. You fire into the door or fire into the wall, and the enemy goes down.
And in the final room, you confront an unarmed woman. She tries to divert you. She moves despite your warnings to stop. She then grabs a bomb detonator. You have to shoot her.
This is the nature of modern combat, the developers say. But this should not be a part of a modern video game, in my opinion, given the thin line between civilians and warriors and given the impression it creates in our world, which is driven by social media sound and video bites. It looks so much like you are killing innocent civilians. And if you make a mistake, you are.
I am told that the narrative of the story, which is generally secret, will explain the context for this scene. But as it is, as I’ve seen it, I found it profoundly disturbing and unjustifiable. After showing us this scene, the developers at Infinity Ward went right into a presentation where they said, “We’d like to talk to you about the star of the game, which is the weapons.” Sadly, I do not have pictures of this scene to show you.
Fighting as a child
The demo then shifted to a Middle Eastern country. My guess was that it was Syria, but the game doesn’t tell you where it is.
It is a chaotic environment. You’re buried under rubble. Your voice is a child, and you soon see that you are a young girl. You are trapped in a building that has been blown up. You make noises, and people outside with muffled voices can hear you.
Slowly, they dig their way to you. They lift concrete blocks and you emerge, unhurt. But a woman who appears to be your mother lies dead beside you. You are unscathed and begin running home. You find your father there.
But Russian soldiers arrive, and they start launching canisters that emit a green gas. It’s poison gas, and other civilians in the village start choking and dying. You run inside the home, where your brother has closed the windows.
Your father prepares an escape, but a Russian soldier comes in the house. Your father tries to reason with him, but the soldier guns him down. Then he hunts the children. You are still playing as the young girl, and you hide. You can crawl through a hole in a wall and sneak up on the soldier. You grab a knife and stab him in the leg. He shakes you off and you run away, escaping through the hole again.
You do that repeatedly, and eventually both you and your brother kill the soldier. One of you grabs his gas mask and you escape. You hold your breath and then run off, picking up a second gas mask. You pass by Russian soldiers who are executing civilians. And eventually, you get away.
Should these scenes be in the game?
This Modern Warfare will be controversial, and it might just be popular because of that controversy, if the company can weather the storm of criticism. But it would be a very cynical path to popularity. I would encourage the developers to examine whether they should include the scenes I’ve seen. Sure, it is realistic, and things like this happen in the world.
One good question is “Are these scenes really so bad?” We’ve seen worse in modern movies, video games, and even on YouTube, as those who depict the horrors of war try to outdo each other. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 had a scene where a bomb killed a child and her family. Modern Warfare 2 probably sold better because of the No Russian controversy.
This one feels worse.
My reaction is not that the developers should censor themselves or someone else should censor them. My question is about choices. We can make this kind of game, but should we? But should this kind of content, which we can see in movies or books, be in a video game? Should they be depicted in a form of art where we have so much agency? It’s going to be a Mature-rated game that kids shouldn’t play, but I had a conversation with an Uber driver who told me he lets his 6-year-old play Call of Duty.
“I played Mortal Kombat when I was little, and it didn’t affect me,” he said.
I would like a Call of Duty game that makes me think hard, feels intense, and is fun to play. And I usually shrug off criticism from people who say these games are too violent. As far as I can tell, you still play the “good guys” in this game. Michael Condrey, the former co-head of Activision’s Sledgehammer Games, said at our recent GamesBeat Summit event that, in the age of the shooting at Christchurch in New Zealand, is it really appropriate to make a game like Modern Warfare today.
This game will give fuel to those who hate. On the one hand, some groups will be outraged that their people are branded as terrorists and enemies. They will share snippets of this game on social media that will take the violence out of context. Groups of outraged lawmakers, parents, and nongamers will turn their ire toward all of gaming. If you’re a game developer at the peak of your talents, why would you step into this lion’s den? You would have to have a very good reason, and so far, I do not see it.
If this game goes down the wrong road, that would be a shame, as there are elements of high-quality art in this effort. There may very well be good context in the story of the game, but Activision and Infinity Ward aren’t saying much about the story yet. The developers say they are going for something like “Jaws, not Saw.”
Modern Warfare is bloody, but it’s not a sea of blood spraying everywhere. But sometimes the medium is the message. Sometimes the horror of a particular scene outweighs the point that you’re trying to make. There may be a message in what the developers intend, but it might be overshadowed.
I think of the anti-war movie Apocalypse Now, which had the memorable Ride of the Valkyries scene, where a mad colonel orders an attack on a Vietnamese village so that his guys can surf. It was an excellent commentary on the insanity of war. But it was executed so well as a combat scene that, in my opinion, it probably inspired a lot of young people to enlist in the military. Art can often have unintentional effects. And that is why my favorite quote is from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, where an American spy does his cover job of being a Nazi propagandist too well. The line is, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
This is supposed to be a video game. It will undoubtedly have a multiplayer element, where players shoot each other for fun and have a hell of a time doing it. That’s when we’ll see that “guns are the star of the show.” And the incongruity of it all will be clear.
The overall dramatic effect of the intense scenes should be memorable and artistic. Not gratuitous or base. The developers can fall back on the argument that this is our world. Their game is “ripped from the headlines.” But this puts us on a slippery slope toward a lot of things. What about school shootings? What about Christchurch? Do we want to put those in video games because they exist in the real world?
This preview requires us to trust the developer. But in this case, Infinity Ward has not delivered as well as its sister studios Treyarch and Sledgehammer Games. The studio keeps skating closer to the edge in order to make us uncomfortable. We can view that cynically. As gamers, we don’t necessarily trust Infinity Ward to deliver an elevated experience, given the pressures it is under.
Sometimes you have to judge something on just what your eyes tell you. And my vote is that this single-player campaign should not ship with these scenes.
Register for GamesBeat's upcoming event: Driving Game Growth & Into the Metaverse