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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.
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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.