“Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” is many things — a reboot, an attempt at putting the modern back in “Modern Warfare,” a technical splendor — but above all else, it’s a game that seems to be trying to tackle concerning real-world, modern-day issues through the lens of a first-person shooter.
The notion of military shooters weaving important issues of the day into their narrative is a valiant idea. But it also runs the risk of devaluing the topic it tries to take on.
The issue, one of many, is that the chief mode of interaction in a shooter is to shoot. And asking any more or less of a player is to thrust them into the position of actor, but with little direction and no script.
So why run the risk?
It sounds as if in the view of Taylor Kurosaki, studio narrative director at Infinity Ward, it wasn’t really a choice.
“When we set out to make this project, we made it very simple for ourselves, what do the words modern warfare represent,” he told Variety in a recent interview. “What defines modern warfare for us, or what do we believe defines it in the world we live in in 2019?
“You are inherently taking on these sensitive topics today more than any other time. The battle lines are not really clearly defined. The warzone is not over there, somewhere in some remote corner of the world, it’s all around us. A busy city center can become a combat zone in a blink of an eye. For a Tier one operator, navigating that world is part and parcel with what we believe modern warfare to be.
“If we only talked about western soldiers fighting in far-flung lands or on domestic counter-terrorism in their homes that would also only tell you half the story. There is a whole group of people where the battle zones are their home and their cities.”
In a presentation earlier this month, Infinity Ward showed off the upcoming game with two missions, both bound to be highly controversial in different ways.
In the first, we say a member of the SAS working his way through a townhome in London killing armed suspected terrorists while avoiding non-combatants, including a mother with a child in her hands.
In the second, we saw Russian soldiers shooting and gassing unarmed civilians as the player controlled a very young girl who eventually stabs and shoots to death several enemies.
I asked Kurosaki why those two particular missions were shown to press and not more classically, Call of Duty missions features soldiers fighting soldiers.
“We had a very short runway to show you some things,” he said. “We couldn’t show you the entire campaign in its entirety and in context so we wanted to make sure what you saw was representative of how different it is from previous titles. The things we didn’t show were moments of joy, levity, and comradery between people working together as a team to make a difference.
“We showed you Farrah’s origin story, where her life was turned upside down, and we showed you that to express how we want to delve into the backstory of these characters to explain their perspective. We weren’t showing you those assets to show how provocative we can be. We were showing you those assets to show that modern war isn’t always pleasant, it’s serious business and it can be kind of messy.”
The other open question is how the game will treat players who do things they shouldn’t as they play through the campaign. Can, for instance, a player deliberately shoot down the mother holding her child in that townhome?
“We don’t allow our players to conduct themselves in a matter inconsistent with how Tier 1 operators are expected to conduct themselves,” Kurosaki said. “If you are Tier 1 and are overzealous or aggressive and responsible for unnecessary harm you can be court-martialed, arrested, you can be prosecuted. We do our own version of that in the game, allies will chastise you and eventually, the game will boot you out of the game.”
The townhome level, he said, is meant to mirror the complex and sometimes confusing situations that real anti-terrorism groups might face.
“It’s a harrowing job, intel is not always perfect and sometimes it does come down to these very very split-second decisions,” he said. “It could be the difference between endangering squadmates, yourself, innocent people, or not succeeding in their mission.”
Ultimately, Kurosaki said that games like “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” are meant to be empowering at a time when the reality of daily news can be paralyzing to some.
“That’s an outlet we give to our players,” he said.
The same can be said of movies and television shows that tackle the same topics, he added.
“Film and TV get to talk about these concepts,” he said. “We’ve seen these concepts explored in ‘Lone Survivor,’ ‘American Sniper,’ ‘Sicario,’ ‘Hurt Locker,’ ‘Zero Dark 30.’ These films are talking about the vagaries of war. As an audience you can have a level of empathy. The difference with the video game version is that if you really want to empathize with a character and know what it’s like and be in their shoes, why not be in their boots? Experience first hand what modern warfare really means.”