Friday, November 16, 2012

Avoiding the Call of Duty

             I find it difficult to criticize the writing in a Call of Duty campaign, because I imagine most people who purchased the game will be letting that mode gather dust. Call of Duty is a game less about people and motivations and more about guns. I’ve spoken a lot about mainstream games and comics being written for 14 year-old boys. Call of Duty is no exception either.

            It’s hard to play through this game with a straight face. Everything the characters say is, at best, a point of ridicule. Every word your commanding officer says is some variation of the word “cocksucker”. It’s Life Free or Die Hard, complete with the catastrophic destruction and cyberterrorism.

            One of the games most laughable points is its repeated attempts to mention recent political events. The game takes place on board the state of the art battleship Obama (despite his desire to cut military spending). The terrorist leader repeatedly mentions rallying the 99% against the 1%. Even David Petraeus makes an appearance after his recent disgrace. Noriega shows up as well. It’s one of those games where they say words without really knowing what they mean, but they still bring it up.

            However, I think the real trouble that Call of Duty presents is not the fact that it’s poorly written and boring to play, but that it creates an idea of masculinity that is outright ridiculous. The men in this game are presented as an ideal to strive for. They are the best of the best of the best, the shield of freedom, etc. These people barely emote, and even barely register the consequences of their actions (and US foreign policy), until it comes back to bite them in the ass.

The U.S. Military is clearly the star of this game. However, it’s really hard to support them when the first level of the game has you mowing down Angolans with machetes with a helicopter. Afghans on horseback charge at your automated drones only to be mowed down by the hundreds. When you use your billion dollar drones in third world countries to enforce policy and essentially go after a personal vendetta, it’s pretty easy to see the 99%’s argument. I don’t support the protagonist, but the terrorist begins to make a pretty clear case.

I was surprised when I saw the one of the writes on The Dark Knight Rises helped create the main villain in CoD, but I saw the similarities between him and Bane almost instantly afterwards. He’s a bad guy who presents high ideals but has low motives. Standard. The US military is Batman, diving in from above with fancy toys.

The key difference here is there is no real emotion other than overly macho posturing. It’s over-the-top to the point of comedy, and any options for serious dialog or an honest discourse about the costs of being a soldier are quickly brushed aside in favor of more excessive violence. In a game that centers so heavily on the idea of the “Call of Duty”, any real mention of what it means to those around you to answer is quickly swept under the rug.

One of the biggest missed opportunities in game comes in a brief expository moment, where you walk in on a husband and wife arguing about his duty to the military versus his duty to his family. It’s a surprisingly powerful moment that isn’t given the time it really deserves. It’s interrupted by more macho posturing and a few jokes about wives and forgotten entirely. This was a completely missed opportunity by the story team to actually add some actual realism and sincerity to a game that desperately needed it.

Call of Duty is a game that desperately needs some form of contrast in all the high-testosterone posturing, but any opportunity for actual discussion is completely missed. I’m not saying that every game needs to be deep or poignant, but mercilessly and robotically shooting foreigners makes me feel uncomfortable after too long.

Gamers deserve mainstream titles that challenge their views and beliefs the same as comics. Only this way can we actually grow as a medium and get some actual credibility.

(Yes I am familiar with Spec Ops: The Line. I’m playing it next week and going to revisit this.)

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