Is Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Too Cynical?
It might be hard to remember amidst all the eye-rolling that greets every piece of Call of Duty news – most recently, the announcement of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – but there was a time when Call of Duty didn’t feel as cynical as it does now.
You’ll hear different arguments made by different people as to why Activision’s Call of Duty is a cynical franchise, be it the series’ annualisation, the lack of innovation, map packs and DLC, or any number of other reasons.
There is one factor that’s not often discussed, however, and that is the way that Call of Duty deals with its themes.
Call of Duty has moved from demonstrating what appeared to be a genuine engagement with its own content to treating contemporary issues as fields of ideas to be stripped and harvested before moving onto pastures new like a swarm of locusts.
Call of Duty – Back To Modern Warfare
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was by no means artful, radical or especially intelligent when it came to its narrative and themes, but playing that game, there was nevertheless some sense that the game’s developers wished to communicate something of the tragedy of war.
As we saw a devastating nuclear explosion through the eyes of a dying American soldier, there was a moment of contemplativeness, a sense of sadness about the way in which an individual’s fate can fall to the mercy of global forces beyond their control, set into motion by the machinations of psychopaths, politicians and the machine of war.
The same can be said for the anti-war quotes that would often confront the player on death. They provoked a moment of reflection about what was transpiring in the game and placed a caveat (however brief) on the players’ enjoyment of virtual war.
Of course, there were plenty of other quotes that leant more towards the valorisation of war and the lionisation of those who conduct it.
That contradictory tendency was also present in the way that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare simultaneously fetishised the spectacle of war as it sought to gesture towards its horror.
The point here is not to suggest that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is in any way radical or consistent in its message, though (indeed, it is anything but).
The point is that it felt as if there was a genuine attempt to engage with its themes, that the studio actually wanted to reflect on the tragedy of war, however cackhandedly it may have done so.
As the series has progressed, it feels as if that has been less and less the case.
Call of Duty – Courting Controversy
Take the example of the ‘tragic scene/controversial moment’. After the aforementioned nuclear attack in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, there was ‘No Russian’ in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
It’s debatable to what extent that scene was cynically included to incite controversy, but by the time we reach the bombing scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 it’s clear that the ‘tragic scene/controversial moment’ has come to be seen as a ‘feature’.
The terrorist bombing that takes place in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (in which a young girl and her family are killed) is almost a self-parody of the series’ increasing cynicism in its embarrassingly transparent attempt to draw a response from the player, seemingly for the sake of doing so, rather than in service of any thematic or narrative drive.
The same can be said of the series more broadly.
Call of Duty’s ‘themes’ have increasingly felt like window dressing, ideas that are picked up, used and tossed away because people might be interested in them at that particular time, moreso than there is any interest in genuine exploration of those themes on the developer’s side.
With Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, it was the Occupy movement, Anonymous and Wikileaks that provided fuel for the fire, with its antagonist set up as the leader of a populist movement, spouting phrases which echoed those of Occupy, while using techniques of cyberwarfare that played on fears about the hacker community.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is indicative of Call of Duty’s cynical appropriation of contemporary events and movements with cultural currency.
It takes things that are current and uses them as nothing more than set dressing, as resources that Call of Duty can exploit to appear fresh and current.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare & Cynicism
That brings us to Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
In Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare, we know that the story will focus on private military contractors (and terrorists, of course – there’s always terrorists) and issues surrounding security and freedom.
Again, it seems as if those behind Call of Duty have seen that the NSA is in the news, have seen some of the controversy around the privatisation of security and the military and decided that because those things are current, those are things that shall appear in the latest game.
You only need to look at the video Activision recently released on PMCs – it’s a piece of marketing material masquerading as a documentary piece, a cynical attempt to exploit important issues in service of selling a franchise.
Might Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare prove that sentiment wrong when it releases? Perhaps, but if that video and the last few releases are anything to go by, it seems unlikely.
Call of Duty – Is The Cynicism Justified
The movement of the Call of Duty series from being one which felt as if it had some integrity in the way it engaged with its thematic content into one that approaches its themes with the utmost cynicism is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the fact that Call of Duty is a franchise.
After all, there has to be a new Call of Duty every year, so the series has to find new things in order to justify its existence.
In those conditions, it seems we don’t get games that care about their own themes, we get games that appropriate themes solely because they need them.
And, if the creators of the series themselves are that cynical, its fair to suggest that all that cynicism that confronts the Call of Duty series from players themselves might just be justified.