Written by Andrew Busch // Edited by Drew Beyer // Header image courtesy of Daily Mail
Call of Duty WW2’s promises a return to the roots of the franchise. The laser beams, perks, and jetpacks have been retired. Developer Sledgehammer is advertising that the game’s flashy mechanics have been stripped away in order to create a more “grounded” shooter.
But returning to WWII was always a bad idea. With this horrible period in human history comes all the baggage and ethical issues that were present at this time; weapons of mass destruction, millions of innocent deaths, and complete chaos. Things that simply cannot be done justice through a game where double kill medals pop-up on your screen as you mow down enemies. Yet Sledgehammer believes that they are honoring this period through their representation of its events.
In a conversation with IGN about the game’s campaign Sledgehammer’s Creative Director Bret Robbins explains “we had to make the game authentic, as believable and respectful as we possibly could.” At the same time, Sledgehammer’s co-founder Glen Schofield states in Call of Duty WW2’s campaign reveal video “it’s about studying, it’s about honoring, everything has been done so we need to make sure that we get those details right.” Both statements share a common emphasis on remembrance and commemoration. Robbins and Schofield want to make sure that the game is both respectful and displays a certain reverence for this moment of history.
As much as the Sledgehammer team continues to bring this objective to the foreground of their advertisements and promotional campaigns, it starts to feel ancillary when looking at the actual game. First, from what we know about Call of Duty WW2’s campaign, the main character is 19 year-old Ronald “Red” Daniels from Texas. He is a young American that wants to defend his country while still not totally aware of the reality of war. Having an inexperienced, young solider is an interesting new twist for a main character in the Call of Duty franchise, but Red is still an archetype we all know from hundreds of adaptations of this historic conflict. Additionally, the fact that this campaign follows exclusively the Americans in the European theatre has me wondering if the main goal is honoring history or simplifying this conflict as America versus the Nazi regime.
Another inconsistency between this game and a reverent portrayal of history is how overly dramatic the campaign remains with its scripted cinematic events and perfectly-timed explosives that always look like something out of a Michael Bay film. According to writer Chloi Rad of IGN, the fifteen to twenty minutes she spent with the campaign were largely dominated by these familiar action movie moments. Red experiences continual brushes with death in cinematic cut scenes that might look cool, but they don’t accurately depict the horrors of war. Call of Duty WW2 will not be Spec Ops: The Line. It is not going to push gamers to question warfare and or its effects on real human beings. Instead, it will show you some flashy pyrotechnics while telling you that it is honoring the events of world history.
Sledgehammer’s goal of tasteful commemoration becomes even more confusing when considering how swastikas have been removed from the game. I understand the desire the censor this symbol. It stands for purely despicable ideals and a regime that committed unspeakable acts against human beings. But for a game that intends to reveal the true atrocities of WWII, Sledgehammer appears to be afraid to do just that. By censoring this symbol, they show that they aren’t fully committed to getting the details right. And when each of these details start to add up the line between a tasteful representation and revisionist history becomes increasingly fuzzy.
I know it might be surprising, but there is a way to successfully use games to explore the horrors of our historical timeline. Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah proves it’s possible to use games as a medium for understanding tragedy. This book uses the universe of a tabletop game, Wraith: The Oblivion, to tell the stories of the holocaust in an interactive RPG format. Janet Berliner writes in the introduction to this book “we must be brave enough to make acts of injustice accessible by way of the new mechanics… be it the way of the internet and CD-ROM, tours of the Museum of Tolerance… or projects like this.” Berliner discusses how important it is for our forms of media and entertainment to interact with history and to teach people through the tools that they are comfortable interacting with. This means tabletop games, the internet, and even video games can play integral roles in helping people understand the past.
At this point, I realize that I am asking too much from this series. I am not expecting that any major developer is going to produce a game that explores the depths of human tragedy in a real way. However, Sledgehammer needs to stop pretending that this is the main objective for the game.
If we keep buying games like Call of Duty WW2 there may never be a time when AAA titles dive deeper than the surface level, because we’re saying we want video games to remain scripted cinematic pieces that retell the noble fight America and its allies waged against fascism. At the same time, the voices of millions of people will remain ignored by our chosen entertainment medium. The millions of victims of the holocaust, the Japanese held in American internment camps, the civilian lives devastated by history’s first and only use of nuclear weaponry and so much more are ignored while we are asked to continually play out a single side of WWII’s complicated history.
The WWII setting isn’t what makes the game problematic. The problem is that Sledgehammer keeps insisting how they did their best to honor history through this game. However, they fail to understand that the gaming community does not need another story where Americans slaughter hundreds of thousands of Nazis. We need something that leaves our community— which already lacks diversity and tolerance— shaking in its boots. A game that causes people to engage with the multiplicity of stories and gives a voice to the groups of people that remain ignored by the medium of video games. Call of Duty WW2 is not a game about honoring history. It is a game that elevates one side of the story over others, which fails to respectfully commemorate the events of WWII.
For more background on Charnel Houses of Europe and tasteful representations of history in games watch this video: