Wednesday, January 9, 2008

From the Outbox: "RE: A Virtual History Lesson or Just a Shoot-'em'up?"

This is not the post I promised, nor the other one I promised to people I know. Those are coming this week, I swear. This is an e-mail I wrote in response to Ralph de la Cruz's January 8th article about Call of Duty 4 (here.) It's a fairly quick read, and I figured it would at least change the top post here.

Update: Thought I'd stroke my own ego by posting this: Click here. You can read the entirety of my e-mail there, where he posted it to his blog, but not the second part, which is a response to a comment on Kotaku. That is still below.

Update #2: Further ego-stroking. The letter to Ralph below, which I reposted to Kotaku, was highlighted as a comment of the week on Kotaku ( to a nomination by Witzbold. Thanks Witz!


I just read your January 8th article, "A virtual history lesson or just a shoot-'em-up?" and was moved to write you a quick (hopefully) email on the subject matter you've touched here. My name is Austin Walker, I'm a 22 year old self avowed hardcore gamer. In 2003 I co-founded Hofstra University Gamers, and currently live with two former members of that club in northern New Jersey, where video games are an integral part of our daily routine (even if our jobs limit the amount of time we get to play.) I'm liberal enough to choose "very liberal" on my Facebook profile, and maybe it was all those Philosophy classes I took in college, but I'm with you on this whole Iraq War thing - it is unjust, unethical, unfair to people on both sides of the conflict, and needs to stop. So, those things said, I feel like I've established myself as familiar with the topics at hand here.

The week before New Year's I found a few days off and my roommate's copy of Call of Duty 4 (CoD4.) I played through it at a breakneck pace, beating it in two game sessions. The guys at Infinity Ward (the developer of the game) had something here - the game was cinematic, something that the Tom Clancy Series (Rainbow Six, and GRAW) often eschewed in favor of "realism." The opening couple levels ('F.N.G.' and 'Crew Expendable' - a training mission and an assault on a quickly sinking ship, carrying nuclear weapons) of CoD4 were equivalent to a summer action blockbuster (starring Colin Farell as Soap?)

However, with the actual opening credit scene ('Coup'), I got the hunch that Infinity Ward - or at least someone there - might have decided to use this game as more than just a virtual history lesson or a shoot 'em up. Much like critically acclaimed (and a personal favorite of the year) Bioshock, CoD4 had begun to use the medium's unique strengths and methods to deliver an experience not duplicatable on film, the stage, or in anything but the most detailed “choose your own adventure” novel. The player is given control of an ousted ruler of the nameless Middle Eastern country that CoD4 takes place in during the last few minutes of his life. You are unable to look a full 360 degrees around, limiting your field of vision (and your sense of safety) as you are jammed in the back of a car and hauled off to your public execution. You are unable to move, try as you might, as two of the game’s leading antagonists end your life. There is something very powerful here, something beyond war propaganda. These scenes act as an argument against war, or at least displaying how terrifying such a thing really is. And it isn’t the last time that CoD4 handles these issues.

Later in the game you take control of a U.S. Marine, searching for the man who executed the country’s former leader and attempting to take back the country’s capital from the newly installed ‘insurgents.” Much of this is reminiscent of films like Black Hawk Down in their narrative and their realism. The missions ‘The Bog’ and ‘Shock and Awe’ (borrowing its name from the military tactic of rapid dominance that was used at the beginning of Iraqi Freedom and in other conflicts), are again standard war film fare for the most part. But under a critical eye it’s clear that what we are being shown is the exact sort of situation that our own military brass (and certain political figures) would never want us to see: Our men out gunned, out numbered, under supplied, and unable to receive additional support because we simply didn’t account for this sort of war. ‘The Bog’ is one of the game’s earliest stumbling points for most players – it simply isn’t very easy to defend a tank from all sides in an open, overgrown courtyard with tons of cover (and none of it for you.) ‘The Bog’ acts as a strong metaphor for this war we’re in.

Metaphors aside, the end of ‘Shock and Awe’ is about as powerful as anti-war a message you can get in an FPS. After a long battle, you manage to rescue a downed pilot from a wrecked helicopter, and carry her onto yours. As you begin to fly away, the city behind you explodes the way we’ve only seen in documentaries and the aforementioned Hollywood blockbuster. A nuclear bomb detonates, and over the next three or so minutes, you (again) live out the last few moments of a man’s life. Your helicopter crashes, and you crawl out, then limp and stumble about as buildings literally crumble away in the aftereffect of the bomb. The screen goes white, and a character that I as a player barely cared about was suddenly martyred for the cause of ending nuclear proliferation. No one who is a reasoning being who played this section of the game could’ve come away with “nuclear weapons are great.” Maybe they came away with “I want revenge on the bad guys,” but what I believe that Infinity Ward wanted here was simple: “this – doing this to anyone, anywhere, ever – is not a good thing.”

There is a final moment that I wish to acknowledge, and it is the same one that you do so (albeit for perhaps the opposite reason.) “There's even a part of the game reminiscent of the infamous "luckiest truck driver in Baghdad" news conferences. You're in a bomber looking down with night-vision goggles at helpless victims scrambling on the ground below — an X-button push away from oblivion,” you write. And you’re right – this is what happens in the mission ‘Death from Above’, but I feel you may have left out some very important things about the context of this mission, and perhaps even misunderstood what the point of it was.

The mission prior to ‘Death from Above’ is called ‘Hunted.’ In it you, as “Soap”, are trapped behind enemy lines. Again, this is one of the most difficult missions in the game, as moving just a little slow or arrive just a little late will cause a stir, sending up alarms and causing a full compliment of enemy troops on you. Eventually that happens anyway. The level is as down and dirty a video game can be. It is stressful, it is tense. This is what Infinity Ward must think of ground, infantry warfare – this is the best they could boil the fear, the intensity, the frustration of being in a place you have no desire to be, into a 30 minute or so section of a video game. And you get to the end of the level, a small village, and finally you get your air support.

And then you play as the air support. It is cold, it is clean, it is somehow non-organic. You shoot down at little white blobs of men and trucks and houses. You’re told early on to shoot anything that isn’t flashing – the good guys have beacons that make them flash – and anything that isn’t the village’s church, where your targets are streaming out of. To anyone watching it is nearly indistinguishable from that “luckiest truck driver in Baghdad” video, and others like it. Running the game side by side with similar footage yields frightening results. As you shoot down – using a caliber of ammunition far larger than necessary – the voices in your ear (the pilot, spotter, and other military personnel) call out your shots calmly. “There’s a runner…. There he goes. Bam, you got him.” “There’s three of them over there. Adjust 34 degrees. Take ‘em out.” “Wow, you were within two feet of that one. Good shot.” These are the voices of men who might be shooting paper targets, not ending human lives. As the level ends one of them laughs: “This is gonna make for one hell of a highlight reel!”

If you thought for a second that this was an endorsement of military action, then I don’t know what to say. Maybe it was because you were only watching not playing. Maybe if you were playing you would’ve felt the uneasiness, the guilt, of shooting these polygons and textures on your screen. There is something eerie about what happens here. Something antithetical to much of the game’s cinematic, “bad ass” feel – this is subtle and quiet and jarring in a way scene’s in Schindler’s List are, or the sometimes sparse, disconnected chapters of The Grapes of Wrath are. Except, again, Infinity Ward is playing on the medium. You pull the trigger; you have to if you want to beat the game. And even though you would know this, I’d bet you’d regret firing, and be put off kilter by the tone and words of those in the gunship with you. This is an indictment of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil in its fullest, in a way that only a video game could provide. You become (just as you did in Bioshock) the man who keeps the trains running on time.

This game is rated M for Mature due to its “blood and gore, intense violence, and strong language.” Let me submit to you that it is rated M for Mature in the same way that last year’s Scorcese masterpiece The Departed was rated R for Restricted. There’s plenty of technical reasons why it was rated that (mostly for the same reasons that CoD4 was rated Mature, but also for sexual content), but even if you remove those things, even if you lower the intensity and frequency of the cursing and the violence and the nudity down to a PG-13 level, The Departed is a movie for mature people. As a consumer and a critic I’m willing to accept that Call of Duty 4 is a game for mature people in the same way. That without the context of the world we live in, CoD4 is “just a shoot ‘em up.” But with maturity comes the ability to place CoD4 in our world, just as we can place The Departed (or for that matter Hamlet, which The Departed shares many of its core themes with) in it.

I’m not sure if your son and his cousin’s had the worldview necessary to “get it.” Hell, I’m not sure a lot of the game’s community “got it.” In fact, I’m not even certain that some of the game’s developers got it – after all, the game after ‘Death from Above’ returns to its cinematic glory, and never really touches on these issues again (despite being a masterpiece of single player FPS action.) My advice to you Ralph is to pick up the controller yourself, play through it. I think you’ll “get it” the way I did.

EDIT: I posted this as a comment on Kotaku, and it generated some responses. I ended up responding, and feel that it should go here too. You can click here to read the comment I'm responding to.

@Garro: I really don't have time for a full comment, but let me echo Witzy and DV8Good by saying that we all appreciate discourse and that I like your comment, you definitely put some thought into it.

A core difference, one to reflect on here, between you and I is that we have different theories of authorial meaning and intention. A very common topic in philosophy of literature and the modern study of rhetoric and language is whether or not the author's intent determines the meaning. Two examples stand against this plainly.

The first is Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. L. James Hammond writes: The chief character in The Idiot is Prince Myshkin. "The main idea of the novel," said Dostoyevsky, "is to depict the positively good man," and Myshkin is that man. Myshkin is a Christ figure - honest, ingenuous, indifferent to wealth and to physical pleasure. Myshkin is a very attractive character indeed. Whether or not Dostoyevsky succeeded in 'depicting the positively good man,' he deserves credit for making the attempt. [] However, Dostoyevsky himself would later claim to have failed at this, his sincere intent.

A second, less specific example is this: imagine a sculptor sets out to create the most wonderful thing - a perfect statue replica of a green Schweppes Ginger Ale bottle. He does his best, but when it finishes, it resembles a coke bottle, and is red. For one, he just wasn't as skilled as necessary, and another, he had only red clay. These things limit us in our creation.

As such, one can build the argument (and many have) that when we are creating things we are often working inside the confines of this reality we are in, and therefore our creations tend to reflect truths of our world, or at the very least truths that we believe. This is how most modern comparative literature and literary theory operates. It's how we can say "Well, Hamlet really 'gets at' the notion of being vengeful" or even "Man, Rick Ross really seems to know a thing or two about Hustlin'." More importantly we can say things like "Gojira really gets at the heart of the nature vs science argument," even if the author's may have intended it as a scathing argument against the US in WWII, or against Japan's westernization, or any of the other proposed "meanings" assigned to the early monster movie.

To be clear, even I as a "liberal civilian" do not see the "bad guys" in this game as anything less than that. In fact my intent in the original post was to emphasize that dealing with them was very Hollywood "evil bad guy" and not well fleshed out etc., but perhaps I too failed at my intended meaning. But in "Death From Above" the men you are killing are still human, and when guys around YOU the player are killed they are the same, except IW did the (very cool) thing of giving them all names, so you feel it even if Pvt. Jenkins who has no lines takes a dive.

The heart of it is, they have (intentionally or not) revealed how shitty war is. The end of Shock and Awe DOES highlight the amazing, frightful power of nuclear weapons. And "Death from Above" does put you in the seat of a very calm killer. I don't need to argue that they intended to show that war is hell, I only need to argue that what they've produced can stand alone in arguing that war is hell, and I believe that it does.