Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was revealed today, and perhaps the biggest message that Infinity Ward wants to send with it is that the latest Call of Duty is going to be dark. They want this game to make people uncomfortable. They want it to lean into those brutal realities of war and the moral grey areas that provoke a lot of deep thought. This isn’t supposed to be glorification or gratification, but a mature intensity. But one sentiment keeps coming up about this: Did Infinity Ward forget that this is a Call of Duty game?
Now that’s not to say that a Call of Duty game can’t tell a meaningful and emotional story, delivering a powerful narrative that really explores the dark cracks of war. And I’m not saying that Infinity War can’t be trusted to bring that to light. They started Call of Duty, after all. And they also delivered some of the most polarizing narrative beats in the Modern Warfare series.
What needs to be considered is something that Infinity Ward isn’t talking about yet, but that just about every Call of Duty is most well-known for: the multiplayer. Mutliplayer is designed to be “fun” for players. It’s designed for repetition. The goal of highlighting the uncomfortable realities of war and painting in those grey areas doesn’t really mesh well with the gratuitous “game” that is Call of Duty’s multiplayer mode. Presumably Modern Warfare will also enter the esports scene shortly after it launches, turning war into a sport.
I’ve got trust in Infinity Ward that they can handle the balance of these elements well. What I don’t trust is the players, but is it fair to put that responsibility in the hands of the developers? Based on the massive success of Call of Duty, we’re going to keep getting them year after year. So should the developers who want to try new things with the franchise be restricted just because its a popular AAA title that will go misunderstood by players that will just dive straight into multiplayer while calling their opponents awful names? Should Infinity Ward be held responsible for players who callously overlook that deeper emotional message they are trying to send in favor of racking up a K/D and nailing those headshots?
Modern Warfare isn’t the first time that these conversations have been brought up. Call of Duty: WWII by Sledgehammer got a lot of people talking about the glorification of the World War II setting for multiplayer combat, and even before that, people have always talked about how Call of Duty simply turns war into a game. When we take things down a path of more real, more dark, and more authentic, where do we draw the line between gritty message about modern-day war and the brainless first-person shooter that we’re playing. Maybe this right here is some of that grey area Infinity Ward talked about.
Can Infinity Ward change the hearts and minds of Modern Warfare players, creating a power fantasy that can be played on repeat, but that can also communicate the harsh realities that often go overlooked in multiplayer games? Is it even their responsibility to tackle that particular sentiment, or are the players themselves responsible for their own perception of the game?
I fully support the creative freedom that Infinity Ward is being given to craft a unique game under a franchise banner that many worry could be getting stale (lifetime sales charts bed to differ, however). The other option was to release yet another Call of Duty game that follows the basic formula and structure built on the foundation of all the ones that come before it. I’d much rather the studio take some risks to take the series in a direction it’s never been before, within the constraints of the Call of Duty name that investors love so much. Were this called anything other than Call of Duty, I think that some of the fuss surrounding the imbalance between authentic war narrative and the nature of multiplayer would effectively fade away.
While the artist does share some responsibility for how they portray their art, I put a lot of responsibility on players to balance their own fun with the game, while also realizing that there’s a deep and darker message lying just beyond the boundaries of that multiplayer map. If Infinity Ward can effectively deliver that message in this game, then it’s up to players to understand it. I feel like this is a conversation we’re going to continue having a lot in the future, especially as games reach a heightened realism, and a 14 year-old’s fantasies of war start brutally coming to life right in front of his eyes.
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