Narrative brilliance and social irrelevance in Call of Duty 4

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I recently played all the way through the Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare single player campaign and, upon completing it, I felt two significant emotions. Firstly, I was filled with elation stemming from the fact that I had completed a videogame which, through use of multiple characters and refusal to leave the first-person perspective, had crafted one of the most intelligent and emotionally involving plots I’d ever seen in a military-based FPS. Secondly, I felt a great deal of disappointment and irritation that such a plot was wasted on a totally apolitical, socially irrelevant plot which was — let’s be honest — fiction to its very bones.

Instead of dealing with the Iraq War using the same multi-perspective storytelling conceit of the previous Call of Duty games, CoD4 chose instead to tell the story of a more or less completely fictional war against completely fictional baddies with a completely fictional sense of black-and-white morality. The battles presented in Modern Warfare don’t recreate or parallel the ambiguous skirmishes of the Iraq War; they take place within a “War on Terror” which doesn’t actually exist  — within the world of Call of Duty 4, there really are evil Muslims and Russians in the Middle East armed with nuclear weapons.

The question is, then, does brilliant storytelling and use of videogame-specific mechanics in telling it make up for the fact that the narrative itself is a morally simplistic work of total fiction?

Hit the jump for clarification of the question, and a possible answer. Enormous spoilers follow.

Narrative brilliance

Call  of Duty 4 had a hell of a lot of time and money spent on it, and it shows in many of its major visual setpieces. Whether you’re running out of a sinking ship, experiencing a helicopter crash from the inside, or watching a nuclear weapon explode a hundred miles away, CoD4 throws consistently gorgeous and immersive visuals at the player throughout every single one of the missions. The player never leaves the first-person perspective, so one really gets the feeling of literally being inside a major Hollywood blockbuster.  Half Life Episode Two’s scripted sequences were better, of course, but Call of Duty 4 gets closer to achieving Valve’s brilliance with first-person-only cinematic setpieces than any other game I’m aware of.

Oh, and the musical score is also one of the best I’ve ever experienced in a videogame, ever. It perfectly matches the epic, heroic tone of the visuals, and it improves nearly every scripted sequence tenfold by its presence. So, there’s that.

These visual and aural treats go to waste, however, if they aren’t implemented in a reasonably dramatic or meaningful way. Thankfully — and surprisingly — Call of Duty 4 does not disappoint in this regard.


When most games show you something visually interesting but irrelevant to gameplay through the eyes of a quasi-controllable character (here, “quasi-controllable” meaning the player has the ability to at least move the character’s head around to get a look at his surroundings), there are a few things you can take for granted:  firstly, that when you see these impressive things, they’re through the eyes of a character whom you have been, or will be, controlling for a very long time, through combat and puzzle solving and adventure (a la Gordon Freeman); secondly, that the pretty but gameplay-irrelevant thing you’re watching is serving as a sort of reward for fighting through hordes of monsters or soldiers. Even Valve refers to their visual setpieces (or “Vistas”) as a tangible treat to the player for surviving. After the player fights through the City 17 underground and finally makes it to the surface, he is rewarded with a breathtakingly epic view of the decaying Combine Citadel and the ruined city surrounding it. The scene, in and of itself, has no real effect on the story outside of visually rewarding the player for a job well done.

Not so with Call of Duty 4.

Two scenes in particular stick out in my mind when I think of CoD4’s Vistas: the presidential execution, and the nuclear explosion. With these two scenes, Call of Duty 4 literally changes the definition of player death in videogames.

Generally, we tend to look at death as either a momentary setback resulting from a failure to zig when you should have zagged, or as a ballsy method of adding a little extra shock and dramatic value to a game’s ending (Mafia and Apocalypse come to mind). Player death is either temporary and therefore meaningless, or permanent but only implemented at the very, very end of a game — and even then, the death is usually delivered through cut scenes rather than gameplay.

In Call of Duty 4, however, the player experiences two levels where his goal — his only goal, which cannot be circumvented under any circumstances — is to die.

In the game’s (more or less) opening scene, the player takes the perspective of Yasir Al-Fulani, deposed president of Unnamed Middle Eastern Country. As the opening credits roll, the player is driven through the streets of Unnamed Middle Eastern Country to view the violent, savage results of the recent military coup. Guarded by two terrorists with AK-47s, the player understands that the entire car ride is merely a prelude to what will ostensibly be a full-blown action level. “After I get out of the car,” the player assumes, “I’ll get a gun and kill these bastards.”

Eventually, the car arrives at its destination: a stadium-cum-terrorist base, where one of the game’s main villains (Khaled Al-Asad) is broadcasting a message to all the television stations in Unnamed Middle Eastern Country. “Okay,” the veteran FPS gamer assumes. “It’s gunfight time.”


The player is led from the car by two soldiers. Al-Asad’s militaristic speech reaches a loud climax. The player enters the stadium and sees — a bloodied wooden pole, jutting up from the ground. Suddenly, something seems off. Something seems wrong. I should have gotten a gun by now. The player is led to the wooden pole and handcuffed to it as Al-Asad pulls out a pistol the size of a human femur. Realization begins to dawn on the player. This is why he doesn’t have a gun. This is why he’s looking through the eyes of a character with no military training.

Al-Asad makes one final statement to the camera. He turns to the player, cocks his gun, aims it…and fires.

The player is dead.

But the game continues.

Granted, this first level is not without its problems  — the way the player is informed as to the identity of his character (through a loading screen cut scene) feels lazy and awkward, and literally 60% of the car ride consists of the player watching groups of innocent civilians being gunned down by the military, over and over and over — but in forcing the player to experience the last few minutes of a man’s life through his own eyes, CoD4 turns everything we’ve come to expect from FPS storytelling, and game structure in general, on its head. It gives us an entire level without action gameplay, purely for the purposes of telling the story and developing the villains.

But if the presidential execution was pretty good, the nuclear explosion segment is nothing short of brilliant.

Around the game’s midpoint, the player takes command of Sgt. Paul Jackson, a US Marine. As Jackson, he spends numerous missions capping terrorists, chasing Al-Asad, and generally acting exactly how you’d expect a heroic US soldier would act in a high-profile military FPS.

At one point, Jackson and his men are about to leave Unnamed Middle Eastern Country’s capital city when they witness a stray RPG hit one of their Cobra helicopters. In what basically amounts to a Cliffs’ Notes of Black Hawk Down, Jackson and his men land, save the chopper’s pilot, and fly away to safety.

Sort of.

Once they’re in the air, Jackson gets a message from command: Al-Asad has planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in UMEC City, and his team has to get out of there as soon as they ca–


The nuke explodes with roughly half a dozen US helicopters still in the blast radius. A mushroom cloud erupts over UMEC City, and the EMP disables Jackson’s helicopter. Jackson — the player — is forced to watch helplessly as the helicopter pilot he just took so much trouble to save flies violently out the back of the helicopter, falling hundreds of feet to her death. The chopper goes into a tailspin and careens toward the ground.

Impressive looking and kinda scary, yeah, but chopper and/or plane crashes are Call of Duty’s stock and trade. I’ve lost count of how many “Oh crap our plane is hit we’re going down” scripted sequences the franchise has implemented during its run, all of which have ended the same way: the plane crashes, you get out, enemies stream to your location, you have to fight your way out. Rinse, repeat.

At first, CoD4’s crash seems no different; the chopper crashes, Jackson’s view goes dark, and the next loading screen reveals that not only is Jackson the only survivor of the crash (“How unrealistic,” I scoffed to myself upon seeing this), but that the player will indeed be controlling him for the next mission.


The mission begins and Jackson’s vision fades in: he’s still in the downed helicopter. His fluctuating heartbeat is the only thing which can be heard over the wind. His vision fades out, fades in, the colors change.

The player inches forward on his belly, and eventually flops awkwardly out of the chopper onto the ground. This is the moment where they player expects to be able to stand up, so he does. The player attempts to walk, but finds that his movement is extremely slow and wobbly. Again, nothing unusual yet — the player expects to start moving at his normal speed any moment now, at which point he’ll get his gun back and be able to personally kill the bastards who downed his chopper and killed the pilot he tried to save.

But a few seconds pass, and the player doesn’t get his strength back. He continues to wobble slowly, never gaining his balance, never moving at the speed he’s used to. The player now assumes that perhaps he has to move somewhere or look at something in order to initiate the next scripted sequence which will give him full use of his body again: there’s no reason they’d let me play as Jackson if I didn’t have to do something, right?

At this moment, the player walks around, examining the bodies of his dead comrades, viewing the destruction of the nuke, desperate to find whatever object or character will help him get to the next bit of gameplay.

Suddenly, his vision goes blurry.

Blackness creeps in from the edges of the screen.

The player moves even slower for a few moments, before falling to the ground altogether.

Everything goes white.

Another loading screen appears.

What just happened? The loading screen suddenly informs the player that Sgt. Jackson has just been killed in action. Once again, the player has died — because he was supposed to.

These two scenes accomplish numerous things, all related to redefining death in videogaming as we know it. The sequences prove that death can be an important means of eliciting player emotion, rather than acting as a temporary setback. They make the player hate the two main villains even more, adding a greater sense of weight to the actual gameplay. Since the player has played through part of the game as these characters, since the player has looked through their eyes as they died, by completing the game the player is, in a sense, not only avenging the deaths of the individual characters, but avenging his own death.

Additionally, the player becomes terrified that any character he controls, at any point, could potentially be killed by powers beyond his control. After Jackson died, I played through Soap’s campaign frequently petrified that he — that we — could be killed by the narrative at any time. I had never before experienced this feeling in a videogame. Ever.

It is this fear which makes the game’s final moments so incredibly powerful and satisfying. When a Russian chopper blows away your cover and you’re forced to helplessly watch Imran Zakhaev execute each and every one of your teammates, the player is meant to draw a mental parallel between the previous interactive death scenes, and the situation he currently finds himself in: this is exactly how the other scenes worked, and I died at the ends of those scenes, so it’s entirely possible that I might die here despite all my hard work. When Captain Price slides Soap a pistol, however, the player gets the chance to regain the control he had lost in the previous scenes; once the gun is in the player’s hands, the player becomes empowered to avenge his own deaths in the earlier scenes, and immediately does so with great relish. Zakhaev dies, and the player’s ability to escape the pattern of necessitated-death cut scenes makes Zakhaev’s defeat that much more satisfying.

I’m not sure if the CoD guys will implement these interactive death sequences in any subsequent games — admittedly, they won’t be as shocking the second time around — but I truly hope these become a new staple of the franchise.

Social Irrelevance

But with all that said, are such brilliant narrative ideas wasted on an essentially irrelevant plot? Not irrelevant in the sense that it’s not emotionally affecting or exciting (it is, of course), but in that it has almost nothing to say about the world, or war in general — mainly because it isn’t actually about a war.


Now, why is it important that Call of Duty 4’s plot be relevant? Why can’t it just be a fun, exciting action romp? Ignoring the fact that imbuing games with meaning is, you know, meaningful, there’s also the matter of precedent.

Every previous Call of Duty game has covered a real war and, to an extent, real battles of war. Granted, they were all about the same war, and their stories were somewhat fictionalized, but their stories were still grounded in a sort of reality — a reality which not only made them marginally more interesting, but made the player think about the nature of WWII and the types of men who died in it or survived through it. Its war quotes made us question heroism, sacrifice, and battle, thanks to the fact that players felt like they were playing through something which really happened.

The problem with Call of Duty 4 is that it tells a completely fictional story of a completely fictional war against completely fictional terrorists. Yeah, the very end of the story includes some interesting critiques of the media and the world governments when the Russian government classifies all the events of the game as “tests” and “leadership struggles” — but when you get right down to it, the plot is still just a really epic episode of 24.

Terrorists steal a bunch of nukes, and the Good Guys have to go get them back and kill the Baddies. Open and shut, black and white. Interestingly, the plot actually invalidates a lot of the prerelease concerns many gamers and politicians may have had: the arcade-style missions, where the player is rewarded for racking up kill combos, aren’t so bad because you’re fighting faceless and totally evil enemies. Similarly, the plot doesn’t trivialize war, because it isn’t about war. It’s about supporting counter-terrorism, which is essentially a meaningless stance: not only because of how obvious it is in theory (no one would call themselves pro-terrorist any more than a rational person would call themselves pro-Nazi), but because of how meaningless the phrase has become due to the Iraq War. What’s the difference between a “terrorist” and an “insurgent?” A “freedom fighter” versus a “bad guy?” The game doesn’t care about these questions.

Call of Duty 4 is about a simple, straightforward fight against an unambiguously evil enemy. It isn’t about insurgents fighting for ambiguous ideals, or the difficulties of trying to impose democracy on people, or the generally grey morality of the Iraq War. In many ways, Call of Duty 4 gives gamers a virtual representation of what George W. Bush imagines the real war in Iraq to be: the baddies are really bad, the good guys are really good, and the brown people always have weapons of mass destruction.


Now, this sort of historical simplicity may have worked for WWII, considering our chronological distance from it and the relatively clear-cut evil of Hitler and everything he stood for, but this black and white representation of current world events just doesn’t cut it. Call of Duty 4 says it’s about war, but it really isn’t;  it claims to tell the stories of today’s soldiers, but it really doesn’t.

The reasoning for this is obvious: they wanted Call of Duty 4 to be fun, so they didn’t bog it down with, you know, real issues. The wonderful, emotionally devastating interactive death sequences certainly inform the player as to the horrors of nuclear warfare and of evil terrorists murdering unarmed presidents, but that’s simply not the global climate we find ourselves in today.

However, these two contrasting tendencies — to say you’re talking about war, but then remove all the social, political, and philosophical ambiguities behind it — combine to form one of the game’s most singularly (perhaps unintentionally) realistic, affecting, and disturbing levels.

After the player reaches a certain point  near the middle of the game as Soap (an SAS soldier), the perspective shifts to an unnamed gunner on a United States AC130 Gunship, which has been asked to provide support for Soap and his men.

The level derives much of its startling relevance from the fact that most gamers (or at least, most people who watch the news or spend a great deal of time on the Internet) have seen real footage from these same gunships deployed in Iraq. Everything about the appearance of the level, from the black and white thermal imaging, to the grainy visual quality, to the way the bullets kick up enormous clouds of dust and debris when they hit the ground, will immediately resonate with anyone who has seen real life footage of the gunships in action.

Hell, in the real gunship videos, gunner and pilot emotionlessly exchange congratulations and confirmation of every enemy taken down, in much the same way…well, in much the same way that gamers congratulate one another during cooperative play. This is also present in CoD4‘s gunship level, and it’s more than a little disconcerting.

To demonstrate, here’s a video of a real gunship on an attack run in Iraq:

And here’s a video from the Call of Duty 4 level:

The two are almost identical.

The numerous visual and technical similarities between these totally differing contexts can be really, really jarring. CoD4’s gunship level almost looks too realistic: one can easily imagine a gunner in Iraq thinking the exact same things the player is thinking, with the same sense of detachment and enjoyment. But the game wants the player to enjoy the experience guilt-free, as a fun little diversion from the otherwise static FPS gameplay: since the bad guys are truly evil characters, the experience is meant to be enjoyed rather than questioned. But considering its immense realism, and considering its definite parallels to real attacks carried out in Iraq, one who has previously seen real footage of the gunships cannot help but mentally connect the actual footage to the simulation in front of him. It is extremely easy to imagine yourself killing Iraqis rather than nameless, nationless terrorists, and the feeling of unease is definite.

Unintentionally, CoD4 includes a level of such odd contradiction, of such immediate social relevance, that it forces the player to reconsider that single level as more than just simple “fun.” The player sees the reality of the level, and emotionally reacts to it.

And it’s friggin’ great.


I felt so awkward about effortlessly firing round after round at the terrorists as they scrambled around, helpless to avoid my gunfire. I felt totally incapable of separating the images I was seeing with the images I’d seen of real Iraqis being killed. It made me question myself. It made me feel uncomfortable. Most of all, it made me think.

The question of whether or not Call of Duty 4 should have portrayed the truth of the Iraq War is not just one of responsibility, but of narrative and emotional quality. I had fun throughout the rest of Call of Duty 4 — I had a lot of fun — but no other part of the game forced me to re-examine my values in the way the gunship level did, and in a way ten times more relevant and immediate than the sort of soul-searching I engaged in during BioShock, or even Shadow of the Colossus. Without even knowing it, Infinity Ward told me more about the life of a gunner than all the news stations in the world.

With that in mind, is Call of Duty 4 missing something by not being set in the Iraq War? Personally, I would say yes. To combine Call of Duty 4’s frenetic, exhilarating pacing and action with the grey morality and ambiguous context of the Iraq War could have made for one of the most unusual, entertaining, emotional, thought-provoking, and relevant videogames ever made. I enjoy Call of Duty 4 for what it is, don’t get me wrong; there’s something to be said for the ability to excitedly mow your way through dozens of terrorists without worrying about the moral and political implications of what you’re doing. The context of the game’s action, while totally fictional, makes the epic moments much more heroically epic, and the gunfights much more entertaining.

Still, given the game’s wonderful attention to narrative detail, and the intensely conflicting emotions I felt during the gunship sequence, I can’t help but feel that Infinity Ward missed a real opportunity. I can only hope Call of Duty 5 moves out of the world of fiction, and shows us something we’ve never seen before in videogames: real life.

That’s just me, anyway: what do you think? Is it unrealistic or unfair to ask that Infinity Ward sacrifice fun for moral complexity? Would placing the series in the real Iraq War necessitate the games no longer be “fun,” or is there a way to marry social commentary with exciting action? If not, which is preferable? Hit the comments.

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