It’s Time for War Shooters to Invade New Territory
We’ve stormed enough French beaches in 'Call of Duty' and countless others
The Call of Duty video game franchise has certainly gone on a wild journey. It started as a historical shooter that bounced around in perspective allowing players to see World War II through the eyes of American, British and Russian soldiers. This somehow gave way to Kevin Spacey and cyborgs.
But now Call of Duty is taking the franchise back to its roots with Call of Duty: World War II. We’re going to storm Normandy … again.
There was a time when Call of Duty and Medal of Honor dominated the shooter market with stories grounded in World War II combat. Studios wanted in on the action—some with more success than others. Gearbox’s Brothers in Arms stood out in particular for the way it depicted World War II small-unit action, even being adopted by West Point for a time as a training aid.
But eventually, the genre became stale—after all, how many times can we storm the beaches of Normandy? Much of these games began to feel like interactive episodes of Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan as we began fighting the same battles all over again.
That’s not to say there has never been anything different. Expansion packs took us to Italy and North Africa. There was also a brief surge of Vietnam games of inconsistent quality—though some, like Vietcong, were gems if rough around the edges.
Call of Duty: World at War tried something different by introducing gruesome reminders of some of the uglier aspects of “the good war,” but the developers did an awkward job. The Red Army stormed into Berlin, decorated with the hanged bodies of German deserters, to blaring electronic music.
After the credits concluded with a tribute to the men and women who died in history’s bloodiest conflict, players were immediately greeted with Nazi zombies, which have become a staple of the franchise.
Since then, Call of Duty has become the king of first-person shooters with its over-the-top antics, and the return to 1940s Europe is visually spectacular. The landing at Omaha Beach has never looked so vivid in a video game. But the setting is well-worn territory.
There have been a few other minor controversies. The game is set to have playable female characters in multiplayer—which some gamers have criticized as historically inaccurate. But this is Call of Duty we’re talking about, and questions of historicity in video games are often agenda driven—hence the lack of gamer backlash at zombie Nazis, for crying out loud.
The main single-player storyline will focus on a squad of American soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division and will follow them from D-Day all the way into Germany’s Hürtgen forest. It will occasionally veer off to show the war through the eyes of other characters. The developers noted that a French resistance member—a woman—will be playable during the liberation of Paris.
Some commentators have complained that this is political correctness and forced diversity, even though French women indeed took part as combatants during the liberation of Paris and other French guerrilla operations. On the other side of the debate, commentators have complained that these side characters represent tokenism and that the focus is still on white men—and that the game doesn’t go far enough to be diverse.
Of course, the 1st Infantry Division of the 1940s was an American combat unit before the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces, so it’s not surprising that the game would largely focus on white men, who comprised nearly 90 percent of the Army in 1945. It’s also worth noting that “white” American units still regularly included Hispanic, Asian and Native American troops who were not subject to segregation—having a character or two to reflect that reality shouldn’t be offensive to anyone.
But that does reveal something about the way video games, and truthfully the entertainment industry as a whole, has viewed World War II. There has been a narrow focus even though there is an enormous amount of untapped subject matter to explore. There are almost endless stories of men and women of all colors and backgrounds. It was a world war.
In fairness, I’m not trying to beat up on Call of Duty. The franchise has done better than many of its contemporaries in terms of showing different aspects of the war and had a comparatively diverse set of protagonists. Call of Duty: Finest Hour includes Tanya Pavlovna, a female sniper on the Russian front and Sam Rivers, a black American tanker fighting to liberate the the Belgian town of Tillet.
While Call of Duty 3 centered on the often-repeated Normandy invasion, it broadened the scope. The game’s two lead characters were British and American, but it also included Canadian and Polish troops who tend to get overlooked in retellings of the campaign.
The developers of Call of Duty: World War II have pointed out that there’s a generation of younger players—who didn’t grow up with first historic shooter wave or with Band of Brothers—who might be seeing these battles for the first time. And they’re right. But why not use that as an opportunity to show more?
For instance, there has been no major adaptation to my knowledge of the Aleutian Campaign in which Japanese forces invaded part of Alaska. American troops fought bloody hand-to-hand battles with Japanese troops in the frigid winter during the Battle of Attu. Or what about Japanese-American troops of the 442nd—the most decorated unit in U.S. history—fighting in Italy?
Call of Duty and Medal of Honor have on occasion taken us to North Africa—but never to East Africa. We could experience the battle between Ethiopian patriots and their Italian occupiers. A war game could put the player in the role of a Ghurka wielding a legendary Kukri knife. Why not storm through the jungles of Burma with the British Indian Army as they fight tooth against the enemy and the elements?
How about watching the 1937 fall of Shanghai through the eyes of a Chinese infantryman following orders from a German military adviser? A game could even take us back to Normandy, but viewed through the eyes of a Korean conscript who was unfortunate enough to become caught between the mighty armies in Europe.
Some cynics could argue that not focusing on a recognizable campaign might hurt sales. Doubtful. Call of Duty is a brand in-and-of-itself and the games are annual events. It’s an opportunity that gives developers tremendous leeway to explore history’s most destructive conflict.
Battlefield 1 proved this point. It took on World War I—which Hollywood and the gaming industry have largely left alone—and opened with the exploits of the all-black New York National Guard regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Crazy! The game sold more than 14 million copies. More please.
If the game is fun to play, there’s no reason we can’t have one that takes us into the Spanish Civil War or warlord-era China. Or, maybe someone can finally tackle Korea—the sprawling world-changing war that pop culture inexplicably left behind ages ago. Pop culture doesn’t have to return to the same French beaches every time.