Call of Duty WWII: A Character Study

Alright, it’s time to mix it up a little. I’ve been going through the Call of Duty games, and now we’ve got our first full Sledgehammer production: Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. I’m not actually sure I want to start with this one, though – I played through it a couple times, and I just wasn’t quite sure about it. Not like I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, I just didn’t quite have a good enough sense of what it was trying to do. There was a vision in there that I wasn’t totally grasping. Fortunately, I picked up the next Sledgehammer game – Call of Duty: WWII – and things fell into place. The creative voice became really clear, the kinda artistic vision and so on, and – yeah, it’s good shit. So I want to start with WWII, because I think it’s a better point of reference. It feels like the first fully-formed Sledgehammer game – I think Advanced Warfare was still sanding down some of those rough edges. We’ll start with WWII, and then go back to Advanced Warfare, see if we can’t pick up some of those early threads and show how they developed through into the storytelling techniques of WWII.

Let’s start with the big picture then. When you’re dealing with games about the world wars, there’s certain types of narrative that keep cropping up. In World War One stories, you get the tragedy of war kinda thing – I’ve got a couple other WW1 games on the go, actually (Valiant Hearts: The Great War and 11-11 Memories Retold), and both of them show decent, kind individuals on both sides. Those games are about senseless conflict and how it was all really sad and wasteful and people just kinda got fucked. Then you have the WW2 games, and they’re about Nazis. They’re about good and evil, heroes and villains, and the fight for freedom against encroaching waves of death and the totalitarian state (think Wolfenstein, for instance, or Call of Duty: World at War). In that context, Call of Duty: WWII is interesting in that it doesn’t really focus on the Nazis. From watching the trailer, you’d kinda get the impression that WWII is a game about saving your Jewish buddy who got captured. Really it’s about your team – it’s about leaders, and their flaws, and it’s about what it means to let people down. Where most video games about the wars end up being essentially commemorative pieces, this game is less about the war itself and more about how the war reveals the character of these soldiers. Based on story alone, I’d rate Call of Duty: WWII the best of the series to date. It’s not necessarily the most fun to play, and Modern Warfare probably has a slicker narrative structure, but WWII has the bolder vision. It sets itself up as a character study. That’s a big play from a series better known for long-form propaganda.

So – alright, let’s talk turkey. One thing that WWII is really good at is the reveal. Throughout the whole game, protagonist Ronald Daniels (‘Red’) monologues to his absent older brother, Paul. Paul is obviously an inspirational figure for Red, who wants to act in such a way as would make his brother proud. Early on, this motivation is explained to us. We see a flashback where Red failed to save his brother from a wolf attack in the woods. He was too scared to pick up his gun and shoot this wolf that was mauling his brother – which, you know, fair enough, wolves are scary. Paul ends up killing the wolf anyway, and then he limps away on Red’s shoulder. So Red clearly has this whole mindset of not wanting his brother to be disappointed; in that context, the war serves as a staging ground for him to work through those issues. He’ll be able to act in a brave way and make up for disappointing his brother in the past. That in itself, by the way, is a solid set-up for a story. It’s such a basic premise, and I shouldn’t be so excited about it, but fuck, man, I’ve played so many games that can’t even get those foundations right that it’s a fucking dream when it actually happens.

And then, near the climax of the game, you get a second flashback. You’re out trying to save your Jewish bud from the Nazis (it does happen, briefly, right at the end), and you see this extended version of what happened with Paul. There’s the wolf, Paul kills it, he start limping away on Red’s shoulder, and then he collapses and dies. And just like that – click – everything changes. You realise that Red isn’t motivated by shame, but by guilt. That’s a really significant revelation, and it changes how you think about his character. Guilt is like ‘ah fuck I did something dumb and I feel bad,’ while shame is ‘ah fuck they saw me do something dumb and I feel bad.’ (I talk about that distinction at more length over here; it’s from the first year of the blog, so it’s a less developed kinda style, although I do use the phrase ‘you fucking walnut’ – I think that has to count for something.) Anyway: in that moment, we come to a deeper understanding of how Red thinks. We mature in our understanding of his psychology; where previously we saw shame, now we see guilt. It’s not that he wants his brother’s approval, it’s that he’s trying to deal with the knowledge that his inaction got his brother killed. We come closer to the heart of who he is as a person. Following that revelation, there’s a climactic scene where you shoot a Nazi to save your bud. It’s a really obvious parallel: where before you failed to use your gun, this time you succeed. You overcome your guilt by reliving the past in this new context and making right what you previously got wrong. Beautiful. Roll credits.

So the reveal serves as a really great mechanism for this kind of character study. It gives you this process of entering deeper into the character as you move further through the story, which is basically congruent with our experience in real life. You hang out with people, you get to know them, you move past their exteriors and surfaces and towards the core of their personality. We’ve all had that moment where someone says or does something revealing, and suddenly you’re able to understand them a whole lot better. It’s just a little insight into their head, and it allows you to recontextualise their behaviour because you better understand what motivates them. In WWII, the reveal dramatises that process within a fictional work. It’s the core technique driving the character study. And it’s really nice to see a Call of Duty game, of all the fucking things, running this sort of clean, solid, dependable narrative design. It’s good shit.

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