Call of Duty WWII: Imitation and Originality

Today I want to talk about the opening few minutes of Call of Duty WWII, right up to the first section of gameplay. Last week I suggested that most games about WWI and WWII are commemorative. It’s not something that’s restricted to games – take, for instance, some of the big tentpole movies about the world wars. Saving Private Ryan is framed by an elderly soldier in the modern day commemorating his fallen comrades, and Schindler’s List ends with Liam Neeson stepping out of his role as Schindler and placing a rose on the real Schindler’s grave. Schindler’s List even closes with text across the bottom of the screen, drawing explicit attention to the commemorative role of the film: “In memory of the more than six million Jews murdered.” Both Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty: WWII similarly deploy the text-across-screen practice, as seen in the images below. The first two are from World at War, and the second two from WWII. Note the change in estimates – 60 million changes to 65 (Wikipedia lists the deaths as ranging from 70 to 85, uhh, so somebody’s wrong) – and the repeated structure of ‘here are the numbers, it was the worst conflict in history.’

That very obvious repetition serves as the starting point for our conversation today. WWII has a good story, but it’s also too derivative to be anything more than good. It’s unarguably competent, in that it meets all the basic building blocks of a solid and capable story (in a way that most Call of Duty games literally just don’t), but it’s never going to make it higher than good. It’s never going to be considered great. In a lot of ways, it hews too closely to the texts that have come before it. The treatment of these commemoration cards is a really clear example of that; while World at War has its cards at the end, and WWII has its cards at the start, there’s a really clear overlap in terms of style and substance. So too the arc of the game – it starts at Normandy, shortly before the landing on Omaha Beach, imitating predecessors such as Saving Private Ryan or Company of Heroes. You have the whole beach-landing sequence, which follows the beats from Saving Private Ryan almost down to a T: the nerves on the landing craft, the gate goes down, everybody gets shot, somebody shouts to go over the side, and then up and onto the beach. Once on the beach, you get all the wounded, mutilated, shell-shocked soldiers wandering around missing an arm or whatever. You even get smaller, more specific imitations: compare the guy crossing himself in Saving Private Ryan (here, 1:42) to the guy doing the same in WWII (here, 4:28).

The question, then, is how WWII can be considered to have any narrative value amidst all this heavy-handed imitation. It’s not impressive to write the same story that somebody else already wrote, right down to very minor points of detail. It’s hack work, isn’t it? There’s two directions for a response here. The first would be to start a big fight about the definitions of originality and imitation and all the rest of it. We could take that avenue, but it’s kinda boring, to be honest. It’s a bit played out. We know all the key steps along the way – Shakespeare derived or adapted almost all of his plots from other works (or historical events), and he’s the greatest English writer of all time. It’s not an invalid argument, I just don’t want to have it. Instead, I want to move sideways a little bit. Let’s leave that whole question of imitation or originality. Wherever WWII might have sourced its narrative from, let’s focus on the ways in which WWII uses those narrative dynamics to achieve particular effects.

The first thing that’s worth looking at is the context that the work was produced in. My point of reference here would actually be Shakespeare again – obviously people are always doing versions of Shakespeare’s plays, and commonly they’ll update those plays into contemporary settings. You know, Julius Caesar made up to look like Trump or whatever. The context of a work helps to recalibrate the meanings of words or actions that might have already been depicted elsewhere. In the case of WWII, I think that’s precisely what’s going on. Regardless of how close or not-close the Omaha Beach sequence is to Saving Private Ryan, it’s interesting to see it specifically in the context of a Call of Duty game. In your typical Call of Duty, everyone is a bad-ass, and it’s just quips and hard men and bad-assery. By introducing the Omaha Beach sequence, WWII shifts our expectations. It’s in the same ballpark as genre subversion. Series subversion, maybe? We’ve gone from bad-ass mustachio stunts to a bunch of scared kids getting mowed down in a metal container. That’s a big shift in tone. It’s indicating a psychological depth and more serious attitude to war, which we haven’t really seen in the CoD games. So yes, it might be derivative, but it also exists in the context of the previous games in the series, and within that context, it’s actually pretty original.

The other thing I’d mention is the context of the scene within the game’s story. Let’s take a bit of a step back here. The game opens with the commemorative cards, as we’ve discussed. Then there’s some fuffle, and the next coherent scene is on the big transport ship (image above), where you’re waiting to go to the landing craft, which in turn serves as the start of the beach sequence. And this is actually a really interesting scene. It’s just a bit of goofing, a bit of character establishing, a bit of lad banter before they all go off to various violent deaths. In some ways, it’s a really gentle scene. It’s got an emotional range far beyond anything you’ve ever seen in a Call of Duty game. The guy in the middle, with the knife, is a Jewish character. The guy on the right lobs a bit of casual anti-Semitism his way, and knifey shrugs it off. That’s thoughtful writing. We’re in a WWII game, where hating Jews is specifically the character marker of the Nazis, the bad guys, and here’s one of your lot tossing out casual anti-Semitism. It just recalibrates our expectations. Yes, the game says, anti-Semitism is bad, but it’s not as simple as good people versus Nazis. Anti-Semitism was a widespread phenomenon throughout the West, including on the Allied side. It’s not a super intellectual highbrow point – it’s pretty straightforward, all things considered. But it’s definitely more nuanced than the boom boom Muslim bad approach that has dominated the Call of Duty games to date. It also complicates our understanding of all the events that follow. These characters are mid-twenties. They’re kids. They’re human and relatable, which is a fucking surprise. You lean in a little closer. Maybe they’re heroes that we can really come to like. And then one of them says something racist. You lean back out. Maybe not. And then they get on the landing craft, and a bunch of them die, killed by Nazi soldiers. Now how do you feel about them?

In that sense, the Omaha Beach scene is used as the culmination of a fast, clever narrative sequence. You meet these people, you’re lured in, they seem really decent, one of them does something that associates him with the people you’re going to fight in the name of decency and freedom (and that character doesn’t turn out to be a Secret Nazi, by the way; it never comes up again), and then the whole squad gets decimated. All of the aspects taken from Saving Private Ryan, derivative though they may be, are used to full effect in a deliberate, calculated, intelligent manner. They fit the story. The chaos of the beach is set against the homeliness of the boys on the boat. The gruesome dismemberment of bodies is a horrific echo of the knife game that Zussman (the Jewish character) was playing earlier. And the horror of the whole thing seems so much worse because of the quiet, thoughtful humanity that characterised the earlier scene. At that point, the charge of imitation doesn’t really seem as important. It’s true, sure, but I kinda don’t care. It’s competent. And if heavy imitation is what it takes for Sledgehammer to make a good story, I’m happy to live with that.

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