CoD WWII: Men and Machines

Introduction

Alright, here’s the big Call of Duty: WWII article. We’re going full fucking Lindsay Ellis on this one. We’re talking hour and a half deep dive analysis in five acts into something that’s probably not worth the critical attention I’m putting into it. We’ve talked before about how CoD: WWII is a story about the protagonist’s guilt. Red (our protagonist) was out hunting with his older brother, Paul, and failed to act decisively during a wolf attack, resulting in Paul’s death. World War 2 thus provides the emotional backdrop for Red’s redemption, his chance to prove himself as a man capable of acting to defend those in danger. His red-dead – nah, forget it.

So that’s one thing. Red’s character doesn’t develop heaps throughout the game, to be honest – he’s pretty static until the last couple levels. The rest of the game is taken up by the conflict between Lieutenant Turner and Sergeant Pierson, Red’s two superior officers. This is where things get interesting. Basically, Turner’s whole thing is about protecting his men, while Pierson’s whole thing is that they’re just cogs in a machine. Follow orders, and fuck the rest of it. Turner is the superior officer, and generally keeps Pierson in line, up until he’s killed at the end of Act 2, at which point Pierson is free to unleash his personal brand of hell upon the soldiers. That shift serves as the nadir of Act 3, the story’s lowest point. The climax from here is pretty predictable: Red encourages Pierson to pull himself back together, to start caring about his soldiers again, and then they run off and save their Jewish buddy, and Red returns home a hero, having redeemed himself by killing off the Nazi wolves. Cue curtain.

So that’s pretty good, as a narrative structure. All the key beats are there, although as I’ve said, the game is probably a little inflated in the first act to the detriment of Acts 2 and 3. The first act covers the first five missions, ‘D-Day’ through ‘Liberation’, with Acts 2 and 3 being three missions each, ‘Collateral Damage’ to ‘Hill 493’ and ‘Battle of the Bulge’ to ‘The Rhine’ respectively. I think my main point of criticism here is that the whole Turner-Pierson dynamic is just a little mismanaged. In the abstract, it’s a really strong relationship between these two characters. Structurally, from a top-down perspective – great stuff. In practice, though, there are a few scenes that are kinda clumsy and unclear. The delivery of these plot points hinders something that would otherwise have been genuinely excellent.

Men and Machines

So I’ll give you the good bits first, and then we’ll sit down and pick it to pieces and end up disappointed but with a better understanding of what they did and why it was almost really good. The big climactic scene between Turner and Pierson, where it all erupts into explicit violence, comes at the end of Act 2, right before Turner dies. The squad was meant to assault a Nazi stronghold – Hill 493, which is littered with defensive pillboxes and machine guns and all the other evil Nazi shit. Turner instructed Pierson to meet him at a rendezvous point, but – plot twist – Pierson ignored him and started fighting up the hill with some other dudes. Turner and his men rush in alongside Pierson, and then after you all take the hill, we get this scene:

Turner: How many casualties?
Pierson: We executed the mission.
Turner: How many?
Pierson: Our instructions were to take this hill.
Turner: You should’ve waited for us.
Pierson: There wasn’t time.
Turner: What about our men?
Pierson: We had orders!
Turner punches him.
Turner: To hell with our goddamn orders!
Pierson: You think I wanted any of this? We are cogs in a machine, Joseph. We start going our own way, the whole thing breaks down. When did you forget that?
Turner: These are men! Our men! When did you forget?
A pause.
Pierson: Those 150s are still firing on our position.
A longer pause.
Turner: Keep moving. We’re taking them out.

After that we get the end of the level, with its attending tank boss fight, and Turner’s unceremonious death. From there Pierson takes charge, makes Red his second in command, and the rest is history. To their credit, Sledgehammer Games do make an effort to maintain Pierson and Turner’s personalities outside of this one cutscene. When Turner dies, it’s because he’s too busy staring at a wounded Red to pay attention to the Nazis. His empathy for his men gets him killed. Similarly, throughout the whole game you’ve been hearing stories about Pierson’s actions at the Kasserine Pass. Allegedly, Pierson sacrificed a huge number of men to hold the pass. Details are a little unclear, but it seems to track with the ‘follow orders regardless of the human cost’ kinda vibe. It also tracks with Pierson’s destructive and uncaring attitude after Turner’s death – for instance, during the Battle of the Bulge a bunch of tanks come bearing down on you, and Pierson orders friendly planes to bomb your position, destroying the tanks but also risking the lives of you, Pierson, and all your collective men. Pretty solid storytelling on that front.

Alright, so here’s the other big twist – the Pierson reveal. Towards the end of the game, Red has the option of going home or going to save Zussman, his captured Jewish friend. That’s essentially his one moment of character development: he gets that choice and decides to keep fighting in the war. During that conversation, he complains to another superior about Pierson, citing Kasserine Pass, and is told that he’s misunderstood the situation. Pierson didn’t heartlessly sacrifice his men: really he was ordered to retreat, but disobeyed, trying instead to save some of his trapped soldiers. That attempt unfortunately resulted in a whole heap of other soldiers dying. Pierson thus becomes a more sympathetic character: he isn’t following orders because he’s an asshole, he’s just traumatized past the point of caring about individual lives. He was like Turner, and then he changed. He realised that he should have followed orders, should have relied on the military machine, and shouldn’t have disobeyed to do what he thought would protect his men – because it just got more people killed. So now, he believes in the machine, in the war effort, but not in the importance of individual people. But after that conversation, Red confronts Pierson, encourages him to believe in humanity again, they all go off inspired, and save ol’ Zussman from the Nazis. Cue curtain.

And again, in itself this is a pretty good narrative beat. That conflict between overarching mission and the importance of one individual life is a well-trod narrative path. It’s again something that Saving Private Ryan did. In fact, that’s the whole premise of that story: three brothers have died in the war, and a unit is sent to collect the fourth, on the grounds that his mother shouldn’t have to lose all four of her sons. It’s an affirmation of the dignity of individual human lives in the face of a war where the dead were measured in the millions. That’s not to say the film is purely idealistic: the soldiers sent to retrieve Ryan spend a bunch of time complaining about how it’s a waste of resources. And fair enough – in a strict numerical sense, lots of people die saving Private Ryan. Whatever victory they have is symbolic, not strategic. You could say that the specific wastefulness of their victory is exactly where the film’s idealism lies – it’s a sort of second-tier idealism, if you like. Ryan is saved in the name of humanity, in the name of giving a mother her last remaining son. He’s saved in the name of his kids, of his gawky family and their awkward fashion trends and their general lack of understanding of the trauma suffered by the soldiers who fought in the war. They fought and died so that teenage girls could waltz about with Nike backpacks and not really understand or appreciate any of it. It seems wasteful, and maybe that’s the point.

So you can’t really complain about the overarching story structure of CoD: WWII. It stands in good company. As I’ve suggested before, it’s probably quite heavy on the borrowing, but in this instance I’m fine with that. And that’s – what’s that, 1300 words? Okay. That’s the intro. That’s our setup. Now it’s time to complain. Take a breather, refill your canteen, and let’s get into it.

Turner’s Mission

We’ll start with a couple of plot points that I’m a little hazy on. If Pierson’s whole thing is obeying orders, why does he ignore Turner’s order to meet at the base of Hill 493? It’s not like Turner is avoiding going up the hill. He’s got a specific plan, and he gives Pierson his instructions, and then Pierson runs off and does his own thing. We’re retrospectively told after the fact that Turner might have been going off-mission to some extent – during his argument with Pierson (outlined in the previous section), he does explicitly say “To hell with our goddamn orders.” And in earlier moments, it’s been suggested that Turner is starting to buck against his instructions. In the introductory cutscene two missions earlier (‘Collateral Damage’), we see Turner in the background shouting at Pierson: “If I tell you to do it, it is the goddamn mission!” The build-up is clean, intelligent, and deliberate. The aftermath at the top of the hill is very explicit. But the actual act of disobedience is totally opaque. The key center moment, the culmination of Turner’s arc, is just totally unclear. It would’ve been very easy to add in an extra couple lines and signpost the whole thing in a really straightforward way. First, Turner gets ordered to go straight up the hill. You see him receive those orders. Then he says right, we’re going around the hill. His soldiers look at him funny, but do what they’re told. Then, later on, somebody questions his orders. Doesn’t have to be Pierson, could be any of the boys. Turner tells them to shut up. Then when the Pierson twist happens, it’s already obvious that Turner had gone off-mission to protect his men. Setup and payoff. Simple stuff. If you want players to believe that Turner was being disobedient in not directly assaulting the hill, show it to us. Don’t just say he was disobedient despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Let me just put this in perspective. While moving towards the hill under Turner’s guidance, you 1) get mortared, 2) watch a comrade get flamethrowered by a Nazi, 3) encounter a sniper in a tower who does his best to fuck you up, and 4) steal a barn off a pack of Nazis, including more snipers, a couple halftracks, and guys with bazookas. Which part of that list suggests Turner is trying to dodge his mission in order to keep his men alive?

Let’s talk further about that barn scene, actually. There’s a weird mismatch here between structure and content. Structurally, this is the moment of Pierson’s betrayal. Red and Turner are talking, and they’re not sure where Pierson is, and Red says hey, maybe he’s not coming, maybe he’s run off. Turner sticks up for Pierson – no no, he says, he’s coming, he’ll be here, just relax. They talk a bit more, Turner continues to defend Pierson, and then the news. Pierson has betrayed them! He’s disobeyed orders, gone up the hill without the rest of the squad. From a structural perspective, the content of Turner’s defence should be undermined by Pierson’s actions. That’s how this sort of betrayal maneuver is supposed to work. When Turner defends Pierson, Pierson is then meant to do something that invalidates Turner’s defence. But he doesn’t. In reality, Turner’s defence has very little to do with Pierson’s actions. Form and content don’t line up.

The problem here is twofold. First, everything Turner says about Pierson is fundamentally correct. Even though Pierson betrays him, Turner is still right on all counts. Really that’s just wasted potential. When we’ve got a betrayal, we want to know why it happened. We want to get an insight into where Turner went wrong. What was his mistaken assumption about Pierson? How could he have misread things so badly? Red correctly suspects Pierson of insubordination, but Turner, also correctly, tells him that his reasons are wrong, and that he doesn’t appreciate the situation Pierson was in. So Red has the right answer but got there in the wrong way, and Turner understands more about Pierson’s background but is also wrong about Pierson’s current actions. It’s very mixed messaging, especially when the alternative seems pretty straightforward. Turner should have come out and said that he trusts Pierson to care for the lives of his soldiers, and then it should have turned out that no, actually, Pierson doesn’t care, and he’d run up the hill and got a bunch of his soldiers killed. There’s Turner’s mistake. Easy. Clean.

The second part of the problem is that Turner’s defence of Pierson kinda exists on a level above Red’s pay grade. Red initiates the man vs machine debate that Turner subsequently continues with Pierson. But instead of engaging with Red and revealing his true feelings, thus setting up the emotional heart of the betrayal that’s about to happen, Turner dodges and pulls rank. He says that leadership is hard, that there are only bad options, and that Red shouldn’t judge Pierson. It’s very Job 38 – “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” Turner tells Red “You just pray you’re never in that position,” suggesting that Pierson made an impossible moral decision, and that Red’s making a judgement about something he couldn’t possibly understand. But then, when Turner and Pierson have their argument, Turner is extremely critical, despite having just said that you can only pray that you’re never in Pierson’s position.

Ugh. It should’ve been really simple. In theory, it should’ve gone like this:

  • Red claims that Pierson doesn’t care about his men (he’s too mechanistic, too focused on the mission-at-all-costs).
  • Turner disagrees, saying that Pierson actually does care about his men.
  • Betrayal! Pierson doesn’t care, and Turner was wrong, and half the men are dead.
  • Turner berates Pierson for not caring about his men, with the added emotional sting that Pierson betrayed Turner’s trust specifically on this issue.

Instead, what we get is:

  • Red says Pierson doesn’t care about his men
  • Turner tells Red he’s wrong and that leadership is hard
  • Pierson betrays Turner, and doesn’t care about his men, but Turner wasn’t really talking about that, so there’s a weird mismatch, and also Turner’s actually correct about how Pierson was previously in a tough situation even though he’s betrayed the squad in this current situation, so whatever I guess
  • Turner shouts at Pierson for making a moral decision that, moments earlier, Turner was reverently describing as unjudgeable.

It’s a lot more difficult than it needs to be. The problem here is that they’re trying to hint at the ‘Pierson actually has good reasons for how he is’ reveal, but they’ve chosen to do that at a moment where they should be unleashing the full negative impact of Pierson’s behaviour. It’s squeezing too much into the one moment.

An Aside

I just want to take a little moment here to note something small. Just a little thing – but it’ll set up the last part of our analysis. After Turner’s death, Red is promoted to Corporal. But in the hospital scene, which happens well after Turner’s death, one of Red’s superiors refers to him as ‘Private’. Now, we’ve got two options around how we interpret this moment. On the one hand, this particular superior has always been a bit aloof. Big on speeches, not big on the lives of his men. Maybe his mistake is meant to show that he really doesn’t care about his soldiers – that he’s even getting their rank wrong. Alternately, maybe the writers made a goof and just didn’t catch it. There’s not really any way to tell. It could be a subtle and intelligent way of communicating character, or it could be a fumble. Your judgement will probably depend on how good you think the developers are. Are they smart enough to deliberately include that kind of detail? Or is their writing sloppy to the point where it’s more believably a mistake? In this last section, I want to touch on some issues that are in that same vein.

Pierson’s Decline

When Turner dies, Red saves himself by shooting the Nazi captain with Turner’s pistol. In the next scene, Red presents that pistol to Pierson, saying “Sir, I thought you might like this.” “You thought wrong,” Pierson replies. Pierson then performs his villain-reveal speech, where he unveils the full scope of his villainy and sets up the arc of the final act. He tells Red that they’re in “a whole new world,” and that he’s going to push his men as hard as he can and probably get a bunch of them killed achieving the mission. There’s a reference to Turner’s alleged disobedience (“I will not shrink or waver from my responsibilities in any way”), and a threat to Red to stay in line (“Anything less I will consider a dereliction”). All the ‘duty’ shit is a bit rich coming from the guy who disobeyed his commanding officer five minutes earlier – it would’ve been fine if they’d established that Turner was breaking from his mission, because then it would’ve been clear that Pierson was really following the army’s orders in spite of his rebellious boss – but they didn’t establish Turner’s thing properly, and so Pierson just comes across as a hypocritical shithead. It’s a compounding issue.

Nevertheless, in the scenes that follow, Pierson oscillates between traumatised leader, dogmatic cogs-in-the-machine nihilist, and absolute petty asshole. Your interpretation of the different modes will vary depending on how good (or bad) you think the writers are. Part of the confusion here is that they’re still saving up Pierson’s reveal. It’s only meant to be obvious later that Pierson was actually justified all along, or that he at least had some valid reasons for behaving how he behaved. The writers add in a few moments that actually come off really well, in my opinion. They perfectly hit that spot of ‘seems like a total villain move until you realise that he’s actually deeply traumatised’. For example, during a Christmas Eve sequence before the Battle of the Bulge, the lads are toasting to Turner’s memory. Pierson stumbles through, drunk, and sarcastically joins the toast. He runs a couple lines showcasing his finish-the-mission mentality, crowing about how the lads are going to be on the front lines doing dangerous work. He kicks over their fire, tries to pick a fight with Red, who’s now his second-in-command, and then stumbles out. Seems like a pretty straightforward villain sequence. However, there are hints of the trauma on the first run through (“Six years I served with that man. Six”), and by the second run you just feel sorry for him. It’s a tasteful, well-balanced scene that manages to transform evil villain into sympathetic traumatised soldier.

And then there’s some of the other stuff. The next morning, Stiles (one of the other soldiers) has some new boots, which he took off the corpse of a fellow soldier who froze to death. “If Pierson wasn’t so stingy with requisitions, I wouldn’t have to steal,” Stiles complains. That’s clearly a bad thing to do. It fits the first superficial reading of Pierson as evil villain. But it also fits the second reading of Pierson as traumatised finish-the-mission-er. It’s still not excusable, but it’s at least understandable. It’s interesting character development. Maybe Pierson’s not just a victim – maybe he also bears some responsibility for the shitty things that he does. That’s great. But then there’s the ammo thing.

During the same scene, Pierson turns up and orders Red to take a box of ammunition over to one of the other squads. Red protests: but then our machine gun will run dry. Pierson replies “Well then I guess you’d better make every goddamn shot count,” and walks off. That one – to me, that’s where I draw the line. It’s a good evil villain moment, but it’s not something that makes sense the second time round. When you take the ammo over to the other bunker, they’ve already got a full three boxes under their tin-can Christmas tree. There’s no strategic decision going on here. There’s no transition in your understanding once you know about Pierson’s background. The stingy-with-requisitions thing is at least plausibly a strategic decision. Pierson could conceivably be trying to request as little as possible to maintain the broader war effort. But here, when the bullets are already on the front line, there’s no strategic benefit to his actions. There’s no point giving all the bullets to one group and depriving the others. We could say that it’s just Pierson being a drunk and making destructive decisions, but then we’ve got a conflict of characterisation. Our earlier reading suggests that Pierson has been traumatised into an inhumane efficiency. He rejects the humanity of his soldiers, reducing them to objects, machines – a mere means towards an end. When the mission’s on, he should be ultra-focused, making cruel and uncompromising demands of his soldiers with the express intention of pushing them to their limits in order to win the war. But what we’re faced with in the ammo sequence is a drunk moron, someone who’s given up on the war effort, who’s mismanaging resources, and who clearly doesn’t care all that much about efficiency – or even arguably success. Psychologically, these character traits don’t gel. We’ve lost sight of a consistent character.

Now, there are ways this sequence could have worked. Before ordering Red to take the ammo across, Pierson says that the recipients have been under attack all night, and that they need a resupply. When Red turns up, however, everyone’s quite jovial, quite calm, and pretty happy to see him. There’s a Christmas tree, and under the tree are three boxes of ammo – presumably full, because you’re directed to add your ammo to that specific pile. Those are the details that make this sequence into a problem. If Red had turned up and the lads had been cold and shivering, and were desperately, pathetically grateful to see Red’s resupply, then it would have made sense. It would have been Pierson making a tactical decision to stretch the men that he knows he can stretch. That’s the hardass we’re looking for. It’s just these little details that are throwing off an otherwise compelling moment.

There are probably a few other things the writers could have done to show off Pierson’s callousness. Sometimes things start to lack consequence, in a way that’s kinda troubling. After Pierson calls in a bombing run on his own position, he stands up all jovial and goes “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” And the narrative kinda backs him. Everybody’s still alive, the Germans have surrendered – there don’t seem to be any negative consequences to Pierson’s risky decision. How hard would it have been to kill off a minor character here, or to have some Allied forces screaming and rolling around in pain while Pierson’s wandering around with his ‘not so bad’ nonsense. The game had an opportunity to criticise Pierson’s behaviour, and it kinda just lets it roll past with no comment. Everything worked. To all intents and purposes, the game portrays Pierson as being correct. It sides with Pierson where it should probably be highlighting the danger and risk – and maybe even the fucking consequences – of his actions.

Conclusion

Is that five acts? This and the Aside can be half an act each – it’s close enough. Call of Duty: WWII exists in a bit of a weird space. I really like it. To me, it’s got the best story of all of the CoD games I’ve played to date. The original Modern Warfare had a certain simple purity to its narrative, but I think WWII has the more humane characters. It’s a story made up of people, instead of flesh-shaped war-in-Iraq propaganda. The problem for WWII is the same as the problem for Wolfenstein: New Colossus. It’s a better game, so the criticism operates on a higher level – which means that WWII is getting slammed for stuff that other games haven’t even had the balls to try. I should reiterate that WWII gets a lot of stuff right. It manages to maintain character for longer than one cutscene, which is far beyond the capacity of most games. The themes were well-considered, and as I said, from a top-down perspective, it’s got a really solid narrative structure. The details are where it falls down. Some of it’s clumsy, some of it’s unconvincing, some of it’s just a little goofy. They almost had a banger. It’s pretty fucking good for Call of Duty.

I guess that’s the flip-side, isn’t it – if the game gets dragged for failing in a more ambitious arena, it also gets credit for being an ambitious Call of Duty game. On balance, it’s definitely worth playing. A little wobbly in places, but strong, clear, decisive concept. I’m excited to see what they get up to in Infinite Warfare, their 2017 offering. Oh – speaking of – from here, I want to head back to Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. It’s the first stand-alone CoD game from Sledgehammer, and while it’s not amazing, it has some telltale narrative marks that we see again in WWII. I want to spend some time tracing those through – because they’re interesting, if only as stylistic markers. And then we’re heading towards the end of the Call of Duty series. I have to deal with Ghosts, at some point, and Infinite Warfare, and maybe the new Modern Warfare too. After that, I was hoping to do something on the Arkham games, but I’ve got two of them on the Epic store, and those fuckers still don’t have screenshots. So fuck knows. We’ll see what happens.

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