Advanced Warfare: On Friendship

Alright, let’s get started. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is the first Call of Duty title developed solely by Sledgehammer Games. Previously, alongside Infinity Ward, they’d created Modern Warfare 3, meaning Advanced Warfare was their first outing as solo developers. I’ve just finished dealing with Call of Duty: WWII (here, here, here, and here), which is their second solo title, and now I’m working backwards a little bit. When I initially played Advanced Warfare, I didn’t totally know what to make of it. There was something there, but I couldn’t – there was a vision that just wasn’t totally clear to me. So I moved on to WWII, where their creative voice was very strong. Now, with that understanding in place, I want to return to Advanced Warfare, and just make some general observations about the artistic vision of Sledgehammer Games. It’s not a good game, in some ways, but it’s definitely promising. There are a lot of narrative techniques and peculiar little quirks that are pretty specific to Sledgehammer, and I want to spend some time going over those, as well as dealing with some of the simple goofs that stop the game being great.

So the first thing, today’s thing, is the idea of friendship. Sledgehammer Games is really big on exploring the relationships between people. It likes a bit of banter – and to tell you the truth, it makes for the most personality I’ve ever seen in a Call of Duty game. In WWII, you obviously have all the different relationships between different characters in the game. The two officers, Pierson and Turner, make up most of the tension of the game, but the relationship amongst the grunts is also really significant. It provides the atmosphere for everything that follows – it creates that social bedrock, so that the game can be about a bunch of kids in their twenties fighting a war on a different continent. That whole foundation rests on the relationship between the soldiers. And it’s pulled off pretty well. In Advanced Warfare, you see the same idea again. It’s a little more garbled, truth be told, but it’s obvious enough if you’re looking for it. In the first level, for example, you’ve got the relationship between Mitchell, the main character, and his best friend Will. In the game’s introductory cutscene, the two talk about their reasons for joining the military. They’re in the same drop pod on their way down to their first mission, and they’re generally good chums. Partway through the mission, one of the other soldiers chips in with a bit of dialogue about some mercenaries they’ve encountered – “Will, isn’t that your dad’s company?” These are all clearly soldiers who have a bit of history with each other. They have an existing relationship, they refer back to things that must have come up in earlier conversations. There are other instances where this pattern continues, but I just want to stay with this first mission for now.

The arc of the first mission is pretty simple. The North Koreans have invaded Seoul, and a bunch of American soldiers move in to fight off Kim Jong Un. At the climax of the mission, Will puts a bomb in a robot, and then gets his arm stuck in the robot, and gets blown up and killed. The image above shows his last words to Mitchell, moments before he gets blown all to hell. Now, this introductory mission is intended to set the stakes for the narrative. It’s a prelude, explaining why Will’s father subsequently takes a shine to Mitchell, and justifying Mitchell’s place in the events to come. That’s sort of where the problems start. Firstly, over the course of a single mission, we don’t really develop any special attachment to Will. We’re told that he’s Mitchell’s best friend in the opening cutscene, but that’s a very telling-instead-of-showing type of thing. It’s not particularly compelling. In practice, we get about ten or fifteen minutes to see their relationship, and then it’s gone. It’s a good ten or fifteen minutes, but it’s still only ten or fifteen minutes. You never see the relationship develop like you do in WWII. The brevity of the relationship also sets the stage for the infamous ‘Press F to pay respects’ debacle, which – well.

If you’re not familiar, when this game originally came out, it was heavily derided for this scene pictured below. While attending Will’s funeral, you’re instructed to press F to pay your respects. You press F, and Mitchell puts his hand on the coffin, before turning away and moving into the next part of the story. It’s a quick-time event masquerading as character development. It’s been mocked to hell, and – to be honest, I don’t actually hate it as much as everybody else does. The big complaint that I saw was that it was an artificial attempt to create emotion. In this reading, the moment failed because it was a cheap performance of emotion rather than something genuinely felt by the player. That’s true, but it’s almost missing the point. Sledgehammer Games put a lot of effort into establishing relationships between characters, and in fact have much more success than any other Call of Duty studio to date. The real issue is that the relationship between Will and Mitchell was underdeveloped. You’d only known the guy for five minutes – it’s hard to feel anything for him when he’s only been around for such a brief time.

So yes, the scene shouldn’t have been a quick-time event, and yes, it’s a bit hackneyed, but the heart of the issue is more in how Will’s death fits into the narrative structure rather than this funeral scene in itself. We needed more time to get to know him. Later on we get characters having to backfill different details – for instance, immediately after the ‘Press F’ scene, Mitchell talks to Will’s father, who goes oh yeah, I’ve heard heaps about you from Will, great to meet you, I know all about you and your life. It feels rushed. Even in the opening sequence – Will and Mitchell are about to go out to combat for the first time, and they start explaining to each other their respective reasons for joining the military. It’s the first time Will mentions his dad – and it’s painfully awkward. It’s clearly the writers trying to cram in the world-building before Will gets murdered. And it doesn’t even make sense within the fiction. Allegedly these guys are best friends. Why the fuck are they only mentioning their reasons for joining the military in that moment, as if they’ve only just met each other for the first time? As with the introduction to Will’s dad at the funeral, it feels like hasty backfill rather than a genuine unfurling of the story.

Again, the key problem here is structural. Will and Mitchell are supposed to have a long-standing relationship – and in its own way, it does actually come across. At the same time, killing Will so early creates a very small window carrying a lot of narrative weight. As well as being the opening moments of the game, with all of the attendant world-building requirements, it also has to establish and carry a long-standing relationship, fill in all the details that will be relevant for the rest of the story, and try and create an emotional relationship between the player and Will so that they’ll care about him when he dies. That’s a lot of fucking work. The ‘press F’ controversy, on the other hand, is superficial, and it has a superficial solution. Just replace the quick-time event with Mitchell touching the coffin automatically, and the whole thing goes away. The deeper and much more serious issue is the insane expectation placed on the first level. It’s a pretty straightforward goof. It’s also a pretty typical example of how the rest of the game progresses. A narrative or character beat that is strong in itself is overshadowed and ultimately undone by some basic narrative goofs. It’s a shame, because you spend a lot of time glimpsing the great game that could’ve been. Sledgehammer are obviously talented storytellers, and I think they get a lot smarter about their shit in WWII. Advanced Warfare, on the other hand, has a bunch of strong storytelling moments that are best on the level of concept. The actual application is too often mucked up.

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