It’s official; after months of fairly credible rumors, it appears that Call Of Duty will be going back to its roots with Call Of Duty: WWII. But it’s worth asking if going back is the franchise’s future, if it’s unwilling to grapple with the real history of the era.
The first three Call of Duty games took place in World War II, or more accurately a war movie take on the conflict. Men nobly fought and wept manly tears for fallen comrades, before cooking a grenade and blowing up a bunch of Germans in the next level. In the past decade, of course, the franchise has gotten away from world war, exploring unfortunate American foreign policy in Black Ops, and writing a fair goofy future with Ghosts, Advanced Warfare and Infinite Warfare. As the series has strayed into the future, fans have objected that they don’t play Calladuty for this froo-froo science fiction stuff, and it appears Activision is listening to their complaints.
But a return to World War II is a messy prospect, at this point. It’s not just that it’s heavily trodden ground for the series: The whole tone of the military shooter genre, and how pop culture approaches World War II, has changed. Battlefield, the long-running rival franchise, just delivered an enormously popular, and deeply grim, look at the first World War with Battlefield 1, a game that opens with a tutorial level where you hop from soldier to soldier as they die pointlessly in a battle nobody wins. Even the pulpy alternate-history set Wolfenstein: The New Order and its prequel, Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, dealt, both directly and indirectly, with the genocidal aims of the Nazis. Whether the game was successful in discussing such a horrifying concept is a tougher question, but the point remains that video games can no longer treat history as just a backdrop.
And on another level, it’s clear that the franchise had shifted to the future in part to address concerns that its rah-rah jingoistic tone was irresponsible, especially with notorious moments like Modern Warfare 2‘s opening level, where you’re ordered to commit atrocities against Russian civilians. Call of Duty‘s modern entries have always had an uncomfortable tension between their attention to detail with weapons, and their goofy stories with sneering flat villains. Despite the insistence of some gamers, there’s no such thing as “apolitical” art, and Call of Duty was becoming a mess in that respect. Kit Harrington as a “Martian separatist” ranting about how freedom is poison is undeniably silly, but it’s also far less culturally toxic than yet another “vicious Arab” threatening the Land of the Free.
The main question is whether it will try to return to that maudlin style of WWII celebrating the heroism of American GIs while assuming audiences know just what made their sacrifices so heroic in the first place. Leaving aside any discussion of modern self-proclaimed Nazis, this has always sold the grunts in the foxholes short. World War II is seen as a great moment for the Allies in part because it was, in the end, one of the few wars that could genuinely be argued as “just.” That’s why we’ve been so obsessed with it for the last 70 years, but in the process, we’ve taken that justness for granted. That needs to end.
That doesn’t mean the franchise can’t return to World War II, but on a creative level, it’ll have to do more than return to the Saving Private Ryan-esque tone the original games struck. The idea that video games can’t grapple with serious social issues, or even history, was never that viable to begin with. Call of Duty doesn’t have to forgo deathmatches and single-player shooting, but it does have to acknowledge, even if only obliquely, that there’s a reason Nazis are such reliable villains.