Finally got around to playing last year’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. The game itself was more of the same (now with contextual double jumping!), another jingoistic rail-shooter with hilaribad writing and three billion dollars of production value up on the screen, but I came for digitized Frank Underwood and was more or less delivered digital Frank Underwood. In this case we have a motion captured Kevin Spacey as a transparently megalomaniacal CEO of a futuristic private military company, Atlas. (Sidenote: this game is basically Metal Gear Solid 4-2.) Spacey, aka Jonathan Irons, manipulates the outcomes of a series of terrorist attacks to grow the company to a level of might greater than that of any of the governmental superpowers.
At some point Kevin Underwood Irons announces on live TV that he is going to destroy the US because of how they have historically abused their miltary might to send millions off to their death to kill millions in other countries, and our intrepid band of US Marines go “hoo-rah” and run out to kick his ass. In power armor. Because Advanced. Warfare. But let’s look at Evil CEO Jonathan Iron’s justification for declaring war on the US.
The World is asking one question: Why did I attack the United States? The United States has had the world in a constant state of war for over a hundred years. Time and again we have seen the catastrophic results of this belligerent, militaristic policy. These wars haven’t led to resolution, or peace. These wars have only led to more wars. The United States has set the agenda because they wielded the biggest stick. Well no more. This is not the beginning of a war, this is the end of all wars.
We then cut to our hero flying an Advanced Plane of some sort (multi-talented fellow, that Troy Baker) as he narrates, “After San Francisco, the entire free world turned against Atlas.” What about the not-free world (define that however you like)? Or perhaps anyone with a bone to pick with the US? We just cut to our hero blowing shit up in New Baghdad (natch, Irons is Saddam 2.o, complete with his American-funded weapons) without any need to sort out the geopolitical ramifications of any of this. More importantly, however—how exactly is Jonathan Irons wrong?
I may be reading this too literally, but as far as I can gather from Advanced Warfare‘s Wikipedia entry, the events of Irons’ betrayal occur circa the year 2060. “[A] constant state of war for over a hundred years”, indeed. If we take 1960 as the starting point for Irons’ accusation, we have some 55 years of justification already, and it’s not hard to imagine another 45 following the same course. From this future-historical perspective we neatly skirt the Just War philosophizing of World Wars I and II and go straight to the heart of the matter: Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq…
OK, perhaps consolidating economic and military might under corporate power with one absolute leader isn’t such a great way to clean up the world’s (undeniable) problems. Regardless, the game demonizes Atlas and Iron’s intentions by revealing them to have undertaken cliché human research projects in cliché underground labs and ultimately condemns them by their use of biological warfare against military and civilian targets, but it’s all a transparently facile way out to paint Irons as a sociopathic mass murderer. It’s a cop-out. Just like it’s a cop-out when in the final moments Kevin Spacey has a gun to the main character’s head but says he won’t shoot because he’s “not a monster”. A convenient hand-wave to confirm to our audience that, yes, he is a monster, because only a monster that makes utilizes bio-WMDs would deny being a monster, while allowing our hero to survive long enough to kill the hell out of the bad man.
But what are we to do when faced not with caricatured evil, but nuanced evil? Nuanced evil very nearly exists in Advanced Warfare, both in the form of profits and power-obsessed Irons before his descent into stereotypical madness, but also in the evil wrought at the hands of the rightfully accused United States of which we see only the innocent dead and the righteous warriors who act unilaterally to destroy the out-of-control superpower Atlas, not because it is unethical to concentrate that much power in one mans hands (why did no one protest this sooner?) but because he dared to do unto the US as the US has done unto others: call them a naughty name and start blowing shit up.
Sadly most games and other entertainment media seem ill-equipped to handle any kind of incisive look at the nature of war, money and politics. For every Holly Hindsight look back at “the horror, the horror” of the Vietnam War we have a dozen “hoo-rah” celebrations of Western might in film and television. For every Spec Ops: The Line (which really should have been the end of the military shooter genre, if anyone had paid attention to that game at all) there are a dozen Call of Duty: Black Opses (perhaps someday, literally). If writers and designers were to start attempting the job, however, I think a good place to start would be to cast our heroes as villians and our villians as heroes. Let Atlas enact “justice” upon the vulnerable United States and then deal with the consequences of those actions. What a great opportunity for sequels—Advanced Warfare 2 could then deal with the freedom fighters/terrorists rebelling against the corporate power that has completely superseded representative government in the West, in a world where the rich are just as affluent as ever and not interested at all in the removal of their new corporate overlords.
For some reason it seems we have ceded the necessity to think even remotely deeply to “indie” feely-experimental games. But I think one of the many lessons that Spec Ops taught us (not to shoot a dead horse) is that effective critiques of violent media happen best inside of violent media. The key to thinking more deeply about how we approach our own nationalistic warmongering horseshit in games is not to make flash games about puppies with feelings that we can link on our Facebooks (although if that gets you off go nuts), it’s to think more deeply about the very games in which we warmonger and find ways to subvert them, both through critique and alternative readings of those texts but also, hopefully, through games being developed that intentionally re-read and subvert those texts themselves within the context of violence and war.
Also, I love a light-gun QTE shooter as much as the next guy (actually probably more so), but I seriously hope that Black Ops 3‘s campaign does a little something more to innovate the CoD formula than “now I have power armor ho-ho-ho” because were it not for the desire to see Kevin Spacey’s mouth continue to speak words while large areas of his face remained distressingly immobile I never would have made it to the end of this nonsense. Exo Zombies sure sounded neat (John Malkovitch! Bill Paxton! Bruce Motherfucking Campbell!), but not $50 extra worth of neat. I realize all this motion capture is expensive as hell (maybe it’s time to go back to FMV cutscenes?), but if the three Activision studios slaving away on these games can’t start to ask interesting questions of themselves, then they’re at least going to have to innovate on the core design assumptions of the franchise if thoughtlessly killing endless waves of the faceless other in the name of American Superiority is supposed to remain interesting.