Watching History Fade Away in 'Call of Duty: WWII'


#1

Remember that we knew them. The people who survived the Second World War were grandparents or great-grandparents who we saw slip into old age, and whose occasional stories gave us very small, personal glimpses of one of the most important and terrible events in history. Many of them eventually heard themselves called heroes, but the term never sat easily on people like my grandparents. They were ordinary people caught up in a massive, global conflagration, and who very much wanted to come out the other side of it with their friends and family. Most of them did, many did not. And slowly, in ever greater numbers, they passed on.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/pa37bn/watching-history-fade-away-in-call-of-duty-wwii

#2

Completely pleased and utterly unsurprised to see Mr Zacny shouting out “The Good War” which is even better than he makes it sound.

Call of Duty campaigns are often just games versions of other media, usually movies that the developers saw. But now the series has gone on long enough that they’re making Call of Duty games of Call of Duty games.

As always with any WW2 game, I have to say that I am fucking sick of Northern France. It’s the largest conflict in human history, with major interesting events on every continent over nearly a decade, and spending the last year of the war as an American in France is so incredibly yawn-inducing. Send me to Burma! Let’s open our WW2 game with the last stand of the Ethiopians against the Italians, or something! Christ, not hedgerows again.


#3

Here, you will find hardly a trace of the actual human beings whose experiences have been commodified over the last quarter century. Call of Duty: WW2’s vision is of an inescapable crucible, a Trojan War where heroes are endlessly tested and forged. They care about being the best at World War 2, of expunging their past mistakes, and one day perhaps leading men like themselves into the same iconic scenes, again and again.

This sounds a lot like the logical end point of the series. Noah Gervais had a long video essay about the games, and how the original’s focus on Band of Brothers style stories of collective camaraderie and sacrifice gradually eroded from the series, giving way to the multiplayer compenent’s ideals of being the Most Elite, Best of the Best. Where you’re no longer part of a fleet of disposable resources trying to do their job, but Player One who fights the Ultra Nationalist Leader atop a building or whatever.

That worked fine for Sledgehammer’s last go at the series, since Advanced Warfare was a wholeheartedly earnest embracing of the hokey, jingoistic Future American Super Soldier routine that the series had been dancing with but never fully owning as a delightfully stupid thing all its own. Trying to apply that same lens to a WW2 setting is an awful fit which only highlights the stark disparity between the actual truths of that war and the extents of absurdity AAA shooter games have reached.

And unfortunately it’s probably what we’re going to get more of since this one did gangbusters for them commercially. Yikes.


#5

Fantastic piece that summarizes much of what I’ve felt about war games for quite some time. It’s been the sad state of history in culture for a very long time.


#6

I really appreciated this article. I have to say I wonder to what extent it signifies our forgetting of the realities of WWII as rob says. I feel like it’s totally possible, but then I look at how it seems there are still people interested in learning about the First World War and understanding its causes and its effects. They’re different, of course, but I think there are still people who want to dig into these conflicts and understand them beyond what media may show us. I shouldn’t be writing this late at night because I can’t coherently explain myself, but either way, this is a great piece of work, I really enjoyed reading it.


#7

The impending loss of all first-hand knowledge of World War II is something that has been eating at me for a few years. Like Rob, I’m of an age where I heard the occasional story about the war from the grandfather I knew, and his stories were also never about grand heroics either. All of my grandparents have passed on. I grew up in the 90s, the cultural narrative around WWII had already been twisted into the Band of Brothers mold, but at least the people who fought in the war were still around. Pretty soon WWII will become nothing more than a pop-culture artifact, and the generation coming up behind mine will only have the movies and the video games to form the cultural consensus about the war.


#8

I really agree with the “dumbing down” of WWII history, and especially the removal of any sense of humanity. The crazy thing is that there are a wealth of sources to really understand what it was like as a person to be involved in such a conflict. Just look at the ‘war movies’ that were released last century - yes, there is obviously a “we were in the right” spin with the allies always the heroes, but there was a sense of what it was really like from people who really had been there involved in the making of them. A good example, which funnily enough would have been perfect given the choice of the 1st Division for COD:WWII, is “The Big Red One”; the film was never really finished but released later after cobbling together what had been made, so it’s a bit raw, but it was made by Samuel Fuller based on his own experiences. It is full of real experiences of war, which are mainly terror, humour, boredom, and occasionally adrenaline-fuelled excitement. The discovery of an extermination camp towards the end (it starts with the invasion of North Africa and goes right through to the end of the war) is particularly harrowing.

Another good source, maybe not for video games but for realism, is Spike Milligan’s books on his experiences in North Africa in the Royal Artillery. Generally there was a lot of doing nothing much, actual fighting being mostly removed from his artillery unit, but then he tried to advance under mortar fire and ended up shell-shocked with what we would now call PTSD, and treated badly for it.

I know video games want to make you feel like a hero most of the time, but to me it would be far more interesting to be overcoming fear and reluctance to put yourself at risk in order to do something for your mates that you serve with. I think that’s a much more likely form of heroism for people thrust into a worldwide war beyond their understanding.


#9

I read once that every generation has a historical memory that spans back to the lives of their grandparents. Once that time runs out, it’s easier to forget and it’s easier for us to repeat history’s mistakes. It’s a chilling notion, and when I watch war movies or play games like COD WW2 or Battlefield 1, it is something that is constantly on my mind. When I was studying for my masters (the sea fiction of James Fenimore Cooper - nope, I don’t know what I was thinking either), a fellow PhD student was doing her thesis on the prevalence of war movies and how they have taken on an increased cultural responsibility in being the touchstone in which future generations remember war in general. She was beginning to look at games as an emerging medium for offering the same kind of thing - a chance to live out history through a more accessible means.

Generally, I think games do have a massive opportunity to tackle history in new and interesting ways. However, I play something like last year’s Battlefield 1 or the latest COD and I’m kind of horrified by how generic they both are. As Rob says, COD WW2 is just another retread through the wartime events as depicted by Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. At no point do you feel the makers of the game put in the research to depict the battles for mainland Europe in a new or original way. They literally went back and dusted off their DVD selection. It’s literally the same old schtick with more impressive visuals.

I think I had a bigger problem playing Battlefield 1, despite it probably being the best Battlefield game since Bad Company 2, for me, it just felt fundamentally wrong to play a game based on WW1. Battlefield 1 clearly took some liberties with all the weapons you were using, of course to make the game more ‘enjoyable’ to play, but that unrealistic approach kind of slides in the face of what that war was, pushing it into the realms of fiction. World War 1 was 100 years ago, the surviving veterans of that war are mostly gone but here we are with this kickass game where you can totally pwn tanks with the anti-tank rifle.

The earlier CODs felt as if they at least had a degree of respect for the historical events they were depicting. At times they could be punishingly difficult, a sudden flurry of bullets in your direction could kill you in seconds. Every death would come with a prophetic quote from a philosopher or leader as a way to refer to the larger context of war but also the meaningless attempt to explain every fatality that occurred for an inch of ground. As you go through it you think, how did real people actually make it out of this in one piece? Ever since Black Ops, I feel COD has lost it’s edge as depicting war as a cautionary tale and dived head first into Michael Bayisms and a kind of unhealthy American jingoism. I do feel last year’s Infinite Warfare campaign did make more meaningful steps towards those original concepts, dealing with a soldier’s sacrifice towards the greater good. It was a far more sober way you would initially expect for a game set in space. I was even sad when I heard the robot’s posthumous voice message.

I’m British and as with most British people, both world wars are pretty much drilled into us from a young age. WW2 is such a huge part of our national consciousness. The underdog nation standing defiant as Hitler’s war machine advanced through mainland Europe. Admittedly it has become a little problematic as well. That wartime spirit prevails today, not always in our favour – Hello Brexit. The majority of people want to be an independent island nation when it was us against the world. We want to leave the EU, an international coalition that was designed to stop these major wars from breaking out in the first place! As the world gets smaller every day, the old guard are still preoccupied with building walls… Which seems like a very bad idea. But that’s a whole other essay of my own angry garbled opinions that would require about a week’s worth of editing.

But yeah, every generation having a historical memory as long as their Grandparent’s life spans. I lost both of my grandparents this year (on my dad’s side), they both lived well into their 80s, too young to get involved with the direct fighting of WW2 but young enough to remember what it was like to be on wartime rations. My grand dad grew up around Omagh in N. Ireland and helped refuel sea planes (Catalina Flying Boats) that stopped over in the RAF base in Ireland. This was the plane that was responsible for spotting the Bismarck which set in motion the successful strike to sink it.

On my mother’s side of the family, my Grandmother lost her father suddenly just before the outbreak of WW2, she remembered vividly hiding under the stairs of our house as the Germans bombed the Belfast ship yards. Above all, I remember her explaining to me how her and her sister were so scared at that time, their father dead and the bombs falling at night, hiding in their flimsy cupboard under the stairs. As kids, we were forced to engage with our elders and talk to them about the war. In the end I think it was the most effective way of reliving history.

It’s not impossible for games to tap into this. More and more, I’m convinced we will get these kind of games eventually. We just probably can’t expect it from Activision or COD, an annualised franchise which literally turns the opening of loot boxes into a spectator sport.


#10

Call of Duty: WWII (still a terrible name) is so strange because it seems like it goes back to a time before Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. One of the things that those works did so well was talk about the horrors and psychological trauma that most previous films about the War glossed over. I was hoping for the same confidence that the series showed in Infinite, Black Ops, and the first Modern Warfare. That it would tell an unusual or rarely covered story. Or use the mechanic of jumping through different POVs to reveal the complexities of a situation. Or simply revisit the terrifying Stalingrad level from the original COD.

Also we need a good game, movie, or miniseries about the 442nd. Their story is absolutely incredible and deserves to be more widely told.

@LaserJesus
I also worry about the loss of first hand knowledge. I regret not talking to my great uncle more about his experience. He was a medic in the 5th Army in North Africa, Italy, and France. He spoke German so he was often tasked with caring for POWs. Understandably he rarely talked about the war and I can’t help but feel a unique perspective has been lost.


#11

Rob, this is probably my favorite piece you’ve written that I can remember. Great work.

It makes me think of my own grandfather who I lost last year. Every time I asked him about the war he would joke about how bad a soldier he was and how his most momentous event was getting shot down. The massive disconnect between all the popular media and that very cautious sharing of the experience has troubled me for years. I’m so happy to see that feeling running through this piece.


#12

This idea of historical memory is a really important one.

My grandfather turned 90 last week and that’s making me come to terms with how quickly we’re losing our WWII veterans. My grandfather lied his was into the Marines at 17 and no one figured out what he’d done until he was already in China. It took months for him to get back stateside, only for him to turn around and re-enlist in the Army when he turned 18.

He doesn’t talk about his experiences in WWII or Korea very much, besides joking about why “the smallest guy in the squad got the biggest gun.” He was the BAR gunner apparently.

Anyway, I’m very worried that we’re going to lose perspective of that war. I went to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans in the last year and while it is incredibly impressive, the tone of “America and the Allies saving the world from fascism” rings a little hollow when we remember that black soldiers were segregated in their own units and came home to legal segregation in the South.

I don’t want the cultural takeaway from WWII to be the ridiculous “Back-to-Back World Champs” bullshit. We need to remember that our problems with our triumphs.


#13

This is a great piece, but I’m surprised that there isn’t discussion of the moment where the player is confronted with a couple of lynched black men in the French countryside.

I only know about it since it cropped up in the GB Quick Look, but the moment just flashes by despite clearly being intended to shock. I’ve only seen somebody bring it up once. And that was a semi-viral Facebook post arguing that the game was pro-lynching, which strikes me as not entirely in good faith.

I can tell the event isn’t handled well, and I also have no idea if its based on historical fact (I wouldn’t put it past the SS, but I also haven’t found any record of it happening).