Tuesday, October 21, 2008

War is What No One Wills

[Coletta Factor: Call of Duty 4 spoilers aplenty below]

Sometimes I waver between thinking about games as works of art and thinking about them as artifacts. Where the end of art is the representation of reality, the end an artifact is to do something for its users: carry their olive oil, or amuse them.. When we look at a grecian urn, we may admire the still unravished bride of quietness, but when we ask what the urn is for we would say that it's for storing olive oil. And when posterity digs up a copy of Call of Duty 4 and asks what it's for, they will say “this disc is for entertainment.” Simply put, Call of Duty 4 is an entertainment machine. I am almost never tempted to call anything a thrill ride, but I can think of no other expression meet for the machine-like entertainingness of Call of Duty 4.

Unfortunately the thrill-ride metaphor is too apt to pass up. On one hand the railed nature of your thrill ride captures the essential linearity of the level design and gameplay. Call of Duty manages these epic and impressive setpieces by restricting the character's choices. Not only are there few areas for reconnaissance or exploration, the game often punishes your severely for running off the set track. Perhaps I was not resourceful enough, but in most cases I found that advancing through tricky sections of the game was a matter of discovering the precise intended avenue towards the enemy position (usually by following a breadcrumb-trail of cover), and memorizing the set enemy locations. At its worst points, there is a shooting-gallery feeling to the levels in Call of Duty. However, the middle sections (including several pitched battles on a tiered Russian hillside, and a indelibly desolate Chernobyl-set flashback) have a positively open feeling to them, one missing from the clausterphobic alleyways of the anonymous middle eastern city that dominates the early sections of the game.

Really, Call of Duty as a whole is an object lesson in the importance of pacing and gameplay variety. Given that shooting and hiding virtually exhaust your congress with the world, Call of Duty creates an impressive array of different combat scenarios by varying the terrain and weaponry throughout the game. You never feel like you are doing the same thing over and over again. You are never locked into one tempo for long, and the most intense scenes (the frenzied dashes to a landing-zone rendezvous) alternate with slower, more deliberately paced passages that call on different sets of skills.

Indeed, the most memorable feature of Call of Duty is the way it juxtaposes moments of exhilarating empowerment with episodes of complete helplessness. One moment your enemies are a superior force that sends your squad cowering behind hay-bales, and he next they are sinners in the hands of an angry god, scattering to the four winds as you rain ordinance down upon them from an AC-130 gunship. In one scene you courageously rescue a comrade from a downed helicopter; in the next, your heroic solider watches a mushroom cloud rise above the city, wiping out the entire corps and rendering those heroic deeds meaningless. The alternation of empowerment with disempowerment has been a staple of the genre for some time now (every shooter feels the need to put you behind a turret at some point), but Call of Duty's setpieces are so well-crafted that they transcend the conventions of the genre. The moments of most extreme helplessness-- the opening sequence played from the the perspective of a man on the way to his execution, or the scene in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion-- achieve a kind of haunting power that is uncommon in the medium.

Some commentators on the game have puzzled over the game's attitude towards war and military service. Daniel Golding took the characterization of your fellow soliders, and the pithy quotes that flash across the screen on your demise, as a sign of the game's anti-war message. Mitch Krpata wrote: “Some time ago, the US Army released a game called America's Army to help them pick up new recruits. If those kids played Call of Duty instead, they'd probably make a run for Canada.”

I think both of these writers make fine points in favor of their arguments, but I think this alternation between empowerment and disempowerment in the gameplay is the key to understanding Call of Duty 4's viewpoint on war and military service.

I obviously have no idea what military duty is like, but based on what I've gleaned from firsthand accounts, participation in war involves a horrific combination of responsibility and helplessness. On one hand, being a solider means that the lives of the people you care for the most-- your best friends, your fellow soldiers-- depends your intellect and courage, your skill at your craft. I can't imagine the burden of being responsible for the lives of the people closest to me, having their lives depend on my capabilities. It is this burden of responsibility, rather than some abstract commitment to God and country, that ison the mind of soldiers as they enter the battlefield.

On the other hand, the reality of armed conflict is that war often renders the best efforts of individual men and women meaningless. Tolstoy wrote that war is something that “no one wills,” and what he meant is that everyone involved in the conduct of war-- soldiers and generals alike-- is subject to a chain of effects and contingencies that are radically beyond their control. The forces that dictate life or death for individual soldiers in the field are arbitrary and impersonal, both too complex and too random to be mastered by even the most farsighted men.

Call of Duty 4 succeeds in being more than entertainment where it conveys both of these elements at the same time: both the ennobling heroism and the powerless vulnerability that are intrinsic to warfare. While the player's skills suffice to stave of nuclear holocaust in the end, she finds herself unable to prevent the extermination of the rest of the company and the apparent death of your gamelong mentor, Captain Price. The triumph of skill over death is always incomplete. This strikes me as a welcome step towards realism in the most implausible of games.


Anonymous said...

Those were brilliant observations.

Thank you for reminding me of the the game's opening credits, with "you" being dragged to your own execution, and all you can do is watch helplessly in first-person. It was an amazing scene, terrible and masterful and beautiful all at once.

Garrett Martin said...

I don't think COD4 is either pro- or anti-war. By looking at war pragmatically and fatalistically, though, the designers made it so gamers can easily align the game with their own opinions. That's one of the biggest advantages to nixing the WWII-setting: no need to portray the player's actions as utterly right and true 100% of the time.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting observations, Iroquois. I think you might be on to something when you talk about the alternation between empowerment and disempowerment. As you note, the most powerful moments of the game are when the player is disempowered, but knowingly so, which makes them so powerful. Perhaps one of the key points is that it isn't so much the player who is disempowered, but the character.

Comparing it to BioShock is an interesting example. Many players, to my knowledge, felt a little cheated by the game when it came to its themes of control and power. This is because the game really drew your attention to the disconnect of power between the avatar and the player. In Call of Duty 4, however, the disconnect that the game is highlighting is, as you say, between the individual solider and his allies and the ultimate outcome of war and battle. It's an interesting parallel.

Also, while I quite like your analogy of artifacts and art, I'm not so sure if your example is so clear cut as you seem to suggest. To my mind, there is a pretty clear difference between art and a grecian urn, though as you say, we may admire it as an artifact of sorts. However, where does entertainment end and art begin? Many works of art have elements of entertainment in them, and many works of pure entertainment could certainly be regarded by some as art.

Ben Abraham said...

Fantastic piece, IP. I can definitely see your insightful analysis of CoD4 as "alternation between empowerment and disempowerment" ripped off by hundreds of people in the future - it's just so spot on.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@garrett: I agree with you in a certain way; I said that I thought the whole disempowerment/empowerment thing was kind of "realistic," and I guess what I was trying to get at is what you say here, that there are both positive and negative aspects in its depiction of combat, and it doesn't shy away from either of them. It's not like the empowerment or the disempowerment are more "true" than the other, it's just how it is.

@daniel: bioshock is an interesting point of comparison, except I think the themes of power and control there focused on the control of the designer over the player.

As to the whole art/artifact thing, I think you're right to call bullshit on that one. I honestly couldn't defend any hard-and-fast distinction there. I was just, in service of a lead-in, trying to point towards how goddamn entertaining Cod4 is, how well it's crafted towards providing these thrills.

Kirk Battle said...

@ art/artifacts debate

The analogy you're looking for is the Hideo Kojima "games as museums" description. The game itself is a building that has various moments or artifacts housed in it. COD4 then ramped that up into a full-scale roller coaster or House of Horrors trip.

I actually don't really like the idea itself because it inhibits the emotions games are capable of but it's useful once you realize that a whole school of designers make games this way.