Broken Mirror

What Call of Duty: Modern Warfare tells us about ourselves

Growing up I vaguely remember hearing an old Chinese fable. In the fable an emperor wishes to buy a gift to his favorite concubine and purchases the latest technological marvel – a mirror! He keeps it in a trunk so to present it in the birthday celebrations but the concubine, curious, opens the trunk and runs away in tears. When asked about it, she tells the emperor that he is cruel for bringing a new, beautiful concubine to replace her.

What I found interesting about the fable was the fact the concubine, upon seeing her own reflection, chose to flee in fear rather than explore further. Of course we could conclude that this is the place where the fable falls apart under modern scrutiny but that fact remained with me to this day, surfacing up as I looked into the controversy surrounding Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Before we go on I’d like to hang a nice disclaimer over this article: I didn’t purchase or played the new installment in the tired and creatively bankrupt franchise. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare already exists, it is arguably still a good game with a good story. There was no need, nor call, for a soft reboot which is the new installment that goes so far as to reuse the very same name. Its all a cheap marketing ploy and it is infuriating. Putting that aside, I did watch several reviews and read on the main controversy.

Skill Up in particular did a good job in covering it in depth. For those unaware, the game was banned in Russia as it depicts atrocities committed by Russian mercenaries. Now, the Russian mercenaries operating in Syria are undoubtedly ruthless war criminals, there is no need to even question that. However the game used terms and incidents which alluded or invoked atrocities committed by the United States armed forces, in particular in Iraq. Call me crazy, but appropriating American war crimes to Russian mercenaries smacks a tad wrong for me.

Of course, people were riled up by this and for a good reason. I hate historical revisionism just as much as the next guy and it seems like plenty of people were ticked off. That said, it didn’t stop the game from being another huge financial success, probably helped, and not hindered, by the controversy. Activision made a quick cost analysis comparing the United States market, still one of the most wealthy and influential one world wide, and the Russian one, a cratering economy with currency that is only worthwhile as kindling, and made the right decision. Well, not the morally or ethically right one, but considering it was rewarded with a shower of cash kind of invalidates the other two, no?

In his review Skill Up continues to delve into the game’s story and mechanics, portraying a work that attempts to be edgy and norms breaking while at the same time being safe and predictable. This is no surprise for me. You are not going to shift millions of units by showing American imperialism as it is; a ruthless, brutal and cowardly subjugation of countries where state of the art technology is used to bomb civilians back to the stone age while snipers terrorize the survivors and shoot at ambulances and medics. That might confront the target audience with the horrors their country perpetuates. Instead the Americans are framed as the good guys who are held back by politics from doing the right thing and go rogue to help plucky resistance fighters stop the mean Russians. I want to remind people this was also the plot of Rambo 3, in which the Taliban were portrayed as the heroes. Gotta love the 80s.

Half way through the review, Skill Up surprises the viewer and shifts from Call of Duty: Revisionist Warfare and into Spec Ops: The Line review. I love Spec Ops: The Line, though love may not be the right word for it. Is there a word that encapsulates respect while being depressed and horrified? Well, Spec Ops: The Line is one of my top 10 favorite games and a game every gamer should play once, ONLY once. It is a game that takes the generic American military power fantasy and forces the player to confront its actual bloody cost. Emphasis on bloody. It doesn’t pull any punches and is so soul crushing that by the end you feel completely drained of emotion.

I understand why Skill Up juxtaposed the two games. In a way Spec Ops: The Line is the game Call of Duty: American War Crimes’ writing attempts to be. At least that would be a generous reading of it. In reality, mister Skill Up is quite mistaken since Call of Duty: Abu Ghraib isn’t art. It is a commercial product aimed at teenagers and young adults who like power fantasies. Its ambition from the start was not to explore human misery and suffering but to sell as many copies as possible. Thus comparing it to Spec Ops: The Line smacks a tad of missing the point. Call of Duty: Guantanamo Bay was always going to have an insipid story whitewashing American war crimes whether its writers wanted it to or not. Because that is what shifts the most units.

I keep going back again and again to the financial motive. The reason is simple: The decision to white wash American war crimes in Call of Duty: Bay of Pigs is a conscious decision by Activision in order to maximize their profits. I already showed the economic rationale for alienating one market in order to profit from a much larger, more lucrative one. As much as I’d like to finger wag at Activision for such a despicable move I find myself neither outraged or surprised. After all, Activision simply made the choice that was the most profitable for it, and in our economic system, that is the only ethical choice for a multi national entertainment corporation.

As written before, their decision has already been validated by the sales of Call of Duty: IranContra. Its basically the only parameter measuring righteousness in a capitalist society. If the game had flopped, that had meant the market rejected this revisionist, power fantasy, cold war fever dream of a game. However by all indications this game is a stellar success, one befitting an entertainment juggernaut. There is a reason that for all its faults and dips in quality, the Call of Duty series continues to dominate the military first person shooter genre. I don’t really blame Activision for revising history either. Sure its a horrible thing to do and there should be a special circle of hell for historical revisionists, but it didn’t do it to advance an agenda like most politicians do, so much as to secure its profits. Because Activision knows its core demographic, especially in the western hemisphere, and it knows what would placate it and convince it to shell 60$ for its Reagan era rejected action movie Hollywood script.

This is the reason why the revision was made. Not because Activision hates the Russians, pretty sure if the situation was reversed it would have placated the Kremlin instead. No, the revision was made to appease the consumers because shining a light on the atrocities committed by the United States armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to name just two RECENT examples, would alienate them. Making a Spec Ops: The Line story with the sleek Call of Duty: My Lai Massacre mechanics is an appealing dream, but a dream nonetheless because there is no financial incentive for Activision to make it. Spec Ops: The Line, as excellent as it is, was still a cult classic. The word ‘cult’ should alert the reader to the small scale of success it garnered. Though financially successful, there is a reason why we have 20 iterations of Call of Duty yet no sequel to Spec Ops: The Line.

Skill Up of course was somewhat aware of the fact. In the video he admitted that the original developers of Spec Ops: The Line are currently working not on a sequel but a battle royale style game because that is whats popular, and its understandable. The studio has to make a profit for the publishers and thus its work will always aim to appease the largest consumer base and often adhere to the current trends. Anyone wishing for Call of Duty to be for once, subversive, were simply deluding themselves.

By now a theme emerges. Developers and publishers are trying to please consumers in order to make a profit. In that pursuit, they are willing to launder war crimes just to appease a segment of that consumer base, even if it means alienating other, lesser segments. Yet I absolved said developers and publishers from fault. Why? Well, going back to the fable of the concubine and the mirror, its the consumers who run away in tears when forced to confront the crimes of their fellow country people.

Numerating the crimes of the American empire is a long and arduous task better suited to smarter creators than myself. Renegade Cut in particular has done many great videos on the subject and I highly recommend watching their channel. That said, there is no escaping the subject when talking about Call of Duty: Dresden, the latest in a series of games that aims mostly for a North American audience, as it is both the birthplace of the series and the main market for its products. It is no coincidence either that a military first person shooter would revolve around a country which instigated the most wars in recent history while committing the most war crimes. The War on Terror has been raging non stop since 2001 and has a conservative death toll nearing a million people, mostly civilian. Reconciling this with escapist fantasy is impossible. Which is why Activision didn’t try. It chose to handwave it away because its audience would not be able to stomach it.

This is after all a basic human coping mechanism. Ignoring or denying the evils in our societies allows us to live a more comfortable life of ignorance. So long as we erect these walls we can pretend that the real human cost doesn’t concern us. Facts like our taxation funding civilian bombing or our consumerism allowing for sweatshops and modern slavery to prosper don’t register and dampen our spirit when we ignore them. How much more terrible would life be if one constantly thought about the human misery one created by simply existing and participating in modern society. I know that as a person with high anxiety and depression I’d probably break down into a sobbing heap of a man if I had to contemplate this every waking moment.

So I don’t, and neither most people. We go about our lives repressing that knowledge or, if our environment already built protective walls, completely oblivious of it. Any media that will seek to break through and undermine this blissful existence will, most often, be shunned. How many people ignored the horrors of the Vietnam war because it didn’t sit comfortably with them. How many ignored what happened in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and so forth. This is of course not a uniquely American situation either. Being born and raised in Israel, we were rarely, if ever, confronted by the horrors our government afflicted the Palestinians. The media rarely reported on the cost of our aggression to the Palestinians. Even today we devote far less time to the suffering of people in the Gaza strip as to the suffering of Israeli citizens living next to it, never asking how did things get to this point.

The worst part is not the discomfort, but the feeling of losing your foundation. Everything you thought you knew suddenly becomes a lie. Everything you were so certain of, was just an illusion. It can have a real traumatizing effect on people. Worse yet is the anger, an anger that often can’t find an outlet because the people that perpetuated most of this scam are either long dead or beyond your reach. You are adrift, rudderless and unsure if there are any safe ports in this suddenly hostile world. Why wouldn’t you just repress it all, forget these revelations and go back to a life of joyful consumption.

Corporations know this. They play along with it, they feed it and reap the rewards in a gruesome symbiotic relationship. They sell us the power fantasies we crave, assuring us that we are in the right, we are in the clear and our nation, so long as its a primary market, is the good guys. So long as its profitable for them, the large publishers and developers won’t change a thing. Its amoral, certainly, but its not immoral because we buy it. We absolve these companies from responsibility by constantly purchasing these games. No wonder critics may tire of it, but for the population at large its exactly what they want, what they crave.

That is the real issue that Skill Up and other critics can’t or won’t contend with. The success of Call of Duty: Hiroshima is proof that people want the same fantasy, the same reassuring piece of stale media to reinforce their beliefs about the world, beliefs partially formed by said media. They don’t want to be challenged by the media they consume. Simple as that. Thus, better, more complex and grey stories are often rejected by the mainstream audience. They don’t want to think about the complexity of morality and righteousness in a world where such terms are near impossible to define. No, they want to be reassured that their side is right, even when its not. Otherwise they won’t purchase the game, and Activision will lose a cash cow. Can’t do that so more of the regular slop.

In a recent article Martin Scorsese lamented the death of cinema and the rise of theme park commercial movies. While the film maker was much maligned for diagnosing correctly that Marvel movies were not cinema, i.e. high art, he was wrong in diagnosing the reason for their prevalence in popular culture. Its not that the Hollywood system now churns these empty spectacles for audiences thus teaching them to enjoy a flavorless product, but rather that the successful studios were those that catered for that exact taste. It may be a bitter pill to swallow but in reality most people go to the cinema to see a blockbuster movie filled with explosions and recognizable plot points and villains and heroes that are easy to recognize and understand. The studios producing these movies are the most successful thus able to produce more of them, a basic economic fact in our late stage capitalist world. The same goes for Call of Duty: Nagasaki.

Once we are willing to look at the mirror and see the faults in ourselves, we will be able to enjoy a much richer, more complex world of mainstream games. Until then we’d have to satisfy such hunger with the scrapes smaller studios attempt to provide. However Call of Duty: Highway of Death won’t do it since it has no incentive to do so. Because under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption.

Evolving the Review

Computer game reviews need to adapt to the new gaming reality

The one good thing that came out of the entire Fallout 76 (my god, I get tired just thinking about that game) debacle for me was the discovery of the Skill Up channel. For those of you who don’t know, Skill Up is a very talented game reviewer on YouTube. His reviews are more akin to long form essays that are well researched, brilliantly built, wonderfully presented and just tied up in a nice narrative ribbon. Just from a writing perspective I must give him mad props.

Now after sucking off Skill Up’s proverbial… thing, I wanted to address one of the points he made in his videos. In his review of Destiny 2, Skill Up dissented from the wider critic praise given to the game, instead calling it a more shallow copy of the first game. Of course, if anyone remembers the original launch of Destiny, it would make them scratch their heads. After all, Destiny 2 seemed to have launched with a lot more features and a lot more content than its predecessor.

Skill Up of course, had an answer for this seeming contradiction. While it was true the original launch of Destiny was a lackluster affair, the game had since been patched and iterated upon with downloadable content and expansions to the point that it quite surpassed its sequel in many areas. The sad fact though, was that many game critics didn’t play that final version of Destiny. Most of them played it around its launch window and after writing their reviews continued on to the next game launch. You can’t really fault them considering their job is to review games. Unlike consumers that often buy a handful of titles a year, game reviewers who wish to remain relevant must keep up with all the major releases in a year.

A good example is Zero Punctuation. Zero Punctuation is one of my favorite game reviewers partly due to his wit and partly because of the way he approaches game reviewing itself. The man posts a video a week, with only the end of the year video being a re-post. This means he reviews 53 titles a year. That said, not all of his reviews are of games themselves, as at times he may highlight important events in gaming history or just pull a sneaky retro review during a barren post major release season. Even so, around 80 percent of his videos would still feature games published in that current year.

Think about the amount of work each review entails as games continue to grow in size and complexity. To give a personal example, one of the early reviews I wrote was for Battletech. As a MechWarrior and MechWarrior Commander fan I was excited to see a new take on the franchise a la XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I must admit I wasn’t disappointed as the game was pretty much everything I wanted and more. Yet before sitting down to write the review I had sunk more than 50 hours into the game in order to finish the main storyline and explore many different options and other side content before I felt confident enough to give my final verdict.

Of course, game reviewers who make actual money reviewing games have the luxury of time compared to amateurs such as myself. Still, just looking at the amount of time I invested in a game such as Battletech, it is comparable to a working week, without taking into account the script writing, the filming, editing and other activities needed to produce good reviews. The amount of work is staggering, and the worst part is that launch seasons can pile the work unevenly. October is already referred by many as “Broketober” due to the amount of major game launches that hope to capitalize on the approaching holiday season. Being a major game reviewer during that time must be quite stressful.

Thus, game reviewers have very little time to invest in re-visiting old games. In another video, Skill Up re-visited No Man’s Sky and reported how the many features that the game was lambasted for missing had since been added, along with myriad of fixes and other improvements that made the game resemble its initial trailer rather than the blend, featureless mess we received at launch. However, most reviews of it still up will be of its launch build because game sites can scant afford to have staffers review old games when new ones are constantly published at a wallet strangling rate.

The problem is, with most major publishers moving towards a “games as service” format (I got plenty to say on that subject but will do so in a separate article) the old style of reviews becomes inadequate. As Destiny proved, whatever faults the game may possess at launch, as time goes by, more and more content is added on a yearly basis, enriching the game and often times fixing a lot of the initial complaints. By the time the game is more or less “complete” it may be radically different than what it was at the beginning and old reviews will not reflect that or give accurate information to prospective buyers, which is kind of the point of game reviews in general.

Another factor to consider is the technological shift. In the past, you shifted a physical copy and that was that. Cartridges, floppy disks and CD-ROMs represented a final version of a game. The moment they were out, that was that, over. If developers wanted to iterate upon a game, they needed to make a new boxed product and have it shipped as well. This meant that reviews could also be final since there was no real way to change or add to the game.

Of course, nowadays games get shipped broken all the time and subjected to day one patches thanks to internet connectivity. Almost every gaming household has a stable internet connection and with game launchers and digital distribution platforms like Steam, applying patches has become an easy and automated process. With the elimination of the need for physical copies comes greater freedom for developers to iterate on their games. Prominent examples are the Paradox Interactive games, each the subject of numerous expansions and downloadable content packs.

Stellaris is my favorite all time Paradox Interactive game. It is the game I have sunk the most hours in other than perhaps EVE Online. The fact is, every year sees new content added to the game with expansions and free patches that fundamentally alter core mechanics. Just last year the Le Guinn free patch (paired with the release of the MegaCorp expansion) saw a complete revamp of the game’s economic systems, changing the way many players including myself play the game. Any review predating it is now factually incorrect, doubly so to reviews from the time of the game’s launch in 2015. Even my own review of the patch is guaranteed to be obsolete within a couple of years as new content and changes are made.

The last example are online games. I already mentioned EVE Online so allow me to elaborate further. EVE Online is a complex game filled with politics and espionage. It is the game that ignited my writing passion. I started by writing battle reports on major engagements where hundreds, even thousands of players fought each other in a myriad of wars and conflicts. It is a living massive multiplayer online game where player interactions drive the narrative. Stepping away from it for a few months and only recently returning both to the game and to writing, I was amazed at some of the major political upheavals that happened in my absence. To catch up to the current political landscape, fleet doctrines and other mechanical changes will take me weeks. Keeping tabs on it all is a full time job considering the amount of player contacts you need to make and maintain.

All of this pretty much proves that the old, set in stone, game review model just doesn’t fit the constantly changing, shifting reality of modern game development. Games have become to some extent living breathing things. Constantly changing and updating by their own nature or the vision of developers and publishers. Thus what was true yesterday no longer applies to today and even less for tomorrow. Navigating this constant change as a consumer can be a real nightmare, as you are deprived of reliable sources of information.

Some outlets have recognized this shift in the gaming landscape and have made strides in hiring staff to write either exclusively on certain games or have existing staff return to older titles to give them a second look. That said, I still think this is more of a stopgap than a real solution. Some reviewers online dedicate themselves to covering certain games or gaming genres and thus often give updates on the same game regularly, while others re-visit their old work to try and see what changed.

That said, I have no real solution to offer. Even Steam user reviews are not a good metric to use since some could have been left by players that have since abandoned the title. Consumers though, need guidance. They need reviews that they could trust and that would give a full picture that will enable them to make an informed choice. So far, some games are being passed over due to bad reviews that refer to earlier builds, while others coast on good reviews that have since become obsolete due to unwanted additions such as microtransactions (looking at you Call of Duty: Black Ops 4).

Whether its a constantly updating review page for a game or weekly re-review of older titles, some sort of system is badly needed. Unfortunately, like the rest of you all I can do is just to keep up to date with my favorite games and write a new review with every major patch or content release.