Call of Duty: Roads to Victory

I should have known from the box cover, a hand-drawn picture of two G.I.’s in action, blasting away in different directions. It has the classic muted colors of a ’50s comic or propaganda poster. This was not the reality I was looking for.

I’m no simulationist — I don’t think video games should hew too closely to reality, but come on, killing 50 Germans with an M1 Garand semi-automatic rifle while barreling down the bombed out streets of Carentan, France is ludicrous. Given what little I know of the reality of war, especially World War II, this sort of action is so beyond the pale of reality that it could only be classified as a tall tale. In fact, it calls into question the narrative context being presented. Is Call of Duty: Roads to Victory couched in the World War II of acrid gunsmoke, burnt flesh, jammed guns, cold rations and death? Is it presenting the heroic, folk World War II where the Axis brazenly awake the sleeping giant of America and its cornfed supersoldiers who leap across the Channel to kick some Kraut ass? Or does it simply offer a ride through a well-defined media space, the first-person shooter, lightly themed, but hewing closer to the reality of “first-person shooting” than “World War II”? Whatever the context, apparently even “The Greatest Generation” needs high kill counts to be exciting.

For many obvious reasons, Call of Duty cannot and should not attempt to simulate the reality of World War II. In fact, I’m generally of the opinion that close simulation is a bad thing in games. Games are abstractions of reality. That’s why they’re fun. I don’t want to deal with jammed guns or eat cold rations. And I really, really don’t want to die. But still, a game that ostensibly takes on a narrative context needs to offer some semblance to that context. And when I say semblance, I suppose what I mean is faithfulness to the narrative promised. These games needn’t be faithful to reality, but they do need to be faithful to the experience they promise. If they aren’t faithful to this, they risk falling into complete incoherence.

So to be fair, Call of Duty: Roads to Victory for the PSP basically fulfills the promise it makes. Following some propaganda-lite newsreel footage to open the game, you are dropped into exactly the milieu that the Call of Duty series promises: barreling down the streets of a bombed out French town, shooting Germans. The narrative content flits between the folk heroic World War II and the more abstract content of the shooting gallery on rails. After all there are no “roads to victory” in Call of Duty. There is only one road, winding into one alleyway, winding into one stairway leading to another road which you must follow and in which you must kill as many Germans as possible along the way.

The game faces the tension between historical accuracy and the dissatisfaction that would come from firing a rusty, battered M1 Garand semi-automatic rifle. And the designers chose to side with you, the player. They don’t want you to be dissatisfied. Your gun may look like an M1, but it’s really a laser-accurate cannon from the future.

And while this “shooting gallery on rails” hardly seems like a narrative theme — it’s more of a game mechanic, really — I would have preferred the game to fully adopt this abstract mechanic as its focus, rather than reminding me that I was a soldier in World War II, reminding me that this was a real war. While I understand that this is the folk-heroic World War II, I keep wishing it weren’t. I wish I weren’t playing as some superhuman soldier killing everyone in sight and conveniently picking up bazookas whenever they are needed. Despite how nicely the folk-heroic feel would seem to dovetail with the shooting gallery, I found it deeply disappointing.

I wanted to have the chance to shoot, but I wanted that chance to be couched in fear and dread. I wanted that chance to be stolen between ducking for cover, cowering for my life. I wanted to be bossed around. I wanted to be required by military chain of command to closely follow a set of orders instead of having to simply follow the shooting gallery’s predetermined path. Then, that action of shooting might feel like it had a meaning on par with the narrative of war that I am somewhat masochistically seeking, the one filled with death. I didn’t want this game to be fun; I wanted it to make me feel the awful hopelessness of war.

I suppose this is no fault of Call of Duty‘s. I should have known from the box. And in fact, the gameplay is fairly well done. The shooting gallery mechanic works well with the limitations of the PSP controls. Clever level designers have placed ammo and the aforementioned bazookas wherever you will need them. In general, it plays well. The aiming reticule snaps satisfyingly to targets allowing you to make quick work of any Germans you encounter. The guns are well balanced and inflict just the right amount of damage a gun in a first-person shooter should. It only takes a shot or two to kill people. It’s fun. I genuinely have fun playing Call of Duty: Roads to Victory. And all of this was somehow my problem. It was too easy to kill, and too fun.

Night missions…always a pain

This is where my critique of Call of Duty will turn from the general to the personal. But first, let me tell you a couple more things that I am not. As I said, I’m no simulationist. And I’m also not opposed to violence or killing in games. In fact, I really enjoy shooters. I’m also not opposed to war games. But of late I’ve felt twinge of unease playing games that place war in even the most marginally realistic of settings, while the more fantastic ones remain somehow more palatable.

I know Call of Duty has nothing to do with the reality of World War II. It is a heroic version of an idea that we hold about being in a war that most us of don’t remember, but only understand through movies and books. And in this way, Call of Duty does glorify war — not real war, but our heroic vision of it. How can I play a game that glorifies war in a time when our country is actually at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where real people are being shot and killed?

This may seem a ridiculously naïve question. So let me outline my own internal narrative in response:

“Games are not reality. This game clearly has nothing to do with war. It’s as much about war as, say, Chess (well, okay, a bit more than Chess).”

“Not true — it is clearly about war, albeit in a purely representational way — you play as a G.I.; you’re in the army; it’s about World War II.”

“If in fact Call of Duty is anything like war, better for me to glean some small understanding of what war is like from a game than from reality.”

“It does not offer that because the game is more faithful to the mechanics of first-person shooters than it is to the reality of World War II. What we are to glean is an understanding of first-person shooters, not World War II.”

“It’s just a game. Games are for escaping reality.”

“True, it is just a game. But games and media shape how we view reality and the choices we make, tying them intimately together.”

Now my discomfort with Call of Duty is not particularly noble, because every time I put down war games, I end up picking them up again. Why? Well, shooting games are ultimately satisfying to me in a way few other games are. All that shooting and falling and dying have a very real concrete feeling. It’s a style of action which the news and movies have made me understand as reality. It is not abstract in the way popping Chuzzles or matching gems will always be. There is no case in human history when lining up three like objects made them disappear. Humans do, however, shoot, kill, and die. It is the feeling of satisfaction with the world of Call of Duty that makes me feel bad.

It plays to my ambivalent feelings about war in general, especially the start of the war in Iraq. It’s easy to say you’re against the war now — things have gone so spectacularly wrong that hindsight is far greater than 20/20. There were no weapons of mass destruction as Powell promised. Democracy has not risen from the shattered state of Iraq as Wolfowitz held out. Quite shamefully for me, I fell more for the neo-con ideology than the more popular, reasonable “imminent threat” argument. I never bought it wholeheartedly, but I did believe with a proper multi-nation coalition and the backing of the U.N., overthrowing Saddam Hussein would be a good thing. In a world of ideologies, the logical argument for disposing Hussein and transforming the Middle East through nation-building seemed like the right course of action. I should have known that wasn’t the reality I was going to get. That picture was painted in colors only a shade more complex than that of two G.I.’s firing in opposite directions.

Both this game and my initial support for the war in Iraq make me worry that I’m bloodthirsty. That somehow, I bought into the picture Robert Kagan created in his neoconservative treatise, Of Paradise and Power, that America should act because it can act. Though worlds apart in terms of production, seriousness and even intent, Of Paradise and Power and Call of Duty share a vision of the world. The complete ease of Call of Duty paints a similar picture, that war is easy and winnable. That action wins out.

In the end my critique of the game is one of context exterior to the reality within the game. This may not seem particularly fair to Call of Duty or any work of art, but it is one I feel I need to make. Call of Duty falls into a myth of ease. At this particular moment, with the reality of the war in Iraq and our inability to fix that which we have broken, anything perpetuating that myth of ease is unacceptable. War just isn’t this easy.

RATING 5 / 10