Know your story… or be doomed to repeat it.
How many times have we seen this sentiment, paraphrasing the Spanish philosopher George Santayana? There must be thousands of them at this point, a good half of them in the past four years. You’d expect this to come from tweets related to something terrible that just happened, but not so much in video game ads. Yet that’s exactly how the last long-standing entry Call of Duty franchise, Cold War Black Ops, introduced himself. “Inspired by real events,” he says, on archival footage of soldiers, protesters and politicians as well as excerpts from an interview with Soviet defector Yuri Bezmenov.
Bezmenov’s presence in that trailer sparked controversy – as did the company’s decision to remove footage from Tiananmen Square to appease the Chinese government – due, among other things, to his belief that equality between gender, ethnicity and sexuality is worthless and the fights for it are, in fact, just communist plots to destabilize America. Of course, he doesn’t mention this in those interview clips, instead pointing to a potential big government voted by “all the shmucks” as the next big danger – itself … not big. If that wasn’t enough, the interview was conducted by G. Edward Griffin, a longtime member of the John Birch Society who for years has embraced 9/11 truth and denial of HIV / AIDS. While it’s unlikely that whoever handled the trailer didn’t understand the dog whistle they were sending – celebrated by at least one far-right YouTuber – it’s plausible that not everyone have no knowledge of this context. So, I gave him the benefit of the doubt… until Ronald Reagan pops up onscreen and tells me to go do war crimes.
the Call of Duty The franchise has seen a release every year since 2005, and it’s been quite a roller coaster. The first three entries too – like a myriad of spin-offs – were set during WWII, and then it has moved on to the present day with its hugely influential fourth entry, Modern war, eventually going into the future and finally into space before falling back to Earth. At this point, publisher Activision Blizzard is just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what makes a billion dollars. In 2017, that meant a throwback to the context of World War II which sought to remind us that the Nazis were “not all bad”. In 2018 they decided to release a battle royale style Fortnite high-priced competitor they have since abandoned for free-to-play Warzone. The 2019 entry reused the Modern war dubbed for making his own version of the attack on the Benghazi embassy, with a little interactive waterboarding for good (bad) measure.
But these games are not all from the same teams. Its annual release is made possible by a rotating roster of studios, each spending several years each on its next iteration. In the age of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the creator of the Infinity Ward series has traded with Treyarch. When the Xbox One and the PS4 hit the market, this went to a cycle every three years, as Sledgehammer Games was added to the mix. But clearly, there was some uproar behind the scenes, because while it’s Sledgehammer’s turn, it’s not their game: Treyarch is back two years later. Black Ops 4 alongside Raven Software, which had provided support for the development of previous titles but had never taken the reins.
I do not envy the task they had for themselves: this is the first Call of Duty during the “cross-gen” period, where all major titles must support existing platforms as well as the new features of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. (And the complexity of supporting half a dozen platforms is probably what affected its launch.) Given that, it makes sense that Treyarch would go back to the well and make something familiar. Where 2012 Black Ops 2 started the near future trend by partially taking place in 2025, the awkwardly named Cold War Black Ops is firmly rooted in the past. 1981: Ronald Reagan is now president, and he seems very keen to see his boys go out on the field and do bad things to presumably bad people.
the Covert operations the sub-series has always been closer to real world events than the others Call of Duty games, so Reagan’s appearance is not in itself surprising. John F. Kennedy appears in the original Covert operations 2010 game, in a really weird sequence where your character, in some sort of hallucination, points a handgun at the president as he authorizes the killing of a single target (as opposed to the general massacre license offered by Reagan). Of course, Covert operations also ends with archival footage of JFK on the day of his assassination, in which the protagonist was digitally inserted. In the context, it is strongly implying that this man pulled the trigger that day – although that never happens in any of the sequels.
“John F. Kennedy appears in the original 2010 Black Ops game, in a truly bizarre sequence where your character, in some sort of hallucination, points a handgun at the President as he authorizes the killing of a single target (as opposed to the licensed massacre coverage Reagan offers).“
Cold War Black OpsThe latter’s main antagonist is Perseus, a Soviet spy named after the possibly real Soviet spy who allegedly infiltrated the Manhattan Project and stole secrets to allow Russia to build its own nuclear weapons. It is not known whether Perseus ever existed or if he was just a Soviet intelligence ploy to sow doubt in the ranks, but the name has real meaning. Likewise, a first mission is a flashback on Vietnam in 1968 and Operation Fracture Jaw: a real idea set up by General William C. Westmoreland to bring nuclear weapons to South Vietnam in 1968 so that ‘they can be deployed to the north at any time. In the game, we live it. In fact, Lyndon B. Johnson shut it down.
Which brings us back to that initial teaser: “Inspired by real events.” Alternative stories in games aren’t new, but they tend to be grandiose: the Nazis won… what now? Cold War Black OpsThe smaller-scale mix of historical fact and historical fiction is rare and gives the game’s story a kind of legitimacy it doesn’t really deserve. “Know your story or be doomed to repeat it.” But what story is it exactly? I don’t know much about the Cold War, so whenever a new operation was named, I checked to see if the United States actually intended, for example, to place nuclear weapons in large European cities – just in case. This one, “Operation Greenlight”, was made entirely for the game, and it sets up the central conflict, because this version of Perseus discovers the bombs and wants to take them for himself. We must of course stop it.
It becomes violent immediately. The first instruction given to you is to “interrogate and neutralize” a target. As you begin your journey, your companions complain about the rules: “Do we really need to take this son of a bitch alive?” we ask. Don’t worry, said the other, “Everyone, we can turn to powder.” Guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when a few minutes later a prompt told me to press R3 for a “Brutal Melee Kill” and it resulted in my character getting a knife stuck in my neck. of that person before grabbing their handgun and shooting point blank in their faces. His many. I think we’re maybe three years away from the point where even the developers of Mortal combat will say, “Maybe tone it down a bit, guys?”
Of course, once we grabbed the man we’re looking for, we beat him and threatened to throw him off a roof until he tells us what we want to know, because in popular media , torture is a good thing that always works. Interestingly, you ultimately have the choice to throw it off the roof (the first option by default, of course), release it, or keep it for further questioning. Every once in a while these little choices pop up that have very little bearing on the overall narrative, and basically consist of choosing between being a decent person and causing the deaths of millions of people. Hardly a deep ethical conundrum.
Look, I don’t expect anything subversive in a franchise that aims to make billions with every entry, but I made this game really need to lionize MKUltra? I guess the original game had an element of brainwashing, and the team felt like it needed that as well, but come on. While we’re not supposed to sympathize with the characters who did – without consent, for that matter – the “good” ending demands that there be no consequences for their actions because in fact it is. was for the greater good. Although the conflict is entirely America’s fault for secretly planting nuclear weapons all over Europe, Perseus is actually the bad guy because he wants the US to take the blame for doing the wrong thing. , and don’t dare question that for a moment. As one character says, “Some of us will cross the line to make sure there is still a line in the morning.”
It’s the kind of jingo shit that’s always hit the show, but it hits differently in 2020, and also when you put it in a more realistic context. As clearly connected to the real world as inputs like Modern war are, the characters fight in fictional cities against fictitious forces. But when a digital version of Ronald Reagan sits at the head of a table and tells you that you must take on a Soviet spy to save the free world no matter the cost, the abstraction is gone. You are ready to commit war crimes for the United States, and Call of Duty: Cold War Black Ops think it’s just bloat.
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