I’m a big fan of cooperative computer games, but I’m not inclined to join guilds (aside from the Fuel Rats, but that was kind of an odd situation). So what do you do when your friends start playing Call of Duty?
As a technology demo, it’s really amazing. I was hoping I could play and look it as an exercise in lighting, motion capture and set design. This is a seriously beautiful game; one of the things that kept coming to mind was “this engine is good enough that you could write movies in it.” That’s what I believe the eventual arc of Hollywood is going to be, and the timing on that is exacerbated by watching The Irishman for an hour this weekend. When you’re at the point where you can turn Robert DeNiro’s potato-lump face into a younger-looking bunch of potato-lump, at what point do you need DeNiro? I am genuinely afraid that Hollywood is going to take advantage of this technology to simultaneously screw actors/actresses out of work, and to whitewash all the characters. Hollywood has long had a problem with putting white people in non-white roles and using bad makeup to pull it off; the end-game for that is coming. Imagine a movie in which some actor plays multiple parts for cost-saving because the studio told them “this is your big break!” and slipped by a contract saying “We can also use a digital model of you to complete the rest of the series. Buh-bye!”
Once you get into the game, it feels to me like I am in Quentin Tarantino world, in the worst possible sense. Do you remember how in, Inglorious Basterds, the nazis were the snappy dressers? There were ridiculous blood-spattered fights, and the overall message of the movie seems to be “everyone is shit.” There are no good guys or bad guys – everyone is horrible and murderous and a liar or a traitor. It feels like that. I’m not saying that I expect a video game to teach kids morality, but rather that the people who produced this game managed to utterly miss a golden opportunity to ask questions about that. When I started playing I thought that maybe I’d yell “war crime” every time a war crime is committed in campaign mode, but that got tiring really fast. The war crimes come fast and furious and everyone does them. The only war crime, so far, that hasn’t happened is use of nuclear weapons on a city full of civilians, but I’m only part-way into the campaign mode.
The “bad guys” in Call of Duty are either generic Russians or generic Arabs. You can tell the Russians are Russian because they have fucking ridiculous accents that does make you want to gun them down just for being cheesy. The Arabs are arabs because they wear kaffiyeh and yell “allahu akbar!” while you shoot them. It was then that I realized 1st person shooter gaming has not progressed much since 1992’s Castle Wolfenstein where the nazis yelled various inanities in a california software engineer’s idea of a cheesy German accent. The bad guys are bad because they do bad things: they torture people – this game has a lot of torture scenes in it; everybody gets tortured. Again, it’s Quentin Tarantino-esque: it’s as if they want to respond to the “one of the tropes you have is a woman being tied to a chair and waterboarded” by “well that’s not sexist, because in our game everybody gets tied to chairs and waterboarded!” When you hit rock bottom there isn’t anywhere to go, so there can’t be any criticism that one party or another is abused. By the way, that is the plot of Inglorious Basterds so I may have saved you having to see that movie.
It’s “hipster whataboutism” gone 3D first person: everyone gets gassed, tortured, and commits loads of war crimes – you can’t complain that the Russians are portrayed as war criminals because everyone is. I guess that is the message of the “Modern Warfare” part of this game. You can be a ‘good guy’ shooting your way into a hospital to capture and eventually kill the leader of some bad guys. Other than the cheesy accent, there is no moral superiority anywhere. After the first half hour I realized that the only moral epistemology in the game is that people with british accents are OK. Everyone else sucks. “What about the torture?” “It’s OK, everyone does it” the hipster points out smugly.
The obvious problem that the game wants to dance past is that, if we’re killing these bad guys because they do bad things like torture people and shoot everything that moves, why don’t we turn our guns on our companions with the british accents? They’re just as horrible; in fact they’re better at being horrible; which makes them a greater danger to humanity. In that sense I think the game does capture something about prevailing trends in modern warfare: the more powerful you are the better you are – simply because you leave fewer survivors to complain and have a more robust infrastructure to apologize and forgive yourself for your crimes after they have been committed.
Let me give you an example: in one early gun-battle, “terrorists” attack London. The graphics are amazing; I’ve spent a lot of time in London and immediately said, “oh, look, it’s Picadilly Circus!”
You can tell that guy’s a baddie because he’s wearing a stupid hollywood suicide vest. That’s one thing that the good guys don’t do in this game. The subtext is one that has been a justification over and over for carnage: “these natives don’t value their lives like we people with british accents do.” Well, they don’t drop white phosphorus on hospitals, either, but that’s because they don’t have big expensive airforces with AC-130s standing by to drop white phosphorus. In this game, nobody values life at all. Nobody has any principles at all, unless it’s to keep a stiff upper lip and be tough – even that principle falls apart, for me: I don’t see any military glory in being able to sneak into a building in the dark, wearing night vision goggles and carrying a silenced machine-gun, to shoot everyone whose eyes you can’t immediately see. Oh, yeah, that’s another giveaway in this game – when someone’s head is going to be blown apart in a puff of blood, they make sure they are wearing a head-scarf or goggles first so, you know, it’s not as shocking or something.
The body counts in this game are ridiculous and lop-sided. In the history of warfare there are documented incidents of fanatical attacks into the face of extreme casualties, but the casualty-rates in Call of Duty are reminiscent of the worst days at The Somme. You get on a roof with your night-vision gear and a machine-gun and several hundred head-scarf wearing zombies attack your position while you gun them down in puffs of blood. Most troops would immediately go to ground and cease the assault, switching over to suppressive return fire or sniping, but these guys just jump over the top of the trench and come at you and die, die, die. Even Russian supposed-special forces do that, which is funny; I guess the subtext is: “Russians are pretty stupid pop-up-and-die dolls, too!” if they had british accents they would never do such a thing. But the game takes everything that we know about combat morale and throws it out the window – in modern warfare a big gunfight is one where 15-20 casualties are had, and they’re mostly Médecins Sans Frontières if the US military is involved. I remember talking to my friend Steve Zimmerman, who was a scout/sniper with an LRRP team in Vietnam and he told me that when they were scouting in the free-fire zones they might move 50-100 feet in an hour they moved that slowly and carefully. If you read accounts of combat outside of set-piece battles or slaughter-fests like Borodino, one characteristic is that if a side takes about 10% casualties, they tend to melt away. Especially if that’s immediate. Sure, there are incidents like Thermopylae where everyone stands and dies, but most of the time whichever side takes a great big whack of damage decides it’s time to run away and learn how to snipe.
I’m fairly sure that the people who made this game had some vague idea of showing how cool the special operators are, with their immaculately-trimmed beards and fancy gear. But to me they’re just a bunch of psychopathic thugs with better gear, who have the courage to sneak around in the dark and shoot people who can’t see them. I’m fairly sure that the people who made this game were thinking they’d make it a realistic action game – in which case, when you get hit by a high-velocity bullet, you should not be allowed to play for 6-9 months regardless of what kind of accent you have. In Call of Duty when you make a tactical error and get some of the shit blown out of you, you duck behind something and catch your breath until the bloodstains fade and you can go back out and shoot some more helpless victims.
Military glory, indeed. What the players haven’t realized (is this a spoiler for a big reveal?) is that they are the unstoppable zombie horde that gets shot, goes to ground, yet staggers to its feet and comes on, again.
I’ve heard people hypothesize that games like Call of Duty exist to inure people to actual combat and killing, by reinforcing totalitarian and racist stereotypes. To some degree, I’ll say “that’s all true” except it’s inuring people to be cannon-fodder. Everyone in the game is cannon-fodder, torture-meat, and amoral. I don’t think gamers are that thoughtless, frankly. But they are pretty thoughtless not to laugh this gorgeous piece of shit off their hard drives.
Oh, yeah – the game’s attitude toward the CIA is interesting. It appears we are moving from the time when the CIA’s publicists were able to get every game to promote the “CIA is cool and competent” meme everywhere. I was a bit disturbed by the way the CIA in this game is kind of, shall we say, “deep-statey”? They’re definitely portrayed as some of the war criminal’est war criminals – unhesitatingly approving sending special forces to St Petersburg (last time I checked that was in a sovereign nation?) and starting a massive gun-battle in the city streets that caused around – I lost count – 100 dead, or thereabouts. Remember, when the Al-Qatala (I guess Activision didn’t want to get sued for trademark infringement by Al Qaeda) starts a gunfight in Picadilly Circus we know they are bad guys because good guys don’t do that – they start gunfights in St Petersburg.
One more thing: the game has a ludicrous mini-game at one point where you have to cut the wires on a body bomb. This trope crops up again and again and again in shitty terrorism movies, since Die Hard II and I wish it would stop. Electrically detonated bombs are a simple electronics problem: there is a controller and a battery and a firing circuit. The controller also has a battery (if the controller is an iPhone the battery is internal). The controller would almost always be closing a relay that carries the main power to the blasting cap and sets it off. So, typically, you’re going to have a couple batteries and a blasting cap. The blasting cap is the thing stuck into the explosive and it’s not energized when the bomb is not in the process of going off. If you start snipping all the blasting cap wires, the bomb will not go off unless it is currently in the process of going off when you approach it with your snippers. Therefore: start snipping shit as fast as you can before whoever it is who has their finger on the button pushes it. Any semi-rational terrorist will set the bomb off as you are approaching it, and are still 6-10 feet away. The nice thing about that scenario is that you’ll never know what happened because high explosive shockwaves propagate faster than the nerve signals in your brain – you’re a fine mist of gooey stuff before your brain even has a chance to register anything. That should be comforting! So the algorithm is: if you get within snipping range of a bomb, just start snipping the blasting cap wires and/or anything that looks like it’s connected to a battery. Bombs are actually pretty simple and delicate circuits. Most of the real bomb designs I’ve ever seen would fail completely if you snip any old wire at all. Game designers and movie-makers: please stop with this stupid trope. Or do your goddamn research.
Oh yeah, blasting caps are hard to come by and are kind of precious. Other than well-funded hollywood bomb-makers nobody’d waste 6 of them to make 6 redundant firing circuits on a body bomb. And why make redundant firing circuits? You want your bomb to be simple and reliable, not complicated with wires running all over the place screaming “snip me!”
I was thinking how I’d build a really nasty hollywood bomb; it’d be wirelessly controlled via 802.11 connected to a local hotspot and it’d be running an arduino controller with a PHP script (and a 4 character password, natch) so you could detonate it via its built-in web page. The controller, battery, and cap would all be formed inside a block of C-4 plastic explosive and the outside would be festooned with hollywood-style wires and countdown clocks and a laptop running Ubunto with a Ruby on Rails app driving a Russian-commented obscured piece of code. The heros would be calling on cell phones, “can you un-obfuscate a piece of RoR code for me?!” and I’d be sitting in a cybercafe in Amsterdam laughing my ass off, drinking shitty Starbucks hot coffee (to make me grumpy, really grumpy) ready to click the “OK, explode” button.
And WTF are the stupid padlocks for!?!? First off, some anonymous angel sent me a pair of DeWalt battery-powered angle grinders last year; with the diamond cut-off wheels I usually have mounted on them they’d go through those padlocks like cheese. But what I’d do first is use the angle grinder to shred all the wires, turn the guy around, and shred all the wires back in the back, too. Then I’d put the angle grinder down and use snippers on every wire coming out of a block of explosive. Then I’d chop the locks. Don’t send your cheesy Al Hollywooda bombs up against a blacksmith or you’re going to just look really stupid.
By the way: Robert Evans from Behind the Bastards podcast – tell your listeners to get a nice DeWalt battery-powered angle grinder with diamond cut-off wheels instead of bolt cutters. For one thing, the angle grinder is better for interrogating capitalists; it’s got better reach than the bolt-cutters – those things could probably do fine on toes and fingers but the angle grinder will work on fences, locks, and arteries.