There's a strangely nostalgic tone to Call of Duty: WWII, at least what we've seen of it thus far.
Here we are, the trailer seems to say, Back to Normandy. See the Higgins boats? The beaches? Hear the zip of the MG-42?
It's meant to remind viewers of another time—not a time when the world was at war, but when it was largely at peace. These sounds, visuals, and themes aren't so much a return to Normandy itself but of the imaginary Omaha Beach of Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and the copycat game genre it spawned. But though Americans may be ready to return to World War II, the rest of the world doesn't have the luxury of "rediscovering" a conflict they still live with every day—and that's begging for a new perspective.
Anyone watching the Call of Duty: WWII trailer can see that it's inspired by the wartime oeuvre of Stephen Spielberg. Released in 1998, Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was not only a critical success; it redefined how the public imagines World War II, and revolutionized the look of historical combat onscreen.
Because Spielberg didn't want the action to come across as fake, he proposed that Private Ryan's visual style should look antique—more like newsreel footage or a documentary like Memphis Belle than a Hollywood film. To recreate the feel of older camera technology, the cinematographer shot the action at a lower frame rate, stripped protective coating from the camera lenses, and ran the film through a bleach bypass to deaden the colors and add an element of fuzziness. The technique was so successful that Spielberg reused it for the 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers as well as Medal of Honor, an FPS game developed as an extension of the brand.
Indeed, Spielberg's new visual shorthand proved so popular that it became the go-to format for games that wanted to express how historical combat "really" looked—never mind that the soldiers who actually landed at Normandy saw its horrors in full color, not through desaturated film.
Nevertheless, the visual cue that dim lighting and cold tones signify realism still haunts us to this day, appearing everywhere from the DC film franchise to grim and gritty FPS games. The Call of Duty: WWII trailer clearly draws from this well. Though the graphics are sharper than Spielberg's, and the light more distinct, the cues are still there.
Which would be fine—except that from what we've seen, the themes of Call of Duty: WWII also flash back toward those Spielberg epics. Once again, we see a story of a group of men who go through a difficult experience as they push into Germany, forging bonds of brotherhood. The word "camaraderie" cropped up so often on the announcement live stream that it became a gag.
And I understand whey they're employing that narrative. The bonds forged during combat are a good story, but we've heard it before—and that's a problem.
Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers are great cinema. Both provide convincing narratives about war and the human spirit. In Private Ryan a group of soldiers try to tabulate the cost of conflict, and how much they owe others that wear the same uniform. Band of Brothers provides an intimate portrait of soldiers developing bonds that let them survive challenging circumstances.
Private Ryan ends on a cathartic note, showing a veteran's family that wouldn't exist except for the sacrifice of his comrades. Band of Brothers closes with the surviving members of Easy Company playing baseball while the narrator talks about the happy lives they lived afterward. Both films show a war that was horrifying but necessary, where ordinary men did extraordinary things then came home. It's Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation narrative, distilled.
And that's certainly one way to see the war, but it's also been almost 20 years since Saving Private Ryan and sixteen since Band of Brothers. Modern understanding of the war has broadened since then, and the cultural forces that made these films successful has changed.
When Spielberg's war films emerged, America was stuck in a cultural malaise brought on by the end of the Cold War. In this period—sometimes referred to by the short-lived term "The End of History"—America found itself without a unifying national project and instead mired in small conflicts abroad and domestic arguments at home. Young people felt disaffected and directionless despite a fairly strong economy. Popular entertainment like The Matrix and Fight Club capitalized off this feeling of restlessness, telling stories about characters who break out of stable but unexciting lives to take on a quest to remake society.
And WWII nostalgia was a part of this—a look back at a time when Americans had put aside differences and self-interest to take on a national mission. Part of the bittersweet tinge lurking behind The Greatest Generation, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers was the idea that such heroism would never happen today. There's an optimism in these stories, a good humor and innocence that cuts through the dirt and blood.
And it remains a very attractive narrative, even as our understanding of the war has changed. The Greatest Generation narrative doesn't hold the water it once did. Now we look at more varied sources, like accounts of drunken GIs terrorizing Italian towns, Japanese internment, segregated military forces, or the mass bombing of civilians.
Years of the War on Terror have habituated us to think about the troops psychologically or physically scarred by conflict, whose lives continue well after being shipped home. Watching Band of Brothers today, it's striking how that heartwarming baseball scene skips over mentioning Bill Guarnere and Joe Toye, two major characters who disappear after each lost a leg at Bastogne. A modern film would at least nod to the years of difficult recovery ahead of them.
But on the contrary, there seems to have been an intentional effort to smooth some of the rough edges of Easy Company in order to keep the focus on their personal bonds. For example, the series never explores whether anti-Semitism played a role in the toxic relationship with their first commander, Captain Sobel.
While Sobel certainly comes across as a difficult and even incompetent officer, the series omits how soldiers sabotaged him by "misplacing" equipment, or how two medics knocked him out with anesthetic and cut an incision in his torso. It nods toward social issues like drunkenness, looting, the Holocaust, and even extrajudicial killing, but it's often written in a manner that portrays these as temporary moral failings—these people are too likable for you to judge them. Come on, they've been through a lot, right?
Indeed, in 2010 even producers Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks seem to have veered away from that cleaner narrative. The Pacific, pitched as a spiritual sequel to Band of Brothers, doesn't have any of its predecessor's charm or sense of fun. The combat scenes are brutal, nasty and unexciting—shot more like horror than action.
Instead of a narrative about brotherhood, each of the three characters feels supremely alienated and alone. One falls apart mentally, unable to take the stress. Another finds his success as a soldier only boxes him into more and more deadly situations. The third enters the war as a shy boy, and ends it with his innocence and sense of personal morality shattered. They do genuinely atrocious things that they can't justify to themselves, much less to the audience. It was harder to face, unpleasant, and often felt more honest than Band of Brothers. By the time the bats and mitts came out, you wanted to serve in Easy Company—but no one joined the Marines after seeing The Pacific.
It was, unsurprisingly, not as popular.
Which is why it feels like a bit of a shame that I get déjà vu during the trailers and announcement events for Call of Duty: WWII. One reason The Pacific sticks with me is how radically it departs from the "good war" narrative of the other Spielberg productions and re-examines the conflict from another perspective. Call of Duty: WWII, at least from what I've seen so far, doesn't appear to do that. Once again we get Normandy, the advance across France, and breaching the Siegfried Line. It's all been done before—by Call of Duty, in fact. Call of Duty 2: Big Red One followed the same division in its trek across Germany, while adding Italy and North Africa for good measure. It was also a game about the brotherhood of combat.
Don't mistake my intentions here, I'm not knocking WWII before it's out. I'd just hoped Activision would roll out a concept that didn't remind me of a movie. For example, a game featuring the Japanese-American 100th Battalion/442nd RCT would provide all the action beats while also delivering a fresh look at the war. Focus on other fronts, like the Philippines, North Africa, or even Italy could expand the horizons of the conflict. Centering the narrative on resistance fighters might bring overdue attention to the civilian experience.
Some positive news has trickled out. Flashbacks to the character's childhood seem like they could be interesting, and I'm curious to see how CoD: WWII treats segregated units, French Resistance characters, and the one British character. Interviews with the developers suggest that the game will treat its characters as vulnerable, frightened citizen soldiers as opposed to the Tier-1 Operators the series has increasingly wound itself around. I'm intrigued by the prospect of an increased devotion to environmental storytelling.
America's ability to revisit and reframe WWII is almost completely unique.
If the game uses its mechanics in an interesting way—the way World at War had a hidden morality system that tracked war crimes, or Advanced Warfare used the first-person perspective to weave a narrative about digital consciousness—it could still come across as fresh and worthwhile. It's early days, yet.
Still, I find myself wishing this were more of a reinvention. After all, America's ability to revisit and reframe WWII is almost completely unique.
Apart from Hawaii, America fought the war completely abroad. That tends to disconnect us from some of the more negative aspects, but it also gives us special ability to alter how we see the conflict. To be frank, Americans have the luxury to re-discover World War II. We can forget about it for awhile, let it rest, then change our evaluation when we decide to go back.
The rest of the world has a harder time with that. Sure, perspectives change, but many countries continue to live with the war on a daily basis, and that make their point of view less malleable. In places like Britain, Germany, Russia, France, China, and Japan, people still regularly feel the war's impact. It isn't an event that happened in the past, which can be dispassionately reworked and reassessed—it's happening now.
It's seventy years since the V-E Day, and Germans are still dying from American bombing raids.
Take Germany, for instance. Every year, 2,000 tons of unexploded munitions are unearthed on German soil, most of it from Allied bombing. It's not unusual for police to evacuate whole areas of a city, sometimes as many as 20-30,000 people, before sending in the bomb squad. Since 2000, eleven bomb techs have died diffusing unexploded ordinance. It's seventy years since the V-E Day, and Germans are still dying from American bombing raids.
Meanwhile, London has a similar ordinance problem. Across the channel, 35% of French voters recently cast their votes for the National Front, a party partially founded by Nazi collaborators.
Here in Asia, the political climate still echoes with the war's final shots.
North and South Korea exist because of an Allied agreement to split the country into Soviet and American occupation zones—instead of a unified Korea, we got a Cold War fault line.
Meanwhile, the Nationalist Chinese government—exhausted from over a decade of fighting the Japanese—folded in the face of a Communist insurgency and fled to Taiwan. Again, the repercussions still drive foreign policy today.
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe antagonizes neighbors in the region with war revisionism, offerings to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, and proposals of Japanese rearmament. Far from a question of diplomatic niceties, the possibility of a militarily powerful Japan would have real consequences—and stoke understandable fears—across East Asia.
Here in Hong Kong, it's possible to get coffee at a former field hospital, buy groceries at a Japanese occupation headquarters, then pick your kid up from class at an infamous massacre site. Scratch the surface in Asia, and you'll find The War underneath.
That's why I hope the WWII subtitle suggests an ongoing series like Black Ops or Modern Warfare. Perhaps a future campaign could deal with island hopping, North Africa, or China. Something we've not played a million times before, that will reveal a story that's more relevant to the times we live in.
But until that happens, I'll keep my fingers crossed that Call of Duty: WWII proves more innovative in the fine details than in its setting. Next time, perhaps Activision will take stock, and ask a question more interesting than: Remember this?