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The Shocking Speed of Death in Call of Duty and Battlefield

"Life comes at you fast, and it whizzes on by, leaving you in a grave. Or respawning."
Header image courtesy of EA

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities. 

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo earlier this year, the developers at DICE told us about Battlefield 1. It's "immersive and dynamic." You get to play in a world of unprecedented violence with "a variety of weapons and vehicles that ensure that no battle is ever the same." That's secret game developer language for dying over and over again at different places on the map.

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I've always been fascinated with death in games. Whether it's first person shooters or Japanese role playing games, there's something strange and weird about knowing that characters are always alive and dead at the same time. If a character is meant to die sometime in the future of a story, they are dead in the now, but we just don't know it yet.

It's an existential concern, and it's no different than you or me. We're both dead in the future, but for some reason we're not dead yet. A clamor for eternal life makes sense here, whether it's religious or secular in nature (maybe someone will read this column in the Mad Max future, my own little immortality. They will not understand why I wasted time thinking about death in video games in such a tumultuous time.)

Screenshot courtesy of Square-Enix

Some games give us the ability to really reflect on death, or our journey toward death, in a communal sense. One of my favorite pieces of writing is Brian Taylor's "Save Aeris." An article originally published in a physical edition of Kill Screen Magazine, "Save Aeris" traces the communal history of people who tried, against all odds, to prevent the death of that character in Final Fantasy VII. It's a clamoring, sad chronicle. It's very human.

Battlefield 1 leans into this gaming fascination with death. The opening mission puts the player inside of a first-person characters who die in sequence, their names, birth dates, and death dates flashing on the screen as the player warps into the body of another piece of cannon fodder. The television screen becomes a tombstone. You keep playing a game in a mausoleum world. You have fun there.

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The rest of the game's campaign swerves from that angle, but the online multiplayer leans into it in a way that very few other games have. The Operations game mode puts you into the shoes of a horde of soldiers who use the sheer force of their numbers to storm across a map to make their way toward victory. It's a meat grinder where you brute force your way toward your goal. It's near impossible to "smartly" play your way across the map. You move, and you fire, and you pray. Then you die.

It's the speed of death that's so shocking in Battlefield 1. You come into existence, your loadout perfected to help your allies, and you're picked off by a sniper who is, charitably, positioned in orbit around Mars. Or you're hit with an anti-aircraft gun that's been repurposed to an anti-infantry gun just for you. Or there's a guy standing there with a machine gun doing his best Rambo impression in war-torn Italy.

And it minimizes you. It's a way of measuring time that is about how long you can exist. I don't think about Battlefield 1 in terms of how many kills I get or how many points I capture. I think of the game in relation to how far I was able to travel before I was obliterated into dust and forced into a new body ready for the gristmill.

Image courtesy of Activision

Playing online in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered has a lot in common with the experience of Battlefield 1. Where the latter is built from mechanics that minimize your contribution to the battle in favor of hammering home the battle as its own thing, Modern Warfare is all about me versus you. We're caught in a deathmatch between two small teams fighting over territory that some of us have spent a decade memorizing. You know exactly where to throw your grenade; I know exactly where to crouch with my shotgun.

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Life comes at you fast, and it whizzes on by, leaving you in a grave. Or respawning.

I wonder about what the design goals of fast death are in these games. I wonder what we, as players, actually learn. To not run in too fast? To be more cautious? To "git gud," as if the only thing that stands between me and becoming the lord of all I can see is smashing my hand in a car door over and over again?

It seems like we're meant to take fast death as a fast way to learn more about yourself. You'll smash yourself into the ground, but you can rise anew. You can always clamor your way toward the top, and one day you will get fifty kills in a single life and you'll be the best damn player you ever have been. Your grandkids will recite your name and accomplishments as they pick through the ruins of a supermarket and try to understand what ice cream was.

Games that focus on gun fights between teams want it both ways: They want you to feel like a community striving toward a goal, and they want you to feel like you can overcome everyone else in the world. They want you to be Atlas with the world on your back, but they also want you to feel like you're a part of that world.

Image courtesy of EA

Sometimes I play Battlefield 1 as a medic. When you die in that game, you have a countdown timer until you respawn, but you can hold a button down to speed it up. The medic has a small syringe that they can use to poke teammates who have died whose countdown timers have not yet run out. I'm rarely able to resurrect teammates. Most players tend to hold down the button as soon as they die, unwilling to wait on the potential kindness of a friendly medic. They'd rather just try again with a new life, a new gun, a new spawn point.

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Battlefield 1 or Modern Warfare Remastered or any of these other contemporary first person shooter games want us to take war seriously. Battlefield 1 chose the First World War as its topic and skin because that war ground an entire continent beneath its wheels. It massacred a generation of people and set the tone of life for an entire century. Many places have still not recovered from the tidal wave of forces brought to them by The Great War.

It's impossible, I think, to write a version of "Save Aeris" about these games. We can't talk about a collective mourning for a character or a location or a context. We can't do a deep dive on the specifics of death and how people deal with the deaths in these games. It's not just because they're multiplayer games without narrative context. It's because they treat death as something to be overcome with more life instead of something to be thought about or considered. I can't write about how the world tries to understand death in these games because it happens so quickly that you forget about it.

It would do developers well to think about death as a place to engage audiences. It's a place to put story, or context, or tinge the world with sadness.

And that's sad, because the games certainly think that death is important. They want to make you feel when you die in the first person narrative sequences that have you crawling from the wreckage of a helicopter or manning a machine gun placement that gets mortared. These games want you to have the context and experience of death, but only when there is thematically relevant music and the wide-eyed stare of an NPC that gave you a cookie during the last mission.

That kind of narrow focus on when death matters in games is a missed opportunity. Players of roguelike games talk about their deaths all the time, and those deaths really mean something to those players. There are stakes to those deaths: They can be heroic, or sad, or comedic. But in first person shooters, death is just a roadblock. It's just a passage to another life.

It would do developers well to think about death as a place to engage audiences. It's a place to put story, or context, or tinge the world with sadness. It's a place to let players realize that they're part of a community, not a lone superhero. In Battlefield 1, no battle is ever the same, but I want to see that move further. Make no life ever the same. Make all deaths a little different.