It’s Time for ‘Call of Duty’ to Retire the Death Quotes

When you die in ‘Call of Duty,’ grim quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Charles Bukowski motivate you to try again.
October 28, 2019, 4:43pm
It's time for Call of Duty to ditch the quotes.
Images courtesy of Activision

I was deep inside the American Embassy in Urzikstan when I died. I turned a corner and saw my enemy approaching an unarmed woman. He killed her and I put a round through his head. I didn’t see his buddy on my left flank. Bang. As the lights dimmed an inspirational quote floated before my eyes. “I guess the only time most people think about injustice is when it happens to them,” it said, courtesy of Charles Bukowski.

It’s the kind of quote you’d see written in typewriter font below a picture of the drunk writer and posted on the Facebook wall of that friend from High School who only posts inspirational memes and NowThis videos. It felt out of place in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, especially given that poet and author Bukowski attended Nazi Summer camps in America, and was arrested by the Secret Service for draft dodging before Army psychologists found him mentally unfit to serve and granted him a 4-F. Bukwoski wasn’t a guy who had nice things to say about “the troops.”

The next time I died in Call of Duty, Martin Luther King Jr. told me about injustice. Colleague Emanuel Maiberg spotted a quote from Holocaust survivor Ellie Weisel. I’m not sure what developer Infinity Ward is trying to do with these quotes, but they’re discordant and highlight the strange contradictions and problems of the new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Infinity Ward has made an excellent shooter and one of the best Call of Duty campaigns ever. But dying always reminded me that I was playing a serious game that was supposed to be about serious issues.

Here's another game-over message from Modern Warfare:

Nothing can, nothing will justify the murder of innocent people and helpless children. - Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate, Holocaust survivor

These quotes also highlight the game's evasiveness. It's quick to find pointed quotes from historical figures that highlight their own responses to the things they saw and experienced, but it comes across like outsourced interpretation. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s campaign tackles war crimes, mass graves, proxy war, civilian casualties, chemical weapons, and the thin line between freedom fighters and terrorists. What it wants players to feel about those things is unclear, but seeing a quote about injustice after dying while trying to rescue a civilian feels like a kind of profundity. The kind of profundity you find on social media feeds: an allusion to having a perspective, without actually committing to one.

The quotes have been with Call of Duty since the beginning, but it’s time to let them go. Every death brings a parade of cliches, misquotes, and dubious text that intensify the games discordant tone. War is hell, the game tells us, but it sure is great entertainment. “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on,” reads a quote we’re told is from Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he never said that. It’s a proverb with no known author, often misattributed to another president—Thomas Jefferson.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare’s embassy level is just one in a parade of stages that play like the greatest hits of the past twenty years of war. There’s a level that mirrors the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, a stage where players snipe bad guys from the Highway of Death, and a level where a little girl sneaks through poppy fields to avoid death. But these levels are, like the quotes, misremembered bits of history taken out of context.

The facts of the Bin Laden Raid, the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, and the creation of the Highway of Death are all twisted to fit into a video game. That video game is fun, but dying puts the somber words of Albert Einstein, Ellie Wiesel, and Chris Kyle in front of my face. They are meant to be thought-provoking, but simply underscore how past-time it is for the series to do some of its own thinking.

There's another quote that I haven't seen in the Call of Duty series across almost two decades of rendering warfare into entertainment. It's from the Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen. “All wars are fought twice,” he wrote in Nothing Ever Dies. “The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”