Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare dramatically demonstrates “Death is no disgrace”

Also published at AiPT!

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He was the best star pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior… and he was a good friend.”

Obi Wan’s iconic line is every bit as applicable to Captain Reyes, the protagonist in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, as it was to Luke Skywalker before him. It should surely come as no surprise that the franchise’s first foray into a deep space setting should borrow so liberally from Star Wars – as well as Star Trek and Mass Effect to boot. Of course, all big blockbuster science fiction of the past four decades share some indebtedness to Lucas and Roddenberry, Mass Effect most of all. But whereas BioWare’s series superlatively synthesizes all the best aspects of Wars and Trek, perfecting the template for translating such space operas into the games medium, Infinite Warfare keeps to the core Call of Duty design – with the effect that the semblances to such science fantasy and utopian futurism clash with its boots-on-the-ground “realism” and hyper-nationalistic militarism.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the game’s antagonists, the Settlement Defense Force. The SDF is so cartoonishly villainous – enslaving swaths of its own populace, mass conscripting child soldiers, reveling in rhetoric denouncing freedom, even seeking to eradicate Earth sans any strategic value in doing so – that the series could return to its roots with a World War game and the Nazis would still be more morally nuanced nemeses. For Star Wars, having a clear delineation between the chivalric Rebel Alliance and the cackling Evil Empire made perfect sense given its genre; it was a morality play whose purpose was to dramatically illustrate the inner struggle between good and evil in cosmic terms on the most grandiose stage imaginable. While Infinite Warfare is fictional, it is no fantasy. Despite the futuristic veneer, it is a military thriller, plain and simple. It does not concern itself with broader morality, but merely the question as to what exactly the duty is to which a soldier is called (it only took the franchise thirteen installments to tackle that one).

Reyes’ entire arc as a character (and therefore the real central conflict of the story) is not predicated on his adversaries being an unredeemable evil which he himself has to eradicate at all costs. Rather, the plot is a series of Kobayashi Marus which lead him from the noble-but-naïve philosophy of a neophyte commander that his soldiers should never be sacrificed – that “There’s always another way” – to the conviction that the mission takes precedent, even at the cost of his crew and himself. But this thesis that all soldiers, from the marines on the frontlines to the navy navigators and quartermasters and all crewmen alike, must be prepared to make – and their commanders prepared to call on them to make – the ultimate sacrifice, does not in turn require them to be set against the ultimate evil. Having them do so distracts from and undercuts the argument, in fact. The soldiers who died senselessly on either side in the trenches of World War I no less did their duty than the allies who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.

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Indeed, the far future setting was the series’ most opportune occasion to offer a more nuanced account of war from all angles. Previous installments’ historical and near-contemporary settings had highly encouraged an acutely propogandist portrayal of NATO nations in general and America in particular. Neither genre nor setting nor message necessitated Infinity Ward to weave the most black and white conflict Call of Duty has yet depicted – again, including the fight against the Nazis. Moreover, depicting America’s adversaries as unquestionably evil is not merely unnecessary to the themes and the tale being told, but a level of jingoism even the most forked-tongued Army recruiter would be ashamed to peddle. As someone whose life plan had always included military service, starting with six years in a junior Recruit Officer Training Corps and plans to enter the chaplaincy after seminary, and having put in for a commission as soon as I left grad school, I’d have been ashamed to fight alongside any fellow servicemen who did not first carefully consider the justness of the particular war they were waging.

Indeed, the SDF’s purported villainy was so vaudevillian I wholly expected a reveal in which they proved to be freedom fighters and righteous revolutionaries a la the colonial Americans, and Earth the domineering colonial power whose populace was pacified through perfidious propaganda – with Reyes slowly realizing such as he continued to encounter the alleged adversaries. Most of what I was assuming propaganda came in the form of blurbs during loading screens – witnessed most often between the player’s death and respawn. Repeatedly we’re told that the primary antagonist, Admiral Kotch, coined the SDF’s official mantra, “Death is no disgrace.” The extremism implicit in such is explicated repeatedly throughout the story, continuously establishing Kotch’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of his own men wantonly in the name of his cause. As such, Reyes’ valuation of the lives of his subordinates initially created a clear contrast to Kotch. Yet as mentioned, Reyes’ arc is entirely about him understanding the necessity of sending some of his men to certain death, from commanding kamikaze crashes to remote detonating E3N (who despite being a robot is the game’s most human and empathetic character). Based on the structure of the story and where the plot leaves its protagonist, “Death is no disgrace” is in fact the very thesis it argues for. That it put’s such in the mouth of its main foe is not problematic in itself, except for the fact that there seems to be no deliberate dark mirroring of Reyes and Kotch that would justify this juxtaposition. Kotch is a slightly more sinister space Hitler, save for the fact that his primary precept is precisely the main message of the game, an irony by all indications entirely unintentional.

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This mixed messaging aside, the motto “Death is no disgrace” served to underline the design decision to showcase squad mates consistently sacrificing themselves in the majority of main missions throughout the campaign. Added to the fact that these characters, particularly the marine Sargent Omar, the aforementioned battlebot E3N (“Ethan”), and the player character Nick Reyes, are among the series most distinctly drawn and well written, and Infinite Warfare is easily the most emotionally effecting Call of Duty to date (for whatever that superlative is worth).

Reyes, however, certainly takes the most time to establish his voice. A white, thirtysomething American male sporting short brown hair, Reyes’ external attributes are deprived of any markedness – quite deliberately. He is the archetypal (and stereotypical) videogame protagonist, and as such a perfect tabula rasa for the player to project onto. Except when he’s not. More than a mere point of view character, Reyes has a clear voice of his own that sometimes clashes with the players’. He’s more Commander Shepherd than Luke Skywalker, a seasoned combat veteran with the competence and confidence which accompanies such. But whereas Shephard was so often out of his element, sharing with the player the novelty of becoming a Spectre and surveying star systems theretofore unseen by human eyes, Reyes’ relative ease in acclimating to his sudden and unexpected promotion has a distancing effect between the character and any player not personally experienced with his very particular circumstances. As such, every important decision for Reyes is relegated to cut-scenes, with the few decisions offered to players entirely illusory.

These “choices” amount to nothing more than selecting the order in which a few scant side missions are played. And herein lays the fault which Infinite Warfare most suffers in diverging from the formula established by Mass Effect. Many of the main missions are highly reminiscent of the events on Virmire from the first Mass Effect game, resulting in a crew member of the Retribution, like those of the Normandy, taking a heroic last stand. Moreover, characters such as Oman and Ethan are at least as likable as the likes of Kaidan Alenko. And yet, because of the distancing effect which results from removing player choice in affecting the outcome of such missions, even nominally, none of the moments in Infinite Warfare come close to being quite so memorable as Tuchanka, Rannoch, or the suicide mission.

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When the Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare teaser trailer first released, I was part of that small minority that upvoted the game on YouTube, my exclamation of excitement drowned out by the deluge of downvotes. Much more than its multiplayer (which I nevertheless enjoy, with this year’s being close behind Advanced Warfare as the series’ best multiplayer mode to date), I come to Call of Duty to complete the campaign. The fact that it was now bringing the same superlative gunplay to a far superior storytelling setting – one which gave us not only Star Wars, but Mass Effect, Halo, and Destiny, all among the most immersive digital worlds which gamers have ever inhabited – I considered an unqualified change in the right direction. But Infinite Warfare treats the celestial empyrean as little more than a thin coat of paint covering the Call of Duty core. Moreover, the antagonists it constructs are portrayed in a manner antithetical to the campaign’s central message explicating exactly what the “call of duty” entails. All of which is to say that while I enjoyed Infinite Warfare well enough, I suspect most of the three million plus people who downvoted the teaser trailer would actually enjoy it far more – what’s not new enough for me is neither too novel for them; for better and for worse, this is the same Call of Duty that it’s always been.

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One thought on “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare dramatically demonstrates “Death is no disgrace”

  1. Great article! I haven’t had the opportunity to dig into the game as yet, but it’s good to hear that the legions of people who downvoted the trailer aren’t justified in their actions. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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