All the world is staged in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, from a frantic hostage situation under cover of darkness to a sunbaked city siege as turbulent as any I’ve played in a blockbuster first-person shooter. The 2014 entry—not the most recent one—in this tremendous, top-earning videogame franchise is interested in more abstract questions of video game form and the nature of reality, themes that most military shooters avoid. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a game about video games. It calls attention to the familiar conventions of games and weaves things like “Game Overs” and “Resets” into the very reality of its narrative.
It’s “metafictional”—it toys with the so-called “fourth wall” that divides the author from the audience and emphasize the fictitiousness and contrivances of its story’s very design. Elements that are usually downplayed or invisible to audiences for the sake of immersion—stilted acting, stylized or artificial settings, direct address of the audience, etc.—are highlighted in metafictional works.
Take for instance the play within a play in Hamlet, wherein a group of thespians purposefully play out a scene that bears uncanny resemblance to the events of the larger story. Shakespeare uses this metafictional play within a play to allow audiences and characters to step back and consciously reflect on the proceedings. It creates an uneasy tension that calls into question the motivations of certain characters and where the story will go because it evokes so vividly the bigger picture. We’re suddenly face-to-face and allowed to see the very design of the work we’re engaging with.
Call of Duty isn’t Shakespeare by any means, but in one elegantly executed sequence early in the game, Advanced Warfare plays with similar ideas. This claim may sound far-reaching for a series often undervalued as lowbrow junk, but the game makes such lofty thematic interests known very early in its story—if one only cares to give it the chance.
WORLD WITHIN A WORLD
Trailing the game’s wild, flashy opening action sequence in Seoul is a brief funeral scene for your departed compatriot that closes with the offer to work for the Atlas Corporation, a private military contractor run by CEO Jonathan Irons. A smash cut propels the narrative months later into the future, with this narrative ellipsis suddenly planting the central protagonist Private Jack Mitchell in the middle of a tense mission, divorced from any narrative context. Radio chatter alerts the player that the life of the American President is at stake while your team stealthily raids a location that the game discloses as Camp David, Maryland.
Reaching a locked door triggers a slow-motion breaching sequence before rushing you inside a room with a massive digital screen taking up an entire wall. The exchange of gunfire shatters the screen’s artificial tropical scene in blown-out, glitch-y error. As the mission concludes, a fellow soldier calmly shoots and kills the President and stares you down with gun drawn. “Objective failed” flashes at the top-left corner of the screen.
And that’s when Advanced Warfare pulls the rug out from under you. Gideon, the president’s assassin, admonishes Mitchell for sloppy work before yelling “Reset!” to an offscreen crew, and the sky above glitches like the shattered digital wall encountered minutes beforehand. The game reveals the entire locale to be an artificial simulation housed within a massive hangar like that in the movies The Truman Show or the enclosed world within a world of Synecdoche, New York. It’s a jarring, genuinely unforeseen twist that calls attention to both the artificiality of the game itself and how feelings of excitement in these action sequences are carefully staged and formularized by unseen game developers. It’s a moment of reflexivity: it refers to its own making.
The entire Camp David sequence then is a game within a game. It conjures up elements that are inherently familiar to anyone who’s ever played a video game before and warps these as part of the narrative world. It can pause, break down, and reconstruct itself when a mission fails and its action is merely performed, its violence inconsequential. “Dead” characters casually stand up again and crews work to restore the scene to its original setting. Mitchell fails in the same way a player fails a mission, leading to a hard reset that emphasizes the fakeness of video game design and the repetitive nature of play. By integrating failure and resets into the narrative as something characters grapple with, Advanced Warfare directly allows audiences to see and confront the skeletal structure of video games. Form becomes content. The reset of the simulation reveals to the player how artificial its spaces are, and in doing so, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare presents a kind of parody of video game design.
It recalls the movie Edge of Tomorrow, another work precisely concerned with videogame-y repetition and cyclical violence. That movie had its protagonist undergo countless deaths before shifting back in time with the knowledge of exact enemy movements, thus learning from past experiences of the same battle played out over and over again until successful.
When Advanced Warfare runs the Camp David sequence again after a weapon and prosthesis demonstration, the player now has full awareness that everything is merely a simulation. The game plants narrative distrust in the player very early in the story, suggesting that no physical space can be fully trusted as amounting to anything real or consequential.
This inference makes sense with a series like Call of Duty, whose yearly offerings of militaristic violence have in their wakes thousands upon thousands of dead digital bodies with barely any lasting moral impact. That said, the developers don’t seem dissuaded by those who disparage Call of Duty as formulaic power fantasy. Advanced Warfare makes this criticism a central theme and spins a narrative yarn that comments on the cyclical design structure of video games without the smug affectations of a game solely concerned with this kind of abstraction. After all, crass and overwrought action will always be the main conceit of Call of Duty, and it’s a fool’s errand to think that this series will ever be an emblem of top tier storytelling.
Advanced Warfare developer Sledgehammer Games didn’t fall for the fallacy that Call of Duty is serious art, and yet artful themes emerged. The metafictional elements of the Camp David sequence aren’t crucial to the understanding of the central storyline, but they enliven it for those who want to dig deeper at its themes.
What Advanced Warfare suggests is that video games are akin to a form of time travel in which places must be revisited with the experience and knowledge of previous failures as a means for change. The experience of time and its reversal is of course one of video games’ most prevalent themes, everywhere from Prince of Persia to Braid, where the manipulation of time is a central element of story and gameplay.
Before Advanced Warfare, Black Ops II achieved similar work in a flashback sequence (titled “Time and Fate”) told in two parts. The first half runs through the level through the perspective of tragic villain Raul Menendez and his afflicted outbursts following great loss. The second half shifts to the same location but from the perspective of protagonist Alex Mason and an American-allied defense force, and our knowledge of the events from Menendez’s perspective inform how we perceive this new one.
The repetition of sequences in the same game space in Black Ops II and Advanced Warfare mirrors the experience of playing video games in general. When players fail in the form of a “Game Over” screen, new attempts are updated with learned knowledge of what could be done better. By equating its internal reality with the structure of video games, Advanced Warfare is reflexive onto itself. When Mitchell storms the locked room, there’s no scripted kick that breaks the digital wall behind the enemies. The fourth wall has already been broken, and the simulation no longer has to break down to reveal its artificiality.
What I see in Advanced Warfare is an appetizer to the even more cerebral, surreal storytelling that this year’s Black Ops III more confidently and straightforwardly displays, especially in how it calls into question its story’s reality. Black Ops III greatly builds on Advanced Warfare’s themes concerning virtual worlds and the violence contained within them in its ambitious (if on-the-nose) story of Matrix-y digital landscapes and the rewriting of failed histories.
Call of Duty’s refreshing willingness to toy with audience assumptions and promote abstract themes in its single-player story is a welcome change from the bland, aimless openness of other mainstream works like Mad Max or Watch Dogs. Advanced Warfare prefaced greater thematic experimentation to come, introducing dreamlike ideas that paved the way for Black Ops III, which was even more thematically expressive. Given critics’ openness to discuss topics in Black Ops III like artistic identity in the face of mainstream expectations and cyberpunk-flavored existential crisis, it’s important to note Advanced Warfare as a harbinger of these realizations.
Increasingly, Call of Duty is exploring variations on a theme of what it means to be a videogame and is accomplishing these ambitions with finesse. Live, die, repeat: it’s the spaces in between where this game unravels.
Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames. He is an editor at Haywire Magazine and his written offerings can be found on Kill Screen, PopMatters, Unwinnable, and elsewhere, all of which are archived on his blog, Invalid Memory.
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