Years ago, a friend was telling me about Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The multi-player was great, he said. Just like “being there.” When I told him I don’t really play shooters — I’m terrible at them and just die all the time — he laughed.
“Everyone dies all the time,” he said. “It’s Call of Duty. It doesn’t matter.”
I’ve played Call of Duty since then, and he’s right. It’s a series that portrays death as a minor nuisance; annoying, but nothing to be scared of. That’s not unusual for a video game, but in the context of Call of Duty it feels strange. It’s a war game. Death should be important. Unlike other titles, Call of Duty sells itself on its realism — but how realistic is a simulation that only captures a physical experience, not an emotional one?
This tension is even more jarring because Call of Duty gets so many of the aesthetics right. Look at Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which comes out on Xbox and PlayStation consoles this week. The game’s set about forty years in the future, but Sledgehammer Games took great pains to make everything as realistic as possible. The studio worked with an active Department of Defense “scenario planner” to develop Advanced Warfare’s fictional timeline. All of the game’s weapons are based on real-world prototypes; during the design process, anything that could be considered “science fiction” got cut.
But accuracy isn’t authenticity, and these are all surface details. The marketing copy promises that the power of next-gen consoles will deliver “a new hi-tech, advanced arsenal and ability set,” but there’s no mention of how new technology will better emulate war’s emotional toll.
So, what would happen if someone tried to make a war game focused on psychology, not action? You might get This War of Mine.
Like Call of Duty, This War of Mine aims to create realistic war experience. However, where Call of Duty recreates combat’s technical side, This War of Mine emphasizes emotions. In This War of Mine, you’re not trying to kill the bad guys. You’re just trying to stay alive.
Mechanically, This War of Mine plays like a survival-horror game. Players control a randomly generated group of civilians trapped in a sieged city. Food and water are limited. During the day, you’ll protect your people from snipers and enemy soldiers; at night you’ll scavenge for supplies. Unlike Call of Duty, death has real consequences. There’s no electricity because there’s nobody to run the power plant. A build-up of corpses in the river will contaminate your water supply.
The difference between these approaches to a war game is clear from the two games’ trailers, which were both released on October 30. While Advanced Warfare sells itself as a polished, adrenaline-soaked thrill ride, This War of Mine emphasizes mood. “For soldiers, war is about victory,” a man says, over a somber black screen. “For us, it was about getting food.” This War of Mine may not be any good (it doesn’t come out until November 15), but its emotion-first approach provides an interesting contrast to Advanced Warfare’s slavish dedication to technical details.
Of course, Call of Duty tried to engage the audience emotionally — once. The result, Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” level, was deemed insensitive and out of place. After all, this is Call of Duty. People die all the time, and it’s not supposed to matter.