Call of Duty: Ghosts: The Movie: The Interview
Editor’s Note: What follows is a transcription of an interview that may or may not have taken place between the author and a conveniently ambiguous third party after a viewing of the movie Call of Duty: Ghosts. You have been warned.
[SCENE – A MOUNTAINTOP OBSERVATORY LAIR. BRYCE sits broodingly at a desk beneath a star chart. He is wearing a smoking jacket. On the screen before him flicker the words: Call of Duty: Ghosts. From the atrium doorway enters a wild-eyed TOM, who is possibly a clone, or alter-ego, or manifestation of Bryce’s subconscious–whatever works for the purposes of this piece.]
Tom: Have you finished it?
Tom lowers himself into a leather chair.
Bryce: I have.
Tom: You played it awfully quick.
Bryce: I didn’t play it. I watched the movie version on youtube.
Tom: [gasps] They’ll be angry about this!
Tom: The players. You didn’t get an accurate experience.
Bryce: Believe me, I did. Call of Duty: Ghosts, is, fundamentally, a movie.
Tom: Well, I’m eager to hear about it.
Bryce: Tom, you aren’t going to like what I have to say.
Tom: Nonsense! Just because you’re an incorrigible cynic doesn’t mean I can’t play a little “Devil’s Advocate!”
Bryce: You know I have a history with CoD.
Tom: If I recall correctly… you said Modern Warfare 3 was the greatest unintentional bear love story ever told in a modern first-person shooter?
Bryce: That’s the one.
Tom: And you said Black Ops was like Metal Gear Solid, but without the boss-fights?
Bryce: That, too.
Tom: Sounds positive, on the whole.
Bryce: I was wary of this one. Ghosts is far enough along in the franchise’s timeline that it has officially become science-fiction.
Tom: Ah-hah–the “literature of ideas!” Excellent news.
Bryce: Not really.
Bryce: It starts out with this stylized grayscale slash liquid metal montage of a heroic battle.
Bryce: And then it pulls a genius conceit. I’m still impressed by the simplicity of it. The narrator tells us of sixty men versus five hundred nameless enemies. Civilian lives on the line. It’s very 300–the idea of a small, elite force fending off the nameless masses. They fight down to a handful, and are forced to ambush the enemy by hiding, “in the desert sand.” When they ran out of bullets, they switched to blades, and when their “blades ran dull,” yeesh–they switched to their bare hands. They all died, finally, “anointed” by the sand.
Tom: I’ve gotten chills. Fantastic.
Bryce. It’s about the Iraq and Afghan Wars.
Tom: Hm? What? But he didn’t even mention that!
Bryce: Everything about this intro is meant to play to certain myths of the American experience. An outnumbered force against a greater threat. Fighting to the last man for a cause. It’s 300–implicit in that is the racial divide. And the part about using their bare hands, in the end? That’s standard Conan the Barbarian “white savage” stuff–the idea that the white man proves a superior savage through his ability to combine intellect with raw physicality in the face of the “brute.” And finally, they are “anointed,” by the sand–blessed for their sacrifice, martyred even. Made crusaders in holy war.
Tom: …well, that’s all speculation.
Bryce: Gotcha. Just keep all this in mind. So, the camera cuts back to modern day. Logan, the main character–who is a voiceless gun-holster– is sitting with his brother and father in the woods. Dad–Elias–looks like one of those guys in Viagra commercials. He’s talking about how these men were the “Ghosts,” mysterious super-soldiers.
Tom: The title makes sense now!
Bryce: You start walking out of the woods and hear what sound like tremors. When you get back to the neighborhood, you see that Los Angeles is being bombarded. Then you run through a bunch of scripted disaster porn until FIFTEEN MINUTES EARLIER–
Tom: –oh, goodness–
Bryce: On a satellite station–
Bryce: Two astronauts, Some Guy and… I think her name was Maya. Mayo? I’m gonna go with Mayo. Guy and Mayo are in space when some Spanish guys in astronaut suits attack the station.
Tom: Uh, whuh?
Bryce: The station is actually a big missile platform called ODIN. Apparently all of South America has joined forces into something called “The Federation,” and has hijacked ODIN to rain hellfire down on the United States.
Tom smacks his fist against the armrest.
Tom: Those bastards!
Bryce: Guy and Mayo shoot a ton of Federation suicide soldiers and blow up the station, averting total disaster.
Tom: Wait, suicide soldiers?
Bryce: It was a suicide mission. Guy and Mayo torpedo the base because the self-destruct fails. Those men willingly went to die. It’s meant to deliberately invoke our wars in the Middle East, and the specter of Islamic Fundamentalism, without actually using those words out loud, just like the intro. This whole game is about the United States versus South Americans, but spiritually it’s another iteration of our conception of the War on Terror.
Tom: Well, now I’m just confused? Federation–?
Bryce: The game insists that the… “destruction” of the energy-producing deserts of the Middle East precipitated a South American alliance because… the oil ran out. Even though the US is the world’s largest natural gas producer, Russia is the largest oil producer, and China is barking up both our heels.
Tom: Ah-hah, the Rise of the Tiger.
Bryce: What’s especially funny is the idea that a South American empire could–or would–conceivably cripple the United States in open war. Our military spending tops 682 billion dollars every year. That’s four times more than China. South America as a whole spends 60 billion per year. That’s eleven times their budget. And over 95% of that is split between countries that are our allies, with the only state that could be conceivably considered a rival, Venezuela, sitting at 3.5 billion.
Tom: You forgot those dastardly Bolivians!
Bryce: –who are sitting at 314 million dollars per year, or about as much as it costs to produce a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.
Tom: Well, you said it yourself: this is science fiction.
Bryce: Here’s the problem with that: Call of Duty: Ghosts wants you to believe that it is wholly plausible. It presents itself as speculative fiction. It is utterly devoted to portraying the military accurately. Down to every bit of terminology and piece of high-tech equipment. Believability and immersion are bywords for this series the developers at Infinity Ward constantly toss around. And the scenario in Ghosts is presented with as much gravity as is possible.
Tom: But what happens after the satellite blows up?
Bryce: Well, ten years later, Logan and Hesh are now US soldiers fighting an insurgent border war below “The Wall” that separates the USA from the Federation’s Mexican holdings.
Tom: Sounds like someone has been watching Game of Thrones!
Bryce: There is no way that dog does not get canine PTSD. Which is a real thing that real service dogs are getting. Anyway, you squiddly-diddly around southern California getting in shootfights and reveling in the joy of open, symmetrical warfare. Hesh commits a war crime about fifty minutes in when he slits the throat of an unarmed captive, ostensibly so the mission doesn’t get compromised, but, you know, videogames.
Tom: Well, we sleep peaceably at night only because rough men stand ready to–
Bryce: You run into Rourke, a former Ghost-turned-traitor because the Federation tortured him using… Amazonian tribe methods, or something. He’s evil now, and looks like a Dad in an NFL Doritos commercial.
Tom: A Benedict Arnold!
Bryce: Your dad is a Ghost too. Rourke is super-angry about the time when Elias almost let him die on a mission years ago. So… he became evil.
Tom: Vengeance. A timeless theme.
Bryce shuffles through reams of yellowing papers.
Bryce: I’m skipping some stuff, but it totally doesn’t matter. You go to Caracas to find some scientist. but it’s actually a trap set by Rourke.
Tom: Classic Rourke!
Bryce: He… oh, god, this made my eyes water. He blows up a building in downtown metropolitan Caracas to kill three American soldiers.
Tom: Truly evil!
Bryce: Again: speculative fiction. Did the Federation government empower Rourke to blow up a building in the middle of a busy urban district? Killing hundreds of people? How in the world do they let him keep doing his job after that? Wouldn’t the Federation say: “This guy is skilled, but he is an unreliable madman.”
Tom: Well, maybe it’s a commentary on false flag operations–
Bryce: –don’t you dare. Don’t you dare pull that Facebook newsfeed bullshit on me.
Tom: Sorry. Perhaps it’s meant to show the depths to which the Federation will sink?
Bryce: Which brings us back to this Not-War on Terror. An enemy without morals vs. us. Weirdly, or, because they misinterpreted why people were angry about all the foreign bad guys in the previous CoDs, they just have this puffy white guy instead.
Tom: I sure hope they bring him to justice for his crimes.
Bryce: The gang captures Rourke on an oil platform and get him on a cargo plane for questioning. This goes sour when another cargo plane attacks you with hook-lines and leaves your plane hanging. Literally.
Tom: You mean… like in…?
Bryce: Like Dark Knight Rises. Yes.
Tom: …I love a good homage!
Bryce flips through his pages of notes with greater gusto.
Bryce: So, jungle level, snow level… turns out the Federation is making a missile-satellite of their own, called LOKI.
Tom: Norse mythology is really fresh.
Bryce: Another snow level, underwater level with sharks–
Bryce: Tiger sharks. I liked that. So there’s one thing I enjoyed.You break into another missile facility and discover more… evidence of the LOKI, or something–look, exactly why you have to send in an armed squadron to make sure the base is actually an Evil Base is beyond me. Just hack one of the scientist’s laptops when he’s browsing Reality Kings on Internet Explorer, or something.
Tom: Do you really think they’ll have Internet Explorer in the next decade?
Bryce: I know, I’m being totally unrealistic here. Anyway, you head to a “Las Vegas safehouse,” which is an excuse to have a level set in a ruined casino, when Rourke attacks.
Bryce: He kills Elias and wants to take you, “the youngest,” alive.
Bryce: Your dog shows up too. He gets shot, though.
Tom: Double no!
Bryce: You carry the furry empathy-AI all the way to the choppa. The dog is fine.
Tom wipes his brow.
Bryce: Logan inherits his dad’s Ghost Mask and Elias… goes to heaven or something. There’s a kinda weird cutscene about it. It’s not exactly clear.
Tom: Ambiguity is the mark of great literature, after all.
Bryce: Don’t I know it. The game boils down to this huge, D-Day-style invasion of Chile. It’s a very affirming image: America fighting the kind of war we’re meant to fight. They coordinate a strike on the satellite–which you play as some Other Guy–and a ground assault via tanks to stop the Federation once and for all.
Bryce: Someone uses the line, “Good men are defined by the choices they make,” and then you run over like fifty dudes in a tank and blow up thousands more when you take control of LOKI. Hesh and Logan confront Rourke on a fleeing military supply train. You have a quick QTE fight with Rourke before a missile blows the train into the ocean. After another QTE you shoot Rourke in the chest and swim to the shore with your wounded brother.
Tom: Hooray! America is saved–
Bryce: Hold your horses, tough guy. The credits start to play and then STOP. Hesh and Logan are chillaxin’ on the beach when Rourke–who you definitely gave a sucking chest wound and left to drown under 60 feet of water–comes outta nowhere and… kidnaps Logan. While Hesh screams Loooogaaaan.
Tom covers his mouth.
Bryce: He’s going to make Logan into his evil protege son.
Bryce: He’s going to turn him to the other side.
Tom: Don’t say–
Bryce: IT WAS A DAD GAME ALL ALONG.
Tom covers his face. They sit in silence for nearly a full minute.
Bryce: The credits roll to an Eminem song.
Tom: You mean we didn’t just imagine that fellow in 8th grade?
Bryce: Sadly, no.
Tom: You don’t make this sound very good. In fact, you sound rather disappointed.
Bryce: That’s because I am. Because this game is a fantasy masquerading as realism that millions of people–most of them young men, living in America–will believe to be true. They will believe that America is mighty and simultaneously weak, that our enemies are all-powerful idiots, and that violence–especially, disproportionate, overwhelming violence, can and should be mustered because our intangible “morality,” our ineffable goodness, requires us to.
Tom: But it’s only a game, Bryce.
Bryce: Call of Duty: Ghosts is all about defending the status quo, and the only reason anyone could say something like that is because they’ve been lead to believe that the world and ideas Ghosts represents are apolitical. They are not: they are staunchly big-c Conservative and jingoistic, advocating a defense of empire that borders on fascist.
Tom: Woah, keep it family friendly, pal!
Bryce: Everything in Ghosts is presented as plausible. We are meant to take it seriously, and a lot young men in America will take it as the gospel truth.
Tom: Are you saying Ghosts is propaganda?
Bryce: Not intentionally, and probably not maliciously. But it is. You can be ignorant of something and still make propaganda. I don’t think the people at Infinity Ward are laughing and rubbing their hands together over it. One of the writers of Ghosts was Stephen Gaghan, who wrote Syriana.
Tom: We liked that movie!
Bryce: We did. But when you’re soaking in a culture, that culture burrows into your work–especially if you don’t constantly examine it with a critical eye. Call of Duty: Ghosts presents a certain narrative–packed with skewed and even outright farcical information–to the next generation of potential American soldiery. It is a world of rough men fighting a forever war. It should be noted there are two women in the entire game, Mayo the astronaut and a faceless helicopter pilot.
Tom: Wowzers. So Grand Theft Auto V had more women than Ghosts?
Bryce: Don’t get too hot to trot, pal. You’ll find better women in Starcraft tie-in novels.
Tom: I’m not gonna lie, Bryce. You seem a little pissy over what sounds like just another crappy game.
Bryce: Ghosts is a game built around an obsession with American military might and our exalted place on the world stage; key ingredients in the disasters of the previous decade which cost literally hundreds of thousands of lives and crippled countless more. Call of Duty: Ghosts owes its entire existence to the climate established after our Middle Eastern campaigns, and rather than invite any sort of introspection, it joyously sets itself to the task of affirming our basest instincts. That we are good, and that they are bad. That our security is worth any price. That the future will herald a return to True Warfare: one in which we will not be bogged down by trivial concerns of causes, costs, and consequences. So yeah, of course I’m a little pissy.
They sit quietly for several minutes. An elaborate cuckoo clock chimes midnight on the wall.
Tom: Well, did you like anything besides the sharks?
Bryce: …they didn’t do a Chechnya level.