I’ve actually been playing some Call of Duty recently, specifically Advanced Warfare and Infinite Warfare since they were on sale. I gotta say, Advanced Warfare actually had some subtle themes in there about PMCs vs national armies and causes to rally behind, as well as the idea of the world being run as a business. And Advanced Warfare is seriously engaging as a piece of pop scifi. Both are still simplistic in the way that the villains are constructed, but there seems to be more of an effort in Advanced Warfare. Compare the two: Kevin Spacey’s Jonathan Irons tries to take over the world in order to stop all wars in a sort of Big Boss by way of Doctor Evil sort of way. He’s at least got sympathetic motifs, wanting to end war because war killed his son. Meanwhile Jon Snow’s… hmm Admiral Jon Snow (stupid in-game name) is a mustache twirler leading a bunch of amoral psychos to kill as many Earthers as possible because… freedom?
So the corporate executive was better written than the freedom fighter extremist. What a shock for a CoD game.
At first I thought this goes to show how palatable fictional politics become once removed from present values/conflicts, but it’s really because it really goes back to the idea of nations fighting nations, rather than freedom fighters/terrorists as in recent games like Black Ops and Ghosts. In those games complex morality is not only of paramount importance in terms of writing, but from a real world perspective it still seems impossible to actually write freedom fighters/terrorists as anyway sympathetic. Compare that to the 80s and 90s. James Bond and Rambo were teaming up with the Mudschaheddin. Star Trek had a former terrorist with Kira as their leading lady.
We can certainly argue over the timing of returning to a place in which terrorists, freedom fighters, and other assorted groups can be considered in any sympathetic light again. No one will likely see a Rambo 3-esque film starring the Kurdish militias circa 2017 anytime soon in Hollywood. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t at least portray your antagonists with some sort of depth past the usual American hypocrisy.
Frankly, in regards to what we consider to be our enemies, I think our media needs empathy more than anything these days. I specifically say empathy instead of sympathy. You can still identify with the concerns and reasons of grievance of a group without accepting them. With the War on Terror slowly but surely becoming a generational conflict, and racism and xenophobia on the rise partly because of that, we need empathy now more than ever. We need to understand the people we fight, both in reality as well as in fiction, if we ever want to move forward and end these conflicts.
Or CoD just sucks at writing non-corporate evil bad guys that are an obvious stand-in for their Activision overlords, I dunno.