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The best part of Call of Duty’s sci-fi future is the mundane set dressing

The best part of Call of Duty’s sci-fi future is the mundane set dressing

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How the starship captain died is tough to recall, but I do remember his office.

On the floor is a soccer ball. On the shelf is a tiny model of the vessel the captain once led; on the table is a generic computer workstation, the mundane place where life-and-death decisions were made. This office looks like any other office. The futuristic technology waits outside on the ship’s elaborate deck, a wide semi-circle with a breathtaking view of the galaxy. But that’s hazier, not like the office, which I could map onto a napkin if you lent me a pen.

You never actually meet the starship captain in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. After he joins the list of the game’s thousands of casualties, you simply assume his title. Other games — the kind with bolder artistic ambitions — might have given us a beautifully constructed montage of the captain giving his final orders. Perhaps the camera would linger on our hero as he shrinks under the assignment of his new seniority. But not Infinite Warfare, a game that, like the best Call of Duty entries, has a workman-like approach to aesthetic and design.

Call of Duty, which has become the most successful video game franchise of the past decade, established its ascent with 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This first-person shooter successfully transplanted the genre from historical battles and sci-fi operas to more immediate and often mundane venues. One of its most memorable missions sends its hero through the abandoned Chernobyl — beneath apartment complexes, through playgrounds, across gymnasiums. The sequel, Modern Warfare 2, plopped battles on American soil, and in doing so featured meticulous recreations suburban housing and fast-food burger joints.

Slow battle interrupted by fast food

Modern Warfare wasn’t the first game set in the present. Earthbound on the SNES humorously swapped the fantasy trapping of role-playing games for the early ‘90s American Southwest, and Grand Theft Auto has lampooned American cities since its debut in ‘97. But those games were in turn cartoonish and parodic. The Call of Duty series was the first blockbuster to occupy a world that looked just as boring and mundane as our own.

None of this is to say that Call of Duty is an overlooked and potent critique of the banality of evil. The franchise operates shamelessly in a melodramatic and binary world of good guys and bad guys, punctuating scenes with irrelevant quotes about war or machismo fluff from Bush-era neocons. The function is far simpler, though still valid — contrast. Just like black ink is boldest on white canvas, the umpteenth over-the-top firefight is afforded some vital levity when you’re taking cover behind a caution wet floor sign.

Across 10 games, thousands of hours in production have been spent creating telephones with conference call speakers. Millions of dollars have been invested in creating apartments lit by television screens with generic news broadcasts, countless stuffed animals to stand in contrast with the unrelatable violence in which the game traffics. Even the series’ recent flirtations with sci-fi have made room for objects and spaces that feel like junk we’ve owned or places we’ve lived. Advanced Warfare’ story pivots on bionic arms, nano-machines, and PMC, but an early mission has the player breaching an IKEA catalog. And Infinite Warfare precedes the captain’s office with a shootout in a mall that looks like a shopping center from 1980 but with more touch screens, and less glass brick.

From the beginning, Activision’s marketing machine has pushed the message that Call of Duty games are plausible and grounded, rolling out disgraced military hacks like Olly North to talk about all the paths to an apparently inevitable apocalypse. As if what Call of Duty needed was to be appreciated as a deterministic foreshadowing of a future in which we’ll be too busy shooting each other in the real world to do so in the virtual one. And surely there’s a more sinister way to read the inclusion of real-world objects and settings — that shooting people in worlds that resemble ours could inspire similar violence offscreen. I just don’t buy any of that, either as intent or end result.

For me, the pleasure of Call of Duty’s grounded approach is that, seeing bits of reality in the game reminds me how different reality is from the hawkish horror show each game imagines. Consciously or not, flavorless reality as a sort of safety word to extreme violence, has become more common. Watch Dogs 2, also released this fall, features re-creations of San Francisco and Silicon Valley that are beautiful, believable, and quite often delightfully bland.

The captain’s office looks so real, and yet, it’s the perfect reminder that everything is fake — a fun distraction from real offices everywhere.