In 'Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare', space isn't an escape
When asked about climate change at a 2011 appearance at the National Press Club, former U.S. presidential candidate Gary Johnson gave an interesting response.
"In billions of years," he said, "the sun is going to actually grow and encompass the Earth, right? So global warming is in our future."
Putting aside that this is a swing and a miss at addressing the actual issue, there's an important rhetorical gesture here. He's suggesting that our contemporary problems are exclusively earthbound, and that if we were to look at them from a viewpoint that encompasses the cosmic, we would find them more manageable. It's the same impulse that encourages space colonization as a response to climate change, that pushes Elon Musk to create plans to colonize Mars and that encourages some of us to consider signing up. It's a belief that somewhere out there in the deep black is a way out of the overwhelming problems of living on Earth: If we're beyond the point of fixing the foundation, it's time we start thinking about running away from home.
We're not likely to get a better articulation of that ambition and its weaknesses in the year 2016 than Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Ever since developer Infinity Ward released Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, the franchise has been surprisingly adept at channeling cultural anxieties into its military thrillers. Modern Warfare itself was a paranoiac reflection of the post-Iraq War era, satirizing American involvement in the Middle East. Likewise, last year's Black Ops 3taps into the dangers of a fully mechanized military.
Is it any surprise, then, that now, as climate change pushes over its tipping point and a dangerous demagogue has now successfully claimed the White House for the next four years, that Call of Duty would go to space? In order to make military fantasy palatable in an increasingly dire cultural landscape, Infinity Ward's impulse is the same as Johnson's, as Musk's: let's get out of here.
Most of Infinite Warfare is spent in admiration of its futuristic space-faring military and of the technology of space travel in general. The first chapter opens on Earth, where the spaceships of the United Nations Space Alliance are gathered over Geneva for a celebration of Earth's combined might. Inevitably, there's a tragedy: It's a surprise attack at the hands of the Settlement Defense Front, a fascist regime that controls the outer rim of human colonies in the solar system. As the newly promoted commander of the UNSA Retribution, one of the fleet's last remaining ships, you have to take the fight to deep space.
Most of the campaign is a pageant of mining colonies, space stations, and massive starships. You will fight through a shipyard built into an asteroid as it drifts terribly close to the sun. You will float in a space suit, drifting through open vacuum as you approach an enemy destroyer glittering against a backdrop of stars. Everywhere, Infinity Ward wants you to marvel at the Utopian wonder of it all. For Infinity Ward, the military has always been a sort of technology unto itself, a machine of choreographed motion and violence, beautiful in its care and efficiency. With Infinite Warfare, they've built a futuristic military apparatus that spans an entire solar system, and the lavish adoration expands alongside it.
The Call of Duty Infinity Ward wants you to see is an exciting escapist adventure spent admiring man's technological prowess in claiming the cosmos as our own. The stated narrative reinforces this, telling a simple parable of leadership and sacrifice that has more in common with Independence Day than the moral ambiguity of Modern Warfare. The returning alternative modes—a co-operative experience against zombies and the everpresent competitive multiplayer—just reinforce that takeaway, focusing on individual prowess and collective victories. Though awash in a density of gory details, this is supposed to be Call of Duty at its most benign. It gestures toward the skies and wants you to find something safer, simpler, more heroic there, something that can make you forget your troubles until the credits roll or the match ends.
Holes start appearing in that narrative almost immediately. The Settlement Defense Front, designed to be unambiguous villains, come across as just real enough to be troubling. Part of it is the violence. In a game where every bloody moment is rendered as lavishly as possible, a human enemy never portrayed more deeply than Dr. Robotnik feels less like an acceptable target and more like a victim of thoughtless writing. We learn nothing about life on the outer colonies. We don't know why they're fighting or what their values are. The only SDF soldier we meet is an impossibly cruel admiral played by Kit Harrington, a flat villain whose role in the plot as a microcosm of his people only serves to make that perspective feel myopic.
Part of it is also the series of messages that run upon the player's death. In the earlier Infinity Ward games, these words were always quotes from famous thinkers, politicians, and soldiers, usually critical of war. These talking heads distanced the player from the action, planting seeds for the quiet critiques that those early games delivered. Here, they're tidbits of exposition about and quotes supposedly from the SDF, all of them horrifying. "Freedom is a fundamental Earth born flaw," one reads. Another says that the SDF has mandatory military service beginning at age twelve. Situated in the same place where earlier games sowed doubt, these factoids begin to read less like information and more like propaganda.
Instead of escaping the increasingly dire politics of 2016—the realities of xenophobia, existential fear, and public martial brutality—Infinite Warfare instead seems to unwittingly reproduce them. The Other exists, it says, and they're out there waiting for us unless we destroy them first. Sound familiar?
Once you see them, the holes are everywhere. They reveal a game that, far from escaping its context or shortcomings, is instead consumed by them. They're in the gameplay, too in the way the campaign introduces creative new systems, like dazzling missions that freely flow from zero-G combat to naval battles to the series' traditional ground engagements, and then tethers them to the standard 6-8 hour cinematic campaign that has always characterized the series. The established modes of Call of Duty are so set in stone, and so important to Activison's pocketbooks, that a Call of Duty that actually capitalizes on its creators' best ideas might never be made. Escape Earth? Hell, Call of Duty can't even escape itself.
Infinite Warfare is not a bad Call of Duty. I've played nearly every game in the series, and as someone who sees the merits of the systems that make up the moment-to-moment experience of playing a shooter like it, I enjoyed myself, sometimes a good deal. But Infinite Warfare stalls out in the terrestrial shadow of itself and the political context it's trying to run from. It wants to be a lot of things, but ultimately it's a lesson: We can go as far into the cosmos as we want, but we can't go alone. Our problems are stowed away in the cargo hold, and they're coming with us.