Before Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare even released this week, a screenshot, similar to the one above, started flooding social media. The gist of the scene: The player’s character, Mitchell (Troy Baker), is attending the funeral of his comrade in arms, Will Irons. Advanced Warfare has boiled down the act of mourning into a simple button prompt: “Press square to pay respects.”
It’s a ludicrous idea taken out of context, but in the course of the game itself? Yup, still silly. And the concept becomes even more troubling when considering the entire funeral sequence. It’s indicative of a problem games have suffered for years—distilling scenes meant to evoke pathos to a simple button press or two. We’re not given a reason to truly care about what’s happening other than “the game is telling us to feel something.”
The only feeling I was left with, though, was disappointment. Despite the strides in storytelling we’ve seen in gaming recently, what’s likely be the one of the year’s most widely played games bungles any hope of starting off on an authentically emotional moment.
[Spoilers for the first hour of Call of Duty‘s campaign follow.]
Let’s back up a bit. The scene itself takes place after Advanced Warfare‘s introductory mission. Players have fought alongside Will for all of 25 minutes, give or take your propensity for being a sponge for enemy fire. At the end of the level, Mitchell and Will are planting an explosive device in an enemy airship, but Will’s arm catches in a panel.
He can’t break free. He accepts his fate. He’s going to die. But he doesn’t want Mitchell to suffer the same fate, so he pushes him off as the vehicle lifts into the air. Mitchell watches as the ship—and his friend—explode in midair. Mitchell is then dragged away from the scene by a fellow soldier, but not without a battle wound of his own: His left arm has been cut off at the elbow.
The next sequence is Will’s funeral. Already, Advanced Warfare is asking us to be emotional about the death of a character who’s only spoken a few lines of dialogue and shot a cool-looking gun. The game tells players Mitchell and Will are friends, but it doesn’t show that they truly matter to one another. The funeral scene could, at the very least, help players understand their brotherly connection. Instead, it condenses the totality of their bond into a single button. It’s a scene that could have played out without the player’s control and delivered the same punch, or lack thereof.
And that’s the button prompt’s cardinal sin—and perhaps why it was mocked even before most players actually had their hands on the game. There is no express purpose to making this action a player-controlled one. The forced grief ends just about as quickly as it begins, though—which is when the scene becomes even more problematic. As Mitchell rests his hand on Will’s casket, the camera pans down to remind players that Mitchell lost his arm. The scene can’t even focus solely on Will’s death. It seems almost afraid to do anything more than pay virtual lip service to his memory, transforming what’s meant to be the impetus for Mitchell’s motivations into a brief, forgettable, and lazy scene.
Mitchell can’t interact with anyone else at the funeral. He can’t speak to Will’s other family and friends, hear their anguish or sniffling. It’s the most uncomfortable funeral you’ll ever attend because no one seems to actually be feeling anything. Even Conan O’Brien has to compare the scene to one in Wedding Crashers to justify its oddities.
It’s not as if games, whether they be big-budget releases or smaller titles, are incapable of nailing tricky emotional beats. I’ve wept openly while playing through key scenes in Journey and Gone Home in the last few years. Games can tackle loss, love, friendship in complex and honest ways, even in their early portions. The Last of Us—spoiler alert!—proved that last year, setting up its protagonist’s motivations with the death of another character, one who remains alive for about as long as Will does. The death of Joel’s daughter is so horrifying both because of the way it occurs and due to how the game uses the brief time we share with both characters to put their relationship front and center. The Last of Us made me misty eyed. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare made my eyes roll.
If life’s toughest moments could be solved with just the press of a button, we’d all be able to skip over the sad parts and turn back to the exciting stuff—which, in Advanced Wafare‘s case, is a futuristic, surprisingly colorful war zone. But life isn’t that simple; emotions and how we deal with them aren’t so easy to understand.
Call of Duty, for all of the franchise’s Michael Bay-esque bombastic spectacle—some of which I’ve absolutely loved in my time with Advanced Warfare so far—also wants to portray the horrors of warfare honestly. To achieve that goal, it’s integral to make the darker moments just as poignant and powerful as the cool, explosions-in-your-face sequences.
But Will’s funeral fails in just about every respect to make you care, which makes its inclusion in the game all the more puzzling. Games have the potential to make emotionally trying moments feel more realistic and personal than any other entertainment medium. But if I don’t have a reason to care, I can press a button to turn a game off just as easily as I can press one to pay my respects to Will.