Why Infinity Ward Took 'Call of Duty' to Outer Space

'Infinite Warfare' takes a decidedly Naughty Dog approach with its campaign, not to mention some of its team

'Infinite Warfare' heads to the final frontier in a quest to restore its fundamentals. Credit: Activision

Over its 13 years of existence, the Call of Duty franchise has become the Mario of military shooters: a catchall to describe an entire genre. For players – and there are many, as the series had sold over 200 million copies, with sales topping $10 billion – the games have consistently delivered an exceedingly deep, competitive multiplayer battleground, supported by the ambitious set pieces of its globetrotting single-player campaigns. The moment-to-moment combat is superb, a finely tuned engine of an entertainment experience, mechanically as sound and gratifying as the very weaponry it attempts to simulate.

And yet, where many big-time game series' have defining characteristics that provide a true soul – a recurring character, a familiar setting, a specific tone – the Call of Duty games have come in a jumble of different shapes and sizes: the hyper-realism of Modern Warfare's Middle East campaign, the campy kitsch of Zombies mode, the sports-like atmosphere (now literally, with its success in esports) of competitive multiplayer. Not only that, but the development of the various games has been stretched over a number of Activision-funded studios – the gulf between its original mission and its commercial evolution made even wider when franchise creators and Infinity Ward founders Vince Zampella and Jason West were fired by Activision for "breaches of contract and insubordination" in 2010, throwing the studio into disarray.

After more than 20 outings across three console generations, it's clear that Call of Duty is an ever-morphing entity, less a specific creative vision and more a sort of G.I Joe-informed reflection of our society. Which is why its latest morph – from the near-future of 2014's Advanced Warfare (which added jetpacks and Ghost In The Shell-style spider tanks) to outer space in the just-released Infinite Warfare – is able to make some kind of sense.

"There was a core of this team that needed and wanted to do something different," says Infinity Ward studio head Dave Stohl of the decision. "At times like this, superhero movies do well because people need an escape. Maybe it’s a nice time to give people an escape, something that’s different, because they’re bogged down in reality." Of course, when development began on Infinite Warfare, little did the team realize the game would be launching on the eve of a Donald Trump presidency. "I won't comment on politics, but it's crazy times," he says.

Infinity Ward today is essentially the product of a merger with fellow Activision studio Neversoft (best known for its Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and Guitar Hero franchises), and bolstered by the hiring of several veteran developers from cross-town studio Naughty Dog, developers of lauded character-driven series like The Last of Us and the Uncharted. With this new blood, Infinity Ward decided to bring its billion dollar baby to new heights (literally), while exploring many of the well-worn themes that marked the franchise back in its WWII days: honor, accountability, the weighing of a single life against the lives of many.

The multiplayer in Infinite Warfare is deep and expansive, and the Zombies mode, titled "Zombies in Spaceland," provides a fun, absurd romp through an Eighties amusement park. So far, so CoD – but what's most notable is that, for the first time in the series, its single-player campaign attempts to tell a classic war story with fully-formed, three-dimensional characters that actually engage you on an emotional level. As their commander, you're confronted with the critical responsibility of keeping these soldiers alive; worse yet, this noble objective ultimately comes second to completing the mission. Tom Hanks' character Capt. Miller from Saving Private Ryan served as something of a guide: as Captain Reyes, you must quickly transition from the mindset that getting your men home above all else, to understanding that the mission comes first.

None of this narrative heft was accidental – Infinity Ward hired Naughty Dog alumni, after all, and few studios are as adept at the art of humanizing characters. True to the Naughty Dog approach, Activision also invested in voice acting and performance capture sessions that lasted months rather than days. "That level of commitment, that level of time together really came through," says Stohl. "If we didn't like a scene, it was, 'Let's go re-shoot it, let's do it differently.' That kind of access to the actors really helped, and you don't always have that." This time around, Stohl says the performers and the development team spent some 70 days working together, as opposed to cramming an entire game's worth of recording into a single week in a sound studio.

Unexpectedly, venturing to space also gave the writers the tools they needed to return to familiar territory. For narrative director Taylor Kurosaki, it was one of the major incentives for leaving Naughty Dog to take on the new challenge. "Storytellers are often looking for sources of pressure to put on their characters to reveal their true nature, and war is the ultimate pressure to put on your characters," he says. "Usually you resort to double-crosses and back-stabs because you need to re-up. One of the things our setting gave us was an additional pressure: you're in space. If your mask is cracked or your suit is torn, you're dead – the environment itself is trying to kill you." In this sense, the team was able to keep things cleaner and simpler, in terms of both character motivation and story arc.

Infinite Warfare is set in a far future where Earth has been stripped of its natural resources as a result of population growth and industrial overdevelopment. The politics of outer space are no less fraught, and militant radicals seek to control it. You play commander Nick Reyes, captain of the UNSA Warship Retribution, who leads the fight against insurgents that broke away from the game's extraterrestrial equivalent of the UN during a war of secession. Where Modern Warfare spoke to America’s involvement in the Middle East, and last year’s Black Ops 3 grappled with ideas about mechanizing our military, Infinite Warfare draws from contemporary anxieties about climate change and interstellar colonization.

"By varying up our setting, we were able to go back to our roots [as a series], in a way," Kurosaki says. "It let us double-down on things that feel grounded. The bad guys are bad, and the good guys are good. We wanted a classically-told, three-act war story." The team avoided the muddy ethics of subversive, anti-war films like Full Metal Jacket and The Thin Red Line – not to mention many of the recent Call of Duty titles, with their layers of conspiracy and narrative misdirection. Instead, the broad strokes of WWII epics like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers served as primary touchstones. "We wanted to say that it doesn't matter how good you are – there are circumstances where 'winning' and bringing everyone home isn't how it turns out," Kurosaki says. "It's purely doing the job. It's completing the mission. Period. The end."

Of course, change is rarely easy. Infinite Warfare got off to a particularly rocky start, at least in terms of perception: shortly after going online, its announcement trailer became the single most disliked video on YouTube. "There was some consternation internally, but there was also a sense that fans didn't quite understand what the team was creating. "I felt like when people finally saw the game, they'd feel like this was CoD's grounded military take on the space game," Stohl says. "And that it's really a story about characters and their sacrifices and their leadership. We had to take our lumps along the way, but this fantastic setting allowed us to do new stuff – and we told a character-driven story. I think that was the cool zag."

War movies regularly find themselves displaced into other genres, particularly science fiction: the Nazi-like Stormtroopers in Star Wars, the Vietnam War allegory of Aliens, and the boots-on-the-ground military combat of the upcoming Rogue One. "I think that everything is a part of the zeitgeist," Kurosaki says. "Modern Warfare came out nine years ago, and we've been in some state of constant military conflict in our world for those nine years. So it's not feeling like 'rah-rah, bang-bang' is a byproduct of the world we live in."

Modern Warfare came out nine years ago, and we've been in some state of constant military conflict in our world for those nine years.

Perhaps more so than film, however, war games are full of inherent contradictions. While a film can tell its story with some degree of subtlety and control, in games like Call of Duty, attempts to tell meaningful stories are, to some degree, always undermined by the dissonance of constantly killing other human beings, because shooting is simply the most fun thing to do with a game controller. The genre feels like it's perhaps finally on its way to becoming an adult, having outgrown its purely aggressive teenage years; the first mission in EA's recent Battlefield 1 campaign, set during WWI, has players switching from one grunt on the ground to the next each time they die. In Infinite Warfare, despite your best efforts as their commander, you will lose men and women that you connected with, that aided you, that fought valiantly for the greater good. In both games, death is perhaps more resonant than it's ever been in a military shooter.

"We're ultimately looking for emotional parity between our players and the protagonist that they're occupying," Kurosaki says. "You can't just tell a player that we want you to be mad at this guy, or we want you to like this character. The way to make you like that character is instead to have that character help you, with mechanics. It's this show-don't-tell approach."

Stepping back to consider the question of the series' soul, Stohl has an auspicious vantage point: he's been at various Activision studios working on and off on the series since its early days. "Anytime you see teams this big, the hardest thing is keeping everyone connected and going in the same direction," he says. "The core of it is, in some ways like a philosophy or a religion, in terms of what it means – although it doesn't mean the same thing to every single person." For Stohl, those core tenets are often centered around the specifics of player control. "There's something very core to the actual feel of the game that we all try to be very protective about," he says. "Frame rate has always been an important thing to us, weapon feel, snap-targeting, target assist versus no target assist – all these are things that maybe the people outside the walls of Infinity Ward take for granted, but inside we hold those things very sacred, and we talk about them a lot."

He sees the game's different modes as not only complementary to one another, but also each as an almost cathartic escape from the next, woven together through shared mechanics and, necessarily for a game this large, art assets. "MP is so systemic, so system-based, and campaign has been like an awesome movie escape that I get to sit back and experience – play, but also experience," he says. "Nowadays, making a CoD game is like making three games. MP is huge, campaign is huge, and now Zombies has gotten to be so big that it's a game in and of itself. That's really hard from a development point of view; not just getting hundreds of people making the game, but then big teams running in the same direction, making three different games. Where do they cross over, and where do they not?"

So where does that leave one in attempting to pinpoint the soul of Activision's military shooter behemoth? The only thing that seems certain is change itself. "I think every game needs to have its thing," Stohl says. "Ours was narrative, side-missions, and seamless transitions in a crazy setting. Hopefully we've raised our game across the board with narrative, but I don't suspect that then the next one will be about narrative – you have to do the new thing, too, whatever that is."