'Modern Warfare' Narrative Director Says It's "Right Time" for Female Protagonist

Over a decade has passed since the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare game was released in 2007. Developer Infinity Ward's first-person shooter gave a new shot of life to the long-running wartime franchise, which up until that point had focused entirely on World War II.

Now, the studio is returning to the series with a "re-imagining" of the first entry, set to launch on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on Oct. 25.

2019's Modern Warfare will feature familiar faces, such as British Special Air Service Captain John Price and Sergeant John "Soap" MacTavish, as well as introduce new characters, settings and gameplay to reflect the current meaning behind "modern warfare."

Players will now control combatants on both sides of the conflict, from "Tier-1 operators" such as SAS members and U.S. military personnel utilizing cutting-edge weaponry and technology to rebels and "freedom fighters" in the Middle East who employ a more guerrilla style of warfare. 

Unlike last year's Call of Duty release (Black Ops 4, developed by Treyarch Studios), Modern Warfare will feature a core narrative mode. The game's story delves into conflicts more reflective of 2019 geopolitical struggles, and few punches are pulled in the two gameplay sections showcased thus far by Infinity Ward. The game will also feature a playable female protagonist, a rebel fighter in the Middle East named Farah Karim, for various sections of the narrative. 

Modern Warfare narrative lead Taylor Kurosaki, who joined Infinity Ward in 2014 after a long run at Uncharted developer Naughty Dog, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the new game's return to narrative storytelling, how it re-imagines one of the most successful games in the franchise, the decision to focus on a female protagonist and the fine line the studio walks on sensitive, real-world topics.

This is a "re-imagining" of Modern Warfare. What does that mean, exactly?

When we talked about taking up the mantle and making a new Modern Warfare, we looked at the events of the plot of first three games. By the end of [2011's] Modern Warfare 3, nukes had gone off and Russians had invaded, and there weren’t any human scale stakes left in that world to hook into. Beyond that, a lot has happened in the real world in the eight years since Modern Warfare 3 came out. The battlefield lines have become more blurred than they were back then. Think back to Iraqi Freedom and tanks rolling across the desert and uniformed soldiers on different sides; today’s world is far less defined than even that. Now you have enemies who, more often than not, aren’t wearing uniforms, and civilian collateral damage has become even more a part of the equation. We couldn’t continue the plotline and have it be called "modern warfare." So, we put the storyline to bed and brought characters that we, and fans, know and love and brought them into 2019. It's very similar to [the 2006 film] Casino Royale or Christopher Nolan’s Batman re-imagining. Capt. Price should still be a rogue who knows how to bend the rules and work in the shadows to make a difference in the world, but this is an updated version of the character.

So then, this is retelling of the Modern Warfare story with a lot of the same characters and themes?

Yes. We’re absolutely bringing back some of the favorite characters, but it’s not a total one-to-one. We are not bringing back every single character from the previous series, and the characters that we are bringing back should have the same essence of the original, but we are not beholden to precisely what they look like or how they sounded. Frankly, back during that original series, the way that you brought characters to life was much more akin to making an animated film than it was to making a movie. Now, they’re made much more like a big-budget Hollywood film, where you cast an actor who can walk the part and talk the part and can embody the spirit of that character.

This game will focus on multiple sides of current conflicts. How was that decision made, and how will that be explored in this game?

Not only are we bringing back some of these characters that fans of the franchise love, we’ve also invented new characters that we feel absolutely need to have their place in a game being released in 2019 being called Modern Warfare. There’s a whole other side of wars these days, where you have people for whom their hometown is in the middle of the battlefield. In some cases they have to make a decision to take up arms and fight for the things they believe in, their home. We thought it was important that we covered that side of the conflict because, frankly, in this world today, where you have these superpowers who are vying for supremacy in the areas that abut the spheres of their influence, it’s the local people who are caught in the middle, who pay the greatest price. So it only felt like the right thing to do to create a new cast of characters who are every bit as aspirational as Captain Price, as capable and every bit the leader that he is. We feel like we’ve done that, particularly with the character of Farah Karim, who is the commander of this freedom fighter militia. When we set out to make this game, we looked at the simplicity of what the words "modern warfare" mean when put together, and to have a huge part of this game not reflect on people like Farah would really feel like a misstep.

I haven't seen much of the game at this point. The term "freedom fighter" can be touchy, depending on the context of the narrative. How do you walk that line?

Well, the question is, how does she walk that line? There’s a quote from an American general that says something along the lines of, "A terrorist is whoever we say is a terrorist." We did a lot of research specifically into a group of militia fighters called the YPJ who operate in Syria and Iraq. These are mostly all-female fighting forces who have decided that picking up a weapon and fighting for what they believe in is the best way for them to move forward. These women are so incredibly resilient and brave to go out on a battlefield where the enemy is targeting them specifically, because for the enemy to be killed by one of these women in battle is the most dishonorable way to be killed. It just felt like that is a more complete definition of “modern warfare.” What we say is, what defines a terrorist is in the eye of the beholder. This is not a black-and-white world.

The question that we have is, why can’t a game tackle these heady topics? If you really want to empathize with characters who are put into situations that are difficult, who are under a lot of pressure, you can either observe them from your detached third-person perspective on the movie screen or you can actually choose to literally walk a mile in their combat boots and really know what it’s like firsthand how difficult these situations are.

The Call of Duty franchise doesn't have a lot of female protagonists. When was the decision made to have Farah be a playable character in this game, and was she inspired by real-world influences?

It was 100 percent inspired by the world around us. The decision was made at the very beginning of production. We believed that as much as Price is beloved that a character like Farah can be just as beloved. It’s far overdue for a character like that, who is based in the reality of war as we know it today, to come to fruition and see the light of day.

Last year, Battlefield V came under fire from online critics for featuring a female protagonist and being "historically inaccurate." Are you concerned about that happening to Modern Warfare?

We can’t really worry about that kind of stuff. We create art that speaks to us as creators. Our guiding principle on this project from day one was to be as authentic and as realistic as possible. Fighters like Farah and her brother Hadir are a part of the reality we live in today. To ignore that those kind of characters exist is just turning a blind eye to reality, and that’s not a thing that we are prepared to do.

Last year's Call of Duty title — Black Ops 4, developed by Treyarch — didn't have a traditional main narrative. Do you and the team at Infinity Ward feel any added pressure returning narratives to the CoD franchise after a detour away from them, particularly when you couple that fact with re-imagining a beloved game like Modern Warfare?

I feel like it’s an incredible opportunity, more than anything. I’ve been in the games industry for 24 years, and I remember certain seminal moments in my life as a player. One of those was the first time I played Modern Warfare in 2007. I was playing the second mission in the game where you fast-rope down onto the deck of a cargo ship, and you have to escape a capsizing ship. I had just finished work on the first Uncharted game and was quite proud, but playing Modern Warfare and that mission, specifically, I paused it and sat in disbelief, thinking, how is this magic happening? The guys at Infinity Ward have basically created a playable action cinematic movie experience. I had never seen anything like it before. My un-secret goal for this new game was that if there’s a whole generation of people out there who have that feeling from the first Modern Warfare, I want this re-imagined version to give them that exact same feeling.