Nothing "Off the Table" — Inside the 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare' Studio
There are no tanks or Humvees parked outside the offices of Infinity Ward. Nestled in the broiling valley of Woodland Hills, the headquarters for one of the biggest developers in video games looks much like any other innocuous business park from the outside, as the home of many creative enterprises so often do.
Inside, however, the walls are lined with memorabilia from past releases (a series of signed posters from Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare's various expansion content packs, the hood of a slot car specially designed as promotional tie-in, life-size replicas of ghillie-suited special operatives standing guard near the communal kitchen's snacks) and designers, artists and various other game developers buzz around the sprawling space, hard at work on the finishing touches for the studio's latest offering, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, ahead of its Oct. 25 release.
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"It’s not really a remake, it’s a reimagining," Infinity Ward studio art director Joel Emslie tells The Hollywood Reporter. He's dressed casually in a black t-shirt and jeans, jovial and gregarious despite a recent lack of sleep. The previous week has been hectic, not just professionally, as he juggled an unexpected trip to the hospital with his young son (everything's fine) and the demands of making sure everything is where it should be in the final weeks before launch.
Emslie and his team started work on Modern Warfare — a reimagining (he stresses this) of 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the best-selling game of that year which went on to sell over 15 million copies worldwide and spawn a spinoff franchise for the Call of Duty brand — three years ago, right around the time the studio's last offering, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, hit shelves.
"When you look back at the Modern Warfare series, there was crazy stuff happening and it actually ended up in an alternate universe," Emslie explains. "When we started this game we wanted to bring 'modern warfare' back. We looked at it like [the 2006 James Bond film] Casino Royale, a reimagining of the universe."
He's not the only one to make a comparison to Agent 007.
"Think of it like a reboot of James Bond," says studio narrative director Taylor Kurosaki. Like Emslie, he is lean, quick with a smile and sporting relaxed garb. "When Daniel Craig stepped into those shoes, they found a guy who they believed could embody the essence of Bond in the modern day."
The "modern" in Modern Warfare is key, a fact that is mentioned repeatedly around Infinity Ward. "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has always stood for being ripped from the headlines. It’s always been relevant to the world we live in today, so this game is no exception," says Kurosaki. A moment later, he clarifies: "But a lot has changed in these last eight years."
The eight-year period he is referring to is the span of time since the last Modern Warfare title debuted, 2011's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, the final installment in the spinoff trilogy. That game sold well, to put it rather mildly. To be more hyperbolic (yet no less factual), it debuted to record-shattering commercial success. In its first 24 hours, the game sold 6.5 million copies in the U.S. and U.K. alone, generating over $400 million, a feat that Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick touted as the "biggest entertainment launch of all time in any medium." (Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption 2 later topped Modern Warfare 3's debut with a $750 million, 17 million copies sold, launch in 2018.)
Reimagining such a successful title is a daunting prospect, but Kurosaki sees the Modern Warfare brand as a malleable platform through which to explore current issues. "The original games were built on post-9/11 malaise," he says. "'Modern warfare' today stands for clandestine operations being conducted in the middle of the night in city centers. The methods of war have changed and our game reflects that."
"War isn’t just over there. It’s in our backyards, it’s everywhere," adds Jacob Minkoff, Infinity Ward's design director. A soft-spoken, bespectacled man in round frames, Minkoff wears a flak jacket and camo pants, looking every bit the part of a man whose job it is to make Call of Duty games. "The global war on terror is touching civilian lives more than ever before. We really needed to represent war in that more relevant, modern, accurate way."
In order to accurately present its battlefields, operatives and other locations explored throughout the game, Emslie and his team "went heavy" into photogrammetry, a process of taking hundreds of pictures of an actual, physical object and feeding them into a software program to "kick out a mesh or model that represents that real-world asset," as he explains it.
"The software that does this became so effective in the last three years that it was actually usable to make a game with," Emslie says.
The process, in practice, had Emslie and his team doing "real mad-scientist stuff," such as scanning a full-size decommissioned Army tank, attaching cameras to drones to scan coastlines and mountain ranges, using giant poles to scan the sides of buildings and driving a tractor over a car to scan the wreckage into the game.
"It’s as artistic as any prop designer or production designer would be in Hollywood," Emslie says. "A lot of our stuff is getting to a point where it looks photorealistic."
Realism in a war game, however, can be a touchy subject.
In recent months (and over the last 25 years, really), video games have come under scrutiny by political figures for their violent content. In the wake of multiple mass shootings in early August, President Donald Trump condemned "gruesome and violent video games," suggesting a link between media and real-world murders. It was not the first time Trump had made such comments, nor is he the only politician to do so. The trend stretches all the way back to the early 1990s, with representatives on both sides of the political aisle pointing a finger at the gaming industry.
The Modern Warfare series is no stranger to this controversy. A mission in 2009's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, dubbed "No Russian," put players in control of an undercover CIA agent who engaged in a mass shooting in a Moscow airport terminal. The sequence was graphic and quickly decried by a number of news outlets and advocacy groups, resulting in the censorship of the level in various international versions of the game and the removal of the sequence in the Russian edition.
When asked if any current issue is viewed as too "hot" to delve into with the new take on Modern Warfare, Kurosaki doesn't balk. "We always want to treat them with respect and the deference that they deserve, but these are real situations," he says. "Film and TV seem to be able to tackle these kinds of subjects, so, for us, being in this interactive medium where we can effectively tell stories, but in a much more immersive way, we don’t think these types of subject matters should be off the table."
Emslie says that violence in the game should be "within good taste" and the studio lists "Jaws, not Saw" as one of its guiding design principles. "All the grittiness and the elements of combat that are happening in the game, they’re all in service of supporting the experience and the immersion," he explains. "We’re working really hard to put characters into situations that you actually start developing a humanity and start caring for them. You’re trying to raise the stakes, increase the intensity, put the players into a place where they can feel that intensity."
Adds Minkoff, "You look at movies like Sicario, Zero Dark Thirty, they touch a lot of these complex issues and we think that they do it respectively and we want to do the same thing. We asked ourselves, if we were to make a story that didn’t contain accurate representations of some of the more difficult parts of war, that feels like it would be much more disrespectful. If we sanitized it, if we whitewashed what war is, it feels like that would be more offensive to people who are facing conflict zones today."
To accurately depict those conflicts — and the real-life people affected by and fighting within them — Infinity Ward worked with a variety of consultants from the military, the CIA, war journalists and experts in the Middle East. Modern Warfare introduces a number of new characters to the story, including "freedom fighters" such as the series' first playable female protagonist Farah Karim and her brother Hadir.
"Farah is the commander of this civilian fighting force," explains Kurosaki. "This war came to their backyard and splintered their family. This is about winning their independence and freedom back."
Both Minkoff and Kurosaki want players to relate with their characters, as most artists do, but they see gaming as a singular medium in that area. "A thing that’s unique about video games is that you need the player to feel the same way that the character they’re playing as is feeling," says Minkoff.
How do you do that? Well, it's like any good trick: First, you must prime your audience.
"We’ll do something like create a stealth sequence beforehand where a character messes up and the enemies see us and it turns into a chase," Minkoff says. "Then we can guarantee that the player is annoyed with that character so they buy into this upcoming argument."
If it seems like a bit of manipulation, perhaps it is, but it's a technique distinct to gaming.
"We believe that games is an even more powerful medium for having empathy than any other," says Kurosaki. "Not only do you see these characters on the screen, you can actually be those characters. You can really walk a mile in their shoes, or, in the case of Modern Warfare, march a mile in their boots."
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