Narrative director at Sledgehammer Games, Scott Whitney, talks Call of Duty: World War II campaign with STACK.
Back in 2008, the Call of Duty franchise left the battlefields of World War II in search of new ways to excite an audience seeking bigger and better bangs. Gamers had grown tired of vintage warfare. WWII first-person shooters had, at that point, been a regular on the release sheet for ten years with Medal of Honor and Call of Duty competing in the triple-A space.
The popularity of Saving Private Ryan (1997), a film that revolutionised the way war films were shot, led to a new era of first-person shooters. Spearheaded by the Spielberg-produced Medal of Honor (1999), this new wave of games successfully merged the vibrato of a big screen Hollywood production with traditional shooter mechanics.
Ironically, it was a group of Medal of Honor developers, disenfranchised with EA, who had a vision for a new series. Working with Activision, and initially on PC only, the gritty Call of Duty franchise was born.
In 2007, Infinity Ward took a gamble with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, opening up new horizons for the series. By the time Treyarch released World at War a year later, interest in the conflict had evaporated.
However time heals all wounds, and the Sniper Elite series and the Wolfenstein reboot proved that there was still life in WWII.
“By the time our game comes out, it will have been nearly a decade since Call of Duty has focused on World War II,” says narrative director on Call of Duty: World War II Scott Whitney, speaking with STACK last month. “Based on that and from what we were hearing from the fans, it felt like a perfect time for a return to the roots of the franchise.
“At the same time, it’s fair to say there’s something very special about World War II as a setting. Even though the last shots of the war were fired more than 70 years ago, it still holds a fascination for modern audiences. This conflict reshaped our world in so many ways and it still has lessons to teach us.”
Out of all the wars that took place during the 20th century, it’s World War II that continues to inspire filmmakers, authors and video game developers. The conflict is generally perceived to have overt moral clarity – a clear good versus bad – making it perfect material for a creative mind to meld into a video game narrative. Whitney explains that although poetic license was exercised in part to keep the action fluid in the game, the exploits of the 1st Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One, remains consistent with the history books. The division was chosen for the game because “it boiled down to finding one unit whose journey could take us to all of the iconic battles and locations that we were most passionate about including in our game”.
“While our story is fictional, it is heavily inspired by actual historical events – specifically the journey of the 1st Infantry Division from June 6, 1944 (D-Day) through the Spring of 1945 when the war was drawing to a close,” outlines Whitney.
“While we combined and condensed certain elements in order to tell a coherent story, we felt a strong sense of responsibility to be as authentic as possible in the details.
“To this end, the team did an enormous amount of research – everything from poring over books, photos and documentaries, to visiting the real locations featured in our game.”
While multiplayer remains the core focus for many Call of Duty players, Whitney acknowledges that many still line up eagerly for the single-player experience, and has his own opinions on what makes a good campaign level.
“A good campaign for me boils down to maximising player immersion and engagement.
“So much of what we do is geared towards allowing the player to simultaneously ‘lose themselves’ in the experience while also engaging with the story material on an emotional level.
“Clearly, big cinematic spectacle is also a key component of our campaign – but there’s an understanding that all of this action will hit so much harder for the player if they are invested with the content on a deeper level.”
The implementation of these ideas resulted in some significant changes to the way the team designed the campaign aspect of WWII.
“We made a conscious choice to showcase the experience of everyday soldiers in World War II,” notes Whitney.
“During development, we would often talk about a ‘no superheroes rule’ in relation to the campaign. This led us to a number of design decisions that were focused on making the characters feel more vulnerable, human, and relatable. For instance, we replaced elements like regenerating health with new mechanics such as squad abilities that incentivise the player to connect with and rely upon their squadmates for things like extra med kits, ammo, etc.
“As a result of these adjustments, you really start to depend on your squad to help you make it through the campaign. This causes you to be more invested in their survival and feel their absence if they are not with your character at the time.”
Coincidentally, the famous 1st Infantry Division celebrates its centenary in 2017, having been initially raised during the First World War. It was also the subject of a film in 1980 directed by Sam Fuller and starring Lee Marvin, with Mark Hamill in a supporting role. Did Whitney turn to The Big Red One for inspiration during development?
“I had watched The Big Red One many times growing up and, of course, revisited it when we started working on this project.
“While we are telling our own original story, we were definitely inspired by the gritty and unsentimental take on the war that this film provided.”