Disability, Diversity and Evolution in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

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Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was not the game I was anticipating. I was looking forward to enjoying it as much as I had every other game in the series, including 2013’s less than stellar Ghosts, but I did not expect Advanced Warfare to have a genuinely exciting, consistently strong campaign that tried to shake up the same run-and-gun formula that’s been a part of the series since its inception as a World War II game back in 2003.

That’s not to say there are necessarily any earth-shattering, innovative design decisions here that turn Call of Duty on its head. You’re a white dude (voiced by Troy “Startlingly Handsome” Baker) who has Philosophy 101 thoughts about life and death that are only aired in the cut scenes between levels. You kill a lot of people with a variety of guns and really rad gadgets while going from point A to point Z. There’s a terrorist causing a ruckus that you have to hunt down and there’s a story that starts strong but slowly falls apart under the weight of all the bombastic action sequences. And yet, within those series constants there are some baby steps being taken toward a new kind of Call of Duty. The first being Ilona, one of only two prominent woman soldiers in the series (the other is Tanya Pavelovna from Finest Hour, the first console-exclusive Call of Duty).

Ilona is a Russian sniper turned PMC soldier who’s witty, deadly and immediately one of the most likeable characters in the game. She doesn’t fall in love with the protagonist or anyone else, she’s never a damsel, and she has agency. It is a bit sad that her role becomes less prominent as the game goes on—she sort of just fades into the background in the final bit of the campaign—but it’s still encouraging to see a woman character in a game as big as Call of Duty ostensibly designed to defy unsavory tropes.

However, there’s another design decision that’s stuck with me since I finished Advanced Warfare: Mitchell, the protagonist, is technically a disabled person. The prologue mission is basically an excuse to build up his relationship with his best friend, Will, before Will is killed and also to reveal how Mitchell loses his arm. After that, Will’s father, Jonathan Irons, tries to replace his lost son with Mitchell, inviting him to work at his private military corporation Atlas, where Mitchell’s amputated arm is replaced with a high-tech prosthetic one that’s super powerful. Advanced Warfare, for the most part, doesn’t really do anything with Mitchell’s disability except use it as narrative justification for his employment at Atlas…that is until near the end of the game.

Halfway through Advanced Warfare, Mitchell, Ilona and Mitchell’s combat mentor, Gideon, find out that Irons has deliberately allowed the terrorist attacks around the world to happen in order to build Atlas’ reputation and manipulate various nations in a bid for power. The trio attempts to take him down and is captured. While Mitchell is imprisoned, Irons smashes his arm with a wrench out of spite, leaving him one-handed. An obligatory jailbreak mission follows where Gideon and Mitchell must shoot their way out of the facility. Mitchell isn’t able to use his left hand, so the player can’t reload weapons. Instead, once their clip goes dry they have to either pick up a fallen foe’s weapon or rely on their knife.

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Game sequences that rob players of their powers aren’t a new thing—Bioshock and Infamous are probably the two obvious examples—and when it’s done, it’s usually a grating experience, a filler mission thrown into the mix for the sake of hollow variety. However, the context within Advanced Warfare, that Mitchell is actually an amputee soldier, works to make its power-robbing sequence fascinating. In a game that gives you the ability to throw grenades that fly to your targets and to rip enemies out of mechanized armor with a grappling hook, I never felt more powerful than I did going from room to room, taking down bad guys with one arm out of commission. It’s an important sequence because it’s really the only decent shade of characterization that Mitchell gets: he isn’t a weak person because of his disability. This is a message that isn’t skillfully or subtly communicated, but quiet and witty has never been this series’ trademark anyhow, and as someone with a disability (dysgraphia) it’s always nice to see a game that acknowledges that people with disabilities actually exist. It’s even better when a game gives them agency or casts them as the protagonist.

Of course, the first thing that AAA games starring protagonists with disabilities often do is sci-fi those disabilities away and turn those protagonists into Steve Austin-esque characters, like Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen. After being thrown through a wall and beaten into a bloody pulp, Jensen clings onto life long enough to be fitted with cybernetic enhancements and prosthetics that turn him into a one man army. Advanced Warfare does the same thing with Mitchell, but the difference is that Advanced Warfare has a lengthy gameplay sequence that’s all about acknowledging Mitchell’s status as an amputee soldier. The game points out that his disability is a part of his identity, but it doesn’t define him. The jailbreak level, and the rest of the game afterward, is really about Mitchell rejecting dependency on his prosthetic arm and kicking ass nonetheless.

It’s a risky proposition to insert the player power loss scenario within the context of a soldier with a disability, but Advanced Warfare’s execution of that sequence is pretty remarkable in just how fun and empowering it is. It also gives me some hope in regards to the creative evolution of AAA games going forward. We are, after all, talking about Call of Duty, the series that supposedly never changes.

A large part of the creative stagnation that has plagued AAA games stems not just from a reluctance to take risks when designing the mechanics of a particular interactive experience but also from the uncomfortable familiarity of traits shared among protagonists. Do we really need another tough, grizzled white dude out for revenge, or to rescue the damsels, or to administer his bone-breaking brand of justice? Another Talion, another Aiden, another Booker?

Make no mistake, the latest Call of Duty stills falls deeply within this same AAA-specific dreary pit of insipidness when it comes to crafting interesting protagonists with worthwhile journeys. However, there are small nudges toward something that’s different from the Call of Duty I’ve come to expect. If this particular series is making steps, however small they be, to incorporate a diverse cast of characters, then it might be the preamble to more franchises taking the same initiative.

If you had asked me before last week if I could imagine a woman or black man as a protagonist for a Call of Duty game, I probably would have told you “Yes, but I don’t think Activision is capable of imagining such a thing.” After having played through Advanced Warfare, I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore.

I’ve rarely been happier about uncertainty.

Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter.

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