Know your history…or be doomed to repeat it.
How many times have we seen this sentiment, paraphrasing Spanish philosopher George Santayana? It must be thousands at this point, with a good half of them coming over the past four years. You’d expect it from tweets linking to whatever terrible thing just happened, but not so much in video game advertisements. Yet that’s exactly how the latest entry in the long-running Call of Duty franchise, Black Ops Cold War, introduced itself. “Inspired by true events,” it says, over stock footage of soldiers and protesters and politicians as well as pieces of an interview with Soviet defector Yuri Bezmenov.
Bezmenov’s presence in this trailer caused controversy—as did the company’s decision to remove footage of Tiananmen Square to appease the Chinese government—because of, among other things, his belief that equality among genders, ethnicities, and sexualities is worthless and fights for it are actually just communist plots to destabilize America. Of course, he doesn’t mention that in these interview clips, rather pointing to a potential big government voted in by “all the shmucks” as the next major danger—itself… not great. If that weren’t enough, the interview was conducted by G. Edward Griffin, a long-time member of the John Birch Society who in the years since has embraced 9/11 trutherism and HIV/AIDS denialism. While it’s unlikely that whomever handled the trailer didn’t understand the dog whistle they were sending—celebrated by at least one far-right YouTuber—it’s plausible everyone else was unaware of that context. So, I gave it the benefit of the doubt…until Ronald Reagan showed up onscreen and told me to go do war crimes.
The Call of Duty franchise has seen a release every year since 2005, and it’s been quite the rollercoaster. The first three entries as well—as myriad spin-offs—were set during World War II, then it moved to the present day with its hugely influential fourth entry, Modern Warfare, eventually going into the future and finally to space before crashing back down to Earth. At this point, publisher Activision Blizzard is just throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what makes a billion dollars. In 2017, this meant a return to the WWII setting that sought to remind us that the Nazis were “not all bad.” In 2018, they decided to release a battle royale-style Fortnite competitor at full price that they have since dropped for the free-to-play Warzone. 2019’s entry reused the Modern Warfare moniker to do its own take on the Benghazi embassy attack, with a little bit of interactive waterboarding thrown in for good (bad) measure.
But these games do not all come from the same teams. Its annual release is made possible via a revolving list of studios, each spending several years each on their next iteration. In the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 era, this was series creator Infinity Ward trading off with Treyarch. When the Xbox One and PS4 hit the market, this switched to an every-three-year cycle, as Sledgehammer Games was added to the mix. But clearly there has been tumult behind the scenes, because even though it’s Sledgehammer’s turn, this isn’t their game: Treyarch is back two years after Black Ops 4 alongside Raven Software, who had provided support development on earlier titles but never taken the reins.
I don’t envy the task they had for themselves: this is the first Call of Duty during the “cross-gen” period, where all major titles must support the existing platforms as well as the newly-released PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. (And the complexity of supporting a half-dozen platforms is likely what’s been plaguing its launch.) Given that, it makes sense Treyarch would go back to the well and make something familiar. Where 2012’s Black Ops 2 started the near-future trend by taking place partly in 2025, the awkwardly named Black Ops Cold War sits firmly in the past. 1981: Ronald Reagan is now president, and he seems very keen on having his boys go out into the field and do bad things to presumably bad people.
The Black Ops sub-series has always hewed closer to real-world events than the other Call of Duty games, so Reagan’s appearance is not itself surprising. John F. Kennedy appears in the original Black Ops game from 2010, in a genuinely weird sequence where your character, in some sort of hallucination, points a handgun at the president as he authorizes the killing of a single target (as opposed to the blanket license to massacre that Reagan offers). Of course, Black Ops also ends with archival footage of JFK on the day he was assassinated, which the protagonist has been digitally inserted into. In context, it is heavily implying that this man pulled the trigger that day—though this never comes up in any of the sequels.
“John F. Kennedy appears in the original Black Ops game from 2010, in a genuinely weird sequence where your character, in some sort of hallucination, points a handgun at the president as he authorizes the killing of a single target (as opposed to the blanket license to massacre that Reagan offers).”
Black Ops Cold War’s primary antagonist is Perseus, a Soviet spy named after the possibly real Soviet spy who was claimed to have infiltrated the Manhattan Project and stolen secrets to allow Russia to build its own nuclear weapons. It is unclear if Perseus ever existed or if he was merely a ploy by Soviet Intelligence to sow doubt in the ranks, but there is a real-world meaning to the name. Similarly, an early mission is a flashback to 1968 Vietnam and Operation Fracture Jaw: a real idea put together by Gen. William C. Westmoreland to have nuclear weapons brought to South Vietnam in 1968 so that they could be deployed North at any time. In the game, we live it. In reality, Lyndon B. Johnson shut it down.
Which brings us back that initial teaser: “Inspired by true events.” Alternate histories in games are nothing new, but they tend to be grandiose: the Nazis won…now what? Black Ops Cold War’s smaller-scale blending of historical fact and historical fiction is uncommon and gives the game’s story a sort of legitimacy it doesn’t really deserve. “Know your history, or be doomed to repeat it.” But what history is that, exactly? I don’t know all that much about the Cold War, so every time a new operation was named, I checked if the U.S. actually did plan to, say, place nuclear weapons in major European cities—just in case. That one, “Operation Greenlight,” was fully made up for the game, and it sets up the central conflict, as this version of Perseus finds out about the bombs and wants to take them for himself. We, of course, must stop him.
It gets violent immediately. The first instruction you’re given is to “interrogate and neutralize” a target. As you begin your way, your companions complain about rules: “Do we really need to take this sonofabitch alive?” one asks. Don’t worry, says the other, “Everyone else we can turn to powder.” I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when just a couple of minutes later, a prompt told me to press R3 for a “Brutal Melee Kill” and this resulted in my character jamming a knife into this person’s neck before grabbing their handgun and firing point blank into their face. It’s a lot. I figure we’re maybe three years away from the point where even the developers of Mortal Kombat will say, “Maybe tone it down a little, guys?”
Of course, once we catch the man we’re after, we beat him and threaten to throw him off a roof until he tells us what we want to know, because in popular media torture is a good thing that always works. Interestingly, you do ultimately get to choose whether to throw him off the roof (the first and default option, of course), release him, or keep him for further interrogation. Every so often, these little choices appear that have very little bearing on the overall narrative, and is basically choosing between being a decent person versus causing the deaths of millions. Hardly a profound ethical conundrum.
Look, I’m not expecting something subversive in a franchise that aims to make billions with every single entry, but did this game really need to lionize MKUltra? I guess the original game had a brainwashing component, and the team felt like this needed one as well, but come on. Even if we’re not meant to sympathize with the characters who did it—without consent, by the way—the “good” ending requires there be no consequences for their actions because actually, it was for the greater good. Although the conflict is entirely America’s fault for secretly putting nukes all over Europe, Perseus is actually the bad guy because he wants the U.S. to take the blame for doing a bad thing, and don’t you dare question that for a moment. As one character says, “Some of us will cross the line to make sure there’s still a line in the morning.”
It’s the kind of jingoistic bullshit that’s always plagued the series, but it hits different in 2020, and also when put in a more realistic context. As clearly connected to the real world as entries like Modern Warfare are, characters fight in fictional cities against fictional forces. But when a digital version of Ronald Reagan sits at the head of a table and tells you that you have to go after a Soviet spy to save the free world regardless of the cost, the abstraction is gone. You’re off to commit war crimes for the United States, and Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War thinks that’s just swell.