Studio head Mark Lamia on the tensions in building fiction from fact

Treyarch and the theatre of war

The somewhat forgotten quote by Stanley Baldwin goes thus: "War would end if the dead could return."

Such a phrase might one day find its way into a Call of Duty game – the FPS series is known for greeting the player’s death with poignant war quotes. But for Treyarch itself, Baldwin’s message might run a little deeper.

Because despite all the research Treyarch has put into twentieth century warfare, the studio is reluctant to recreate the kind of ‘real war’ experiences that it’s studying. “You wouldn’t want to get anywhere near that”, says studio head Mark Lamia.

In the interview below, Lamia places emphasis on the fact that Call of Duty Black Ops is a fictional piece. Everything else he says suggests the opposite. His answers demonstrate the fine line his team are treading – between fantasy and history, between reality and razzamatazz.

Are you relieved to not be developing games on World War 2?
LAMIA: Yeah! But not because I don’t think World War 2 is awesome – it was great to be able to create those kinds of games – but because it’s great to be able to create something new.

What I like about what we’re doing is that it’s different. Having a Black Ops take on [the Call of Duty Franchise] is different. And I think that’s been really helpful to the team coming up with new ideas, because [the new setting] has sparked all kinds of creativity.

There are pros and cons to choosing the cold war period, because you’ve got more resources to do more research, but perhaps more responsibility as well. There are a lot more war veterans that could of course get upset with the game.

LAMIA: Whenever we create Call of Duty, we do our research, we talk to veterans. And we do draw all kinds of inspirations and we come up with our fiction.

We do want to understand what is real and what is authentic, and then we make a conscious decision to create the entertainment experience we want to make. And we want to create an environment and experience that people want to be in, not one… well, when people ask us “are you going to create a real war experience” we say no, you wouldn’t want to get anywhere near that. This is a cinematic and intense action entertainment experience.

When we go talk to these veterans, it’s very sobering, and we let them know what we’re doing.

One of the veterans we talked to was Major John Plaster. He’s a SOG, which stands for Studies and Observations Group, but some call it Special Operations Group. The SOG conducted black-ops in Southeast Asia, and in some territories which people disavowed knowledge of existing.

He conducted a lot of his missions that he writes about in his book [Behind Enemy Lines with the Elite Warriors of SOG]. And when you read his book and see what he and his comrades did, and read about people who didn’t make it back – that’s quite sobering.

So yeah I tell him that we’re making this entertainment experience, that we’re not looking to mimic his book but certainly we drew inspiration from it. His first response was that he said his Grandson was playing World at War and he was blowing the heads off of some zombies, and that he was very excited to hear that we called him.

But he said he hasn’t been able to talk about what he did until only recently when information has been declassified.

This is a person that’s served for his own country, his own ideas and beliefs. This is a guy who created his own Black Operations, and he couldn’t tell anyone about it?! This guy faced death more than anyone will in their lifetime, and he couldn’t tell his story.

He had to submit his own story to the Ministry of Defense and use the Freedom of Information Act as well. So his idea was this; if people play this entertainment experience, it will inspire them, maybe some of them, to learn more about the period.

Now, we’re not doing a game about the Vietnam War. But there were so many Black Ops conducted in that time, and the SOG were so instrumental – these were the Godfathers of tactical recon – that to cover its operations, we have to look at what it did during Vietnam.

[COMMUNITY MANAGER JOSH OLIN]: Exactly. You’re not fighting the Vietnam War, it’s just the backdrop. You’re playing along our narrative, which weaves through the Vietnam War.

LAMIA: There’s going to be critics. There’s critics of everything, but the chances are we’re not making a game for them.

Was it a challenge to come up with new scenarios in a series which has extensively covered so much area?
LAMIA: Well, when we come up with a mission we’re coming up with our own gameplay – we’re not looking at other things. When we see other games that come out, frankly, I breathe a sigh of relief because I think ours is different.

What we’re trying to do is variety of gameplay and fresh experiences. That’s the philosophy we take when we’re thinking about game and when we’re reviewing them. There’s a real focus on pacing as well – the team is paying attention to each beat of the game, each event, and want players to psychologically be at certain points along the levels.

That feeling of what will the next level bring… I’m hoping our players will feel it at every beat. I want people to think, what am I going to experience around this corner?

And we’re brining a lot of new experiences to the table, actually. We’ve shown off high-altitude jumps that the player will experience, but we haven’t shown other missions like the one where you have to pilot a helicopter, a Hind, commanding troops on the ground – there’s going to be a bunch of fresh new things we want to do.

OLIN: There’s so much we haven’t shown you as well. This game began development a year before Modern Warfare 2 was released, remember.

There’s this whole approach with Call of Duty games where developers seek to perfect the war FPS formula. In the long-term, how sustainable is this?
LAMIA: You should see our editing-room floor. It’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger as we develop the game. There’s so many ideas that we haven’t implemented yet, so we’re not out of ideas, but it’s all about execution.

I could probably spend a whole afternoon with you guys [points to journalists in attendance] and we would come up with all sorts of new ideas for these kinds of games.

But it’s all about getting a team that’s excited and passionate, and is willing to implement ideas at the level we want. It’s hard. I’m not going to kid you, these guys work so hard.

The Call of Duty series tend to go for a lot more emotive impact than other FPSes. Have you been consciously aiming for that kind of impact, certainly it was there in World at War.
LAMIA: I think it is absolutely part of what we do. There will be situations and scenes where people will pause, and have to think about things. And also, I think some of the experiences in Black Operations are quite intimate. We don’t shy away from that.

OLIN: We’re building this deep story – a very complex story for singleplayer – and so the characters that we are developing are that relatable and personable. For the first time, you’re going to have your own player voice in the game.

Will, er, the game have zombies in it?
LAMIA: Do you really want zombies in this game!? I cannot confirm or deny that we’re putting them in. Do you want to see them in? Here’s what I can say; we’re really appreciative and we’re happy because adding them in before was a really risky thing to do.

The second thing I can say is that we do listen to the community.

The third thing I can say is that we’re really looking forward to creating a really fun co-op experience.

But I have to leave it at that.

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