The Narrative of Modern Warfare®: Telling the Story of Modern Warfare

In 2007, Infinity Ward released Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare®, reflecting the complexities of contemporary warfare through its Campaign. At the time, the game, as well as its sequels, set itself apart weaving its single player story through the sociopolitical action taking place 24/7 on a global scale.

Twelve years later, Infinity Ward returns to the subject of modern warfare…

From the beginning, it was an honor to return to Modern Warfare . The original game made an incredible impression on fans, and the developers relished the chance to reimagine this universe for a new tale. This was an amazing opportunity, and one that required some careful planning and forethought.

“War has always been incredibly complex,” said Taylor Kurosaki, Infinity Ward’s Narrative Director. “In our more complex world that we live in today,” he continued, “we realize that there are no clear-cut good guys and clear-cut bad guys. We are all shades of gray, and we have to rely on our own conscience to take us through and navigate these complex scenarios. That’s what Modern Warfare is; we don’t say that there are good guys and bad guys. Everybody is the hero of their own story.”

In this three-part series, we’ll give you the “director’s cut” of The Story of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – Official Behind the Scenes Feature; these are the conversations we had with the developers and consultants, who helped craft the Campaign for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare .

Storytellers at Heart

During Kurosaki’s career, he took a hiatus to pursue ventures outside gaming within the TV industry. When he came back, he fell in love again in writing for an audience of one – that being the person playing the game.

“What’s great about games is, rather than just seeing a protagonist on screen and empathizing with someone else that’s external to us, we get to be that person,” Kurosaki said. “We get to walk a mile in their shoes and grow and evolve and actually inhabit them as they-as they figure out how they’re going to overcome these obstacles.”

Whether it was editing for TV or writing the narrative for blockbuster video games, he emphasized how storytellers want their audience to feel empathy for the characters in their story.

“It might not be a tough reach for our players to have empathy for a character like Kyle Garrick, who maybe looks like them, sounds like them, comes from a background like them or more similar to theirs,” Kurosaki explained. “But the goal for us in this game was to present a character,” such as Farah Karim, “that maybe doesn’t look like you, doesn’t sound like you, doesn’t talk like you, doesn’t come from a place that is similar to your own, and yet have just as much empathy for that character.”

Not only has Infinity Ward evolved in how they told stories, but the medium itself also grew with them. Kurosaki mentioned how games in the 2000s didn’t have the fidelity to show subtle facial expressions, such as when someone’s eyes dart to show they might not be truthful, which give an additional layer of storytelling on top of dialogue.

“We have full performance capture where you’re not only capturing the actor’s movements,” Kurosaki explained, “you’re capturing their facial expressions and their voices all simultaneously. We can have a level of fidelity and realism that we couldn’t have achieved before. And that allows us, if we’re willing to, to tell these deeper, richer, more immersive stories.”

Fans of the Franchise Willing to Push Boundaries

Jacob Minkoff is not only Infinity Ward’s Single Player Design Director, but also a fan of the franchise since he modded the original, first Call of Duty back in 2003.

When designing the single player campaign, he drew on his own experiences of the original Modern Warfare series.

“When I was playing the first Modern Warfare back in 2007, I remember playing the ‘Death from Above’ mission and I felt profoundly uncomfortable in that moment,” Minkoff said. “I was firing down at enemies who could not fire back at me, and it felt dishonorable. It felt wrong, since I’d been watching Operation Desert Storm on the news and I’d been seeing footage from Gunships, but it was only once the controller was in my hand that I really understood what asymmetric warfare means… The moral complexity of that only hit home once it was in my hand as a player.”

To that extent, Infinity Ward tried to capture how wars are fought today within this Campaign, as acclaimed narrative writer Brian Bloom, explained.

“These are not naval battles out in the open Pacific. This is not trench warfare in the field. In many cases these battles are happening in people’s homes, in their kitchens, on their terraces, on their second floor, in their bedrooms, in their bathrooms, in their hallways, where they grow their food, where they drink coffee…” Bloom continued. “We worked hard to include all of those things and to have our players face down those aspects of modern warfare.”

For example, one mission takes Captain Price and you, playing as Kyle Garrick, through a townhouse raid, with the whole squad taking a tactical approach to find their high value individuals, or HVIs.

Normally, Minkoff explained, a video game designer would expand the area of play so that gameplay mechanics, such as artificial intelligence or in-game physics, were not hindered. However, with Modern Warfare , Infinity Ward created this home to scale.

“Not only does it feel, in an almost intangible way, much more realistic than you’ve ever experienced before,” Minkoff said, “but it’s also much more claustrophobic; it feels more dangerous with its blind corners. And you then start to understand why the SEALs and the SAS have developed these particular ways of clearing buildings to deal with all of these different angles that can be very dangerous to approach in a real house.”

On top of this, making this townhome on a one-to-one scale allowed the team to fit the play area on one motion capture space and watch how an actual ex-military fireteam would act in this scenario.

“It was almost like the way that the military would practice going through training before actually doing the real operation,” Minkoff said, “that was how we designed this mission. And as we did that, we realized that we needed to develop new mechanics.”

One such mechanic is weapon mounting; in a real operation, a soldier would do this to minimize exposure to an enemy they could see around a corner and simultaneously maximize their weapon’s stability to ensure accuracy.

“Back in 2007,” Minkoff explained, “Captain Price would always say, ‘Check your corners. Check those corners.’ But you didn’t have to, right? The game was tuned as such that you really didn’t have to follow Price’s instructions. Now, when Price tells you ‘Check your corners,’ you will die if you don’t. Adding this more tactical type of experience to Modern Warfare has been driven by our goal for you to really understand how modern war is fought.”

Giving Modern Warfare Fans What They Deserve

During the development of Modern Warfare , the team surveyed fans on what kinds of war stories they’d like to see in a TV show, film, or video game.

“Without a doubt, they said, over and over again, they want to see morally complex characters that are not a hundred percent good nor hundred percent evil. They wanted a much more realistic depictions than they’ve ever seen before,” Kurosaki said. “It was really nice to have the validation of our fans and our players; they are a sophisticated audience. They want something that feels authentic.”

“You can’t just make some white hat, black hat adventure, fans know better,” Kurosaki continued. “[We give] our fans what they expect [and] deserve. And hopefully with Modern Warfare , we’ve done that.”

To that point, Bloom mentioned how this Campaign wasn’t just the product of those at Infinity Ward; they used all the resources they could, especially when it came to their consultants.

“You may sit with some people who are tired of hearing me call them or text them, at two in the morning, desperate to figure out something and asking, ‘How do you say this? How would you do this?’ Or, ‘We have something we’re cutting; help us, shore it back up,’” Bloom said. “We don’t work in a vacuum; we’ve put our pride aside and we have exposed our work to people who can help us get it right.”

Over the next two parts, we’ll introduce four of those consultants who helped Infinity Ward create this authentic narrative, which you will experience when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare launches on October 25.

Pre-orders at participating retailers are available now, or at CallofDuty.com.

The Narrative of Modern Warfare® Part 2: Ensuring Authenticity

Call of Duty for us has always been about being a Tier One Operator, an elite highly-trained soldier,” said Taylor Kurosaki, Narrative Director at Infinity Ward, “so we worked with two consultants, who are retired Navy SEAL consultants and utilized their experience even more than in the past games.”

These two retired Navy SEALs are Steve Sanders and Mitch Hall.

Sanders served 24 years as a Navy SEAL, doing 10 deployments overseas before retiring in 2013.

“I started scuba diving as a sophomore,” Sanders said. “Most of my friends in high school said I was never going to make it, which made it even better when I did.” He laughed.

Sanders said that the franchise “grew up with him,” as he played plenty of Call of Duty games during and well after his deployments. He also recognized that Modern Warfare does not just come with a Campaign, which he got questioned about while advising on the game.

Call of Duty is so big that it’s not just one experience; it’s a platform, right?” Sanders argued. “It gives you a wide variety of different experiences. And if you want some of the best military-themed experiences that you can have in video games, you play Call of Duty . So, personally, I see it like subscribing to a particular video service where I know it’s going to be this amazing experience of a certain caliber and it’s going to be artists performing at their highest quality.”

He shared that at the start of his career, as war changed, it also drastically changed what he had to do in the field despite learning so much during his training.

“We all learned together,” Hall said. “A lot of things we thought we knew, we had to re-learn and re-craft because it was just different than what we expected, and it morphed and changed very quickly from year to year… I would say the battlefield changed every 18 months.”

In the last part of our Narrative series, we detailed how Infinity Ward mapped an entire level onto a motion capture stage so that they could see how an actual ex-military fireteam would act in this scenario.

That fireteam was a two-man squad of Sanders and Hall, who donned mo-cap suits and ran the course while giving their consultation.

“The townhouse is a perfect example of what Mitch and Steve always talk about, which is being told to go with imperfect intel and execute your job perfectly,” said Jacob Minkoff, Single Player Design Director. “And players are going to be presented with situations that will challenge them to identify targets, threats, and unknowns, and make the right decisions.”

Sanders said he never had a mission that was exactly like this level, but he and his colleague drew from their own experiences during their combined 40-plus years of service to be in that moment.

“As a soldier, you’re constantly processing all the contingencies,” Sanders explained. “You’re constantly evaluating and just gaming it in a sense. So, if we’re going down a road or patrolling into a target, you constantly have to be thinking about – okay, what if this happens right now? The same thing applies inside a building; you move in being prepared for anything to happen.”

With that in mind, both men went through the townhouse with the close-quarter tactics that Hall said have evolved over the past 15 years, as it shifted from super-fast and dynamic to one with self-preservation in mind.

“Some of the first things you’re going to notice are how we cover down on a window,” Hall said of what players will see in that part of the Campaign. “We froze down a window before we went in. Instead of just kicking the door in, you know, we used a ladder, we climbed up, and had guys use that window to clear space before we actually put lots of bodies into it.”

Complexity on the Frontline

Not only did Sanders and Hall consult for individual missions, but for the narrative at large, as Kurosaki explained:

“I simply asked Mitch and Steve, ‘What would be a narrative that we could touch on that would ring true to you guys?’ And they said, if you want to tell a real story that would really resonate tell a story about imperfect men like us; going and doing an imperfect job and being expected to do it perfectly. That is the impossible task that we are faced with as operators in today’s day and age.”

For both Sanders and Hall, the concept of hostile intent, a major part of the U.S. Standing Rules of Engagement that all military branches follow for international missions, was a major part of Modern Warfare ’s campaign that they advised on.

In other words, or rather, Hall’s explanation, a modern “battlefield” may have innocents alongside insurgents and soldiers. “That innocent person is in the middle,” Hall said. “They are mostly trying to live their lives and rather not get shot by either side. But if a guy pokes around a corner, is he doing that because he heard the Americans are in the area? Or is he looking for the Americans and wants to shoot them?”

Those split-second decisions, Hall and Sanders both said, are made with extremely high stakes on the line, as violating the rules of engagement could lead to problems both during the mission or well after.

That moral aspect of war is what players will experience in the Modern Warfare campaign, yet that is not the only part of the story. As Hall described, he and Sanders helped Infinity Ward find that balance between authenticity, the story at large, and the gameplay.

“When you’re going to do a complex storyline,” Hall explained, “when you’re going to present this information to the public, of course there’s responsibility to get it right, while you’re balancing the reality that you’re making a piece of fiction, of entertainment. We certainly talk about when we get it wrong or when people get it wrong. But I think they did the work and research this time and are willing to take the risks for the sake of accuracy.”

You can see what these two ex-Navy SEALs, and the other military advisors, helped Infinity Ward achieve for their Campaign Call of Duty: Modern Warfare launches on October 25. Pre-orders at participating retailers are available now, or at CallofDuty.com.

The Narrative of Modern Warfare® Part 3: Another Perspective

Along with the issues that Tier One Operators face, the Campaign of Modern Warfare will also tackle contemporary war from the perspective of those who live within conflict zones.

“The soldier’s perspective is a big part of Call of Duty ®, but in Modern Warfare , we also have the perspective of being a rebel militia fighter,” said Taylor Kurosaki, Narrative Director at Infinity Ward. “You’re fighting for your home. You’re fighting for your family. You’re fighting for the survival of your community, and the stakes for that are even more fraught than they are for these tier one operators.”

Rewriting the Narrative

Somaiya Daud, a PhD student at the University of Washington and young adult fiction writer, did not expect a call from Infinity Ward to critique Modern Warfare for authenticity, specifically how the game represented women of color in the Middle East. In fact, this was the first time any video game company gave her this kind of assignment.

“Candidly, at first I was like, ‘This is going to suck,’” Daud said. “I was really familiar with this sort of standard for representing Muslims, or even like Muslim-adjacent. Like people that are clearly supposed to signify being Muslim without ever saying that they’re Muslim. So, you grow up, you’re watching a TV show or any war game that’s set in the Middle East, and I was like, I know exactly how this is going to go; it’s going to be really bad.”

And to her surprise, it wasn’t.

“It’s really easy to take away the agency and the choices that women of color are normally robbed of in these kinds of narratives,” Daud explained. “But this is really all about Farah and about her choices and about her history.”

Farah Amhed Karim is the fictional leader of the Urzikstan Liberation Force, a group of over 7,000 volunteer freedom fighters that want to free their country from foreign subjugation and fight alongside the British Special Air Service. For her, this war is more than just fighting for Urzikstans freedom, but also a fight “to free our people from old-fashioned ways.”

“You certainly don’t get a lot of women in leadership for games, and especially war games in general,” Daud said. “And women of color who are sort of coded as indigenous to the region where they’re from certainly don’t get starring roles. And if they do get starring roles, they’re sort of weighed down by a lot of stereotype baggage… Farah is a character who not only has a lot of agency, but she’s the leader of her resistance, and she’s a character of such dignity. She’s committed to this cause, but she doesn’t come off as being, you know, sort of the patriotic rebel.”

True to the Wars Fought Today

Farah’s story mirrors that of present-day female freedom fighters in the Middle East, as Hollie McKay, a war correspondent who covered those conflicts over the past half-decade, explained.

“The women that I fortunately had a chance to spend a lot of time with,” McKay said, “they were some of the most extraordinary women I had ever experienced and met. And their ability to not only fight, but to really be able to make decisions to govern, to run cities, to do these things, was extraordinary change. They have such a big vision for how they see the world and how they see their place in it. And I think that’s always an empowering thing for women to see.”

Her experiences also dovetail into the overall themes of Modern Warfare ’s Campaign; war is complex, and nothing is ever straightforward.

“There is never sort of an easy black and white that comes into it,” McKay said. “There’s never one good guy and one bad guy. There are so many nuances and-and I think that can be really intimidating and overwhelming for people, so I think for me, as a journalist, I try to kind of break that down where I can. And I think a great way of doing that is by finding these individual stories that can tell a bigger picture of what is happening on the ground.”

When Infinity Ward asked her to provide the human aspect of what these wars are like from the perspectives of civilians on the ground, she came in as someone who isn’t a “typical gamer” – her usual duties as a journalist leave little time for gaming, after all – but was surprised how a video game could capture emotions she saw in the field.

“I think they did a fabulous job,” McKay said. “the realism of it and sort of the sense of humanity and, you know, just the compelling stories. It was chillingly realistic.”

“If you’re from here,” Kurosaki explained, “and you hear about these wars in the Middle East and you assume that those wars are over there, you can at least understand, well, what if my homeland was invaded? What if my country was invaded? What if I was fighting for the freedom of my community and my city and my town? What would I do in order to achieve victory? And that’s the question that we pose to our players. What would you do in order to achieve victory? That’s the gambit that we ask of our players and that’s the central tenant of our story.”

And when the credits roll, what does Infinity Ward want players to walk away with?

“If our players were somehow inspired or moved from playing the campaign,” Kurosaki answered, “and want to learn about freedom fighters who are fighting for their homes and how they interface with the armies of the West, or people like Kyle and people like Alex, then I think that’s a win for us.”

You can experience this Campaign when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare makes its worldwide launch on October 25. Pre-orders at participating retailers are available now, or at CallofDuty.com.