CODumentary Review

When I was in high school, you couldn't bring up video games without Call of Duty becoming the centerpiece. It was all my friends would talk about, and looking at sales figures, it's not hard to see why. This was the franchise's heyday, before the onset of apathy severely affected its popularity. But with Call of Duty: WWII taking the series back to its roots, it seems as good a time as ever for Jonathan Beales' cheekily-named CODumentary, a 90-minute chronicle of the franchise's history and culture. Unfortunately, Beales bites off more than he can chew, leaving the most interesting bits almost entirely untouched

CODumentary spends its first half covering what really should have comprised the whole film: the development of the series and its cultural impact. Things start feeling strapped for time right away. We are told by Infinity Ward developers in talking-head interviews that COD had a different feel to it from Medal of Honor by being a more story-driven affair, but no substantial comparisons are made to demonstrate this point. Later on, we learn that by the time they were done with the sequel, the developers were tired of the World War II setting. They were told by Activision to make another period piece anyway, but when they showed the publisher their secretly-made, modern-era proof of concept, they were given the go-ahead to make Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. A nice story, but then who made the third entry? I know: it was Treyarch, a separate development studio. But despite their innumerable contributions to the franchise, Treyarch gets practically zero representation here.

This failure to represent different viewpoints consistently undermines the whole production. We are told that the infamous "No Russian" level, in which you and your NPC allies gun down hundreds of innocent people in an airport, is controversial because of its violence. But that's not telling the whole story; the real point of contention wasn't just that it showed carnage, but that it encouraged you as a player to carry it out. And then there was also the theory that Infinity Ward did this to intentionally arouse controversy and drive up sales. No attempt is made at addressing either bone of contention, which is a real shame. I also was interested in seeing how the topic of censorship would be handled, the answer to which is "it isn't." That is, aside from a brief moment where we are informed that the U.K. doesn't allow graphic games to be sold to minors, which is very different from the question of altering the game itself. Public officials and media figures on both ends of the political spectrum have been suggesting for years that video games should be stripped of content they deem harmful to society, with Call of Duty specifically being a recurring target. And in territories such as Australia, censorship is already carried out on a regular basis. While a one-sided account of this issue would be inadequate, failing to bring it up at all is just irresponsible.

CODumentary's second half brings us to the eSports scene, and because there are fewer parties to be overlooked, we get a more satisfactory account of things. In particular, I gained a new appreciation for the role of the coach, watching in fascination as he rushes from one table end to the other, advising and encouraging each player as an individual, all while they play in front of thousands against an equally determined group. Even in this half, though, the most intriguing stories are glossed over. We are shown an all-female team, whose members talk about the sexism they face on a constant basis, not just from insecure players but more alarmingly from the large corporations that sponsor male teams but neglect to recognize theirs. How do they manage to cope with this? How do audiences respond when their team wins? What do some prominent male players have to say about all of this? I simply want to know more about women in eSports, and I sure wasn't getting it here.

In fact, you could take that statement, remove the "women in eSports," and substitute it for almost every other controversy the film brings up. Its most interesting scenes are those that focus on tales of adversity, and as I've established, none of these are appropriately examined. Well, except for one. Featured prominently is Ajay Yadav, a disabled man who has found a way to use software workarounds to allow him to play Call of Duty with just his mouth and voice. We get a detailed account of how he plays along with an impassioned statement where he explains the importance of keeping singleplayer in video games. But again, this is the only time this type of story feels adequately explored.

As I brought up earlier, the series itself has gone up against declining sales and calls for censorship, but this isn't even addressed in the slightest. At the first half's conclusion, we are told about how two prominent Infinity Ward members were fired by Activision for insubordination. In retaliation, the duo filed a wrongful termination suit. I understand that some of the talking heads were still employed under the publisher, but others were out of the picture while being interviewed; given that they were present for the firing and now out of Activision's umbrella, why don't they get a chance to give their opinions on the fiasco?

After a characteristically unremarkable aside about VR, CODumentary comes to a close. The central problem here is that Beales couldn't choose which movie he wanted to make: a history of Call of Duty or a piece about online gaming. By condensing both into an hour and a half, he at best manages to provide a rudimentary overview of the Call of Duty phenomenon. We are not given enough facts or opinions, and it all combines to make CODumentary a huge missed opportunity. There is a silver lining, though; by adopting a "jack of all trades" mentality, the film makes you want to learn more about the topics it brings up. It compels the viewer to research, even if it should have provided more answers itself. This also means it is scarcely misleading despite its lack of varied perspectives. Finally, I should note that it goes by at a brisk pace, so if you know nothing about Call of Duty or eSports, there are worse ways to spend your time. But if you're familiar with either, CODumentary offers little you haven't hear already explored in greater detail.