The new video game “Call of Duty: Vanguard” transports you back to World War II – but the latest entrant in the multibillion-selling franchises brings different points of views to the global conflict.
That diversity of perspectives is what you see deployed front and center in the main characters in the game for PlayStation 5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One and PCs.
The team includes Sgt. Arthur Kingsley, who is Black and Russian sniper Lt. Polina Petrova, alongside squad mates Brooklyn-born pilot Wade Jackson, identified as a first-generation American, Australian explosives expert Lucas Riggs, and second-in-command Sgt. Richard Webb, who is white. This team – a precursor to the modern Special Forces units – is assembled for a mission to enter Berlin and thwart a German plan to establish a Fourth Reich.
While the creators behind the game at the Activision-owned studio Sledgehammer Games took some liberties with history – the story is fictional – they wanted to weave in some lesser-known WW II stories after making the more traditional “Call of Duty: WWII,” released in 2017.
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So historical adviser Marty Morgan, technical director on the previous game and author of “D-Day: A Photographic History of the Normandy Invasion,” told them about Russia’s most successful female sniper, Ludmila Pavlichenko, who was known as “Lady Death,” and the Rats of Tobruk, Australian troops in North Africa who held off Gen. Erwin Rommel’s desert force.
“Just hearing about these interesting stories, we thought, ‘OK, we have to make a game about this,” said the studio’s creative director, David Swenson.
Concurrently, the studio hit its 10th anniversary and opened a studio in Melbourne, Australia – and the executives were reassessing Sledgehammer Games’ mission. “A big part of that was our team’s culture and values. What kind of team did we want to be moving into this next decade,” Swanson said. “We realized we’re making games for a global audience, and we felt like we needed to have diversity of thought on our team in order to be able to speak to a broad audience.”
One result: a core writing team made up of three men and three women, atypical for a first-person shooter game. “It was super-refreshing to have a team that was half women, that doesn’t happen a lot especially (in) narrative and video games,” said associate narrative designer Belinda Garcia, who helped write dialogue for Polina’s character.
Alexa Ray Corriea, a narrative designer on the team, said Sledgehammer’s story head Stephen Rhodes “painted this picture of, similar to the team you see in (the game) Vanguard, of this team with diverse backgrounds and voices and ideas and building something really special … that was inclusive and for everyone to play.”
“That vision really spoke to me,” said Corriea, who helped flesh out the dialogue for the Wade Jackson character.
Also on the writing team: Tochi Onyebuchi, author of the books “(S)kinfolk” and “Riot Baby.”
When asked for additional information about diversity within the company, Activision Blizzard did not provide breakdowns of its overall workforce makeup, which includes more than 20 studios worldwide.
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The publisher is working with state and federal regulators over allegations that it fostered a toxic workplace culture. Weeks ago, Activision said it would create an $18 million fund to compensate employees harassed or discriminated against as part of a deal with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
‘Call of Duty’s diverse cast
The actors who contributed to the project recognized the studio’s spirit of diversity. Chiké Okonkwo (“La Brea”), who provided the voice and likeness for Kingsley, liked the idea of telling new stories from a different point of view.
A history buff whose theatre background includes membership in the Royal Shakespeare Company, Okonkwo said he recalled hearing stories about African and African Caribbean men and women who fought in World War II. So it’s “a great honor,” he said, to portray Kingsley, a character who hails from Cameroon and is a multilingual British Army officer.
“We’re used to seeing these games from a very male European perspective, but these were world wars and the Second World War was fought on every front,” Okonkwo said. “What I really hope people enjoy is the fact that this is showing this incredibly skilled team from all parts of the world. … It’s nice for viewers to get a different perspective on this incredible time in history.”
Similarly, Laura Bailey, an accomplished voice actress who plays Petrova and has provided voices in many games including “The Last of Us II” and “Marvel’s Avengers,” said, “a lot of times in war stories, we don’t get to see this side of things.”
“When I started researching for the role and actually looking into women in World War II , I was blown away that there were 800,000 women in the Russian military (then),” said Bailey, who has appeared in TV and movies and done voices for animated shows such as “Spider-Man.” “It’s just a story that we don’t get to see. I was really honored to get to expose more people to that aspect.”
‘Call of Duty’s return to World War II
Call of Duty and World War II have a history. The first three “Call of Duty” games, released starting in 2003 for Windows PCs, were set in World War II and let players fight their way through D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.
It wasn’t until 2007 when “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” moved the setting to the current era. The “Call of Duty: Black Ops” games – the first came out in 2010 – initially took place during the Cold War.
Beyond Vanguard’s single-player story campaign, its multiplayer game will also let players choose their character – one that reflects themselves if they choose. “I think everyone playing multiplayer will also see themselves in someone,” Corriea said. “We have such a diverse spread of backgrounds and histories and ethnicities, everyone will be to find themselves in a story.”
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.