Reagan’s role in Black Ops: Cold War primed to stir up controversy amid election season
By GENE PARK | The Washington Post | Published: September 4, 2020
It’s an election year, and once again we’re hearing a lot about Ronald Reagan these days. Here he is, introduced in the Call of Duty: Black Ops series with the same grandeur and aplomb as actor Giancarlo Esposito’s reveal in Far Cry 5.
Black Ops: Cold War is a direct sequel to one of the most celebrated single-player campaigns in the franchise, and this is shaping up to be the most story-heavy campaign in the entire 17-year history of the series.
Call of Duty stories can mostly be appreciated as thrilling tales about the “boots on the ground” experience. For soldiers in war, it’s the mission, not the politics, that matter. But with its historical inspirations and the game’s utilization of President Reagan, the story featured in Cold War feels primed to stir up political controversy. And although the Call of Duty series has always dabbled in conspiracies, it’s a core theme for the 2020 update at a time when conspiracy talk has dotted discussion around the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
Reagan activates the Black Ops team, including a mix of old and new characters, to uncover Perseus, an elusive Soviet agent who threatens the foundations of democracy. In real life, Perseus is believed to be a Soviet spy who breached the Manhattan Project and gave the U.S.S.R. America’s nuclear secrets. The spy’s identity was never learned. This game appears to be all about solving that puzzle and filling that gap in history.
“These conspiracy theories almost develop a life of their own, and in some ways, that allows us to add an edge of excitement to our fiction or narrative,” said Dan Bunting, co-head at Treyarch. “And that was a big part of what we wanted to capture in this game, the zeitgeist of not only the original Black Ops but in the Cold War era, but also things that are happening today and making it relevant.”
In a press event revealing the single-player campaign, Bunting and Cold War senior creative director Dan Vondrak of Raven Software showed off some exciting new changes in gameplay. Black Ops 4 famously didn’t include a single-player campaign — the two studios seem to be making up for that with a story featuring a number of familiar characters, including returning Black Ops protagonists Alex Mason and Frank Woods.
Treyarch also seems to be picking up where Advanced Warfare left off when it comes to more open-ended, emergent gameplay. The 2014 game (which starred Kevin Spacey) saw a more open-narrow type of level design, giving the single-player campaign a few open areas to navigate with traversal options like a grappling hook. We saw gameplay for Cold War in which the player infiltrates a Russian embassy undercover as a double agent, picking dialogue paths and nonlethal ways to navigate tense social situations and tick off various objectives, all before descending into a classic Call of Duty shootout. Cold War seems to expand on this even more with branching story paths, promising multiple endings. Bunting would not say how many and also didn’t want to promise a plethora of endings.
It’s unclear how much politics will actually play in the story, but the early reveal and marketing campaign indicates such discussion may swirl around the game regardless of the developers’ wishes. Reagan seems to be a prominent factor, and it’s hard to ignore the fact his policies are still hotly debated, particularly by those on the left, and used to score political points today.
Just look at conservative PAC The Lincoln Project, which formed last year as an anti-Trump segment of the Republican Party, and how it continues to weave in Reagan’s words with the current climate and upcoming election. The former Republican National Convention chairman Michael Steele just joined The Lincoln Project last week, and stated, “I stand where Reagan stood. Where do you stand?” Many of the replies on Twitter indicated that they are tired of mythologizing the most consequential Republican president in modern times and questioned his legacy. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s son, Eric, also invoked Reagan’s name in his speech last month at the Republican National Convention.
It’s completely unknown outside the development studios of Treyarch and Raven Software where Cold War stands on Reagan or anything political. In a question-and-answer session with journalists, The Post asked them, “Given the real-world political climate and prominently featuring Reagan, what considerations did you have in portraying the longtime GOP standard bearer?” The question was submitted via an Activision-moderated chat, and when relayed to the developers it was paraphrased by a spokesman into, “What considerations did you have in portraying not only Reagan but other real-world people that you engaged in?” The developers gave a general answer about watching “tons” of Reagan speeches and talking to people who were close to him, including former Cabinet members, to get his character right.
Given how the series has treated historical figures, Reagan’s role in the story will likely be benign. The Black Ops series caused some controversy for the first game’s portrayal of Fidel Castro, and Cuban state media called the game American propaganda. In the end, players assassinate a double of Castro, who died in 2016. It also invoked the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Benign or not, Reagan’s inclusion in the game — as well as 1980s conspiracies about American-Soviet relations — are sure to generate commentary. YouTube personalities and essayists took a shine to the teaser trailer, which centered on Yuri Bezmenov, a Soviet defector who fled to the West and became a prominent lecturer against Soviet Communism and KGB tactics. These essays seem to overreach in tying the current political climate and the anti-police protests to Bezmenov’s warning about allowing “all the schmucks to put a Big Brother government in Washington, D.C., who will promise loads of things, never mind if the promises are fulfilled or not.” It’s unclear whether Bezmenov is a character in the story.
Without more context in the story, it’s hard to debate the accuracy of these readings, but it’s easy to see the gathering clouds of controversy. The politics of Call of Duty mostly portray U.S. military interference in foreign policy with little details other than James Bond-ian action and villainy. But even with all watered-down political posturing, war-based video games don’t exist in a vacuum, and have appeared in Russian state media (mistakenly so, they say) to color the conflicts and unrest in Syria.
Infinity Ward, makers of 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, drew scrutiny for basing a setting in that game’s campaign around an incident in which a military convoy was bombed by American forces. In the script for Modern Warfare, however, the Russians were responsible for the attack, angering gamers in that country, including a prominent streamer paid to promote the game.
Black Ops Cold War is already being touched by the current geopolitical climate. Publisher Activision reshot the teaser trailer by removing the footage it used of Tiananmen Square after public outcry on Chinese social media channels. Chinese conglomerate Tencent also owns a 5% stake in Activision Blizzard, who got into hot water last year after banning professional Hearthstone players for expressing support for the Hong Kong protests. The move prompted critics to throw Cold War’s slogan (“Know your history”) back at the game’s maker.
The story may also paint America in a different light altogether, as the plot is largely driven by a new, shadowy and charismatic character named Russell Adler, a CIA operative that the developers called “America’s Monster.” His early 1980s Robert Redford swagger belies his true intentions and why he’s so adamant in pushing Reagan toward a secretive intervention to find Perseus, whom members of the Cabinet believe to be a mere myth.
Based on what we saw, this is going to be the most explosive campaign yet for Call of Duty, which is actually saying a lot considering how much the series has ratcheted up the noise and fidelity. Time will tell what it actually has to say, if anything, about the zeitgeist of yesterday and today.
‘ These conspiracy theories almost develop a life of their own, and in some ways, that allows us to add an edge of excitement to our fiction or narrative. And that was a big part of what we wanted to capture in this game, the zeitgeist of not only the original ‘Black Ops’ but in the Cold War era, but also things that are happening today and making it relevant. ’