Valor, honor, fidelity: Behind the scenes of Call of Duty
Stars and Stripes April 4, 2023
This article will be the second of a series of articles examining the relationship between war and video games.
The humbling experience of working for the military or federal government is that you have a role in a mission larger than your own operation.
We all contribute, in the ways in which we are skilled, to provide in the defense and progress of the United States.
As an editor for Stars and Stripes, I am blessed to write for the military community.
It is for this reason why the folks at Call of Duty allowed Stars and Stripes to do an interview with the Head Writer, Infinity Ward and Narrative Director, Call of Duty Brian Bloom and two military consultants: Mitch Hall and Steve Sanders.
Hall and Sanders are humble veterans, aware of the realities that come after service and an understanding of how they are blessed.
They both joined the Navy around 18 years old, with one goal in mind: Become Navy SEALS.
As SEALs, they’ve operated in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and other troubled areas.
Sanders was awarded a Silver Star as well as other numerous accolades.
Hall also received a Silver Star, five Bronze Star medals and other awards.
Like their service, their work is transformative and groundbreaking. The imprint that Sanders and Hall have had on Call of Duty is profound, but you would not be that aware of their footprint unless you looked.
In many ways, they provide the vision and voice that dictates how the story of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is told.
Their unlikely stories from military life to the entertainment industry begin eerily similar to each other, a point which Hall describes.
“I had some mutual friends with some writers and stuff up in LA, and, you know, same thing. I got the phone call, ‘Hey, do you want to work on this project? And, I was like, ‘Sure, why not?’
“And, you know, it kind of just snowballed from there and the interesting or the funny thing is that Mitch and I were doing this in parallel. He was doing his stuff. I was doing mine. And you know, obviously, we're in the squadron together, went through selection and stuff like that.
“One day, we kind of just was like, ‘Hey, what do you got going on?’ ‘I don't know what you got going on?’ You know, let's get together share our contacts and our experiences and start our own company…
“That's what we did six years ago or so. Now I don't really know. But so yeah, that's [how] we came up with Six Shooters and although the name is not synonymous with entertainment, but it sounds like a shooting school personally. And then, there's another whole story to that.”
It is a credit to Sanders and Hall’s capacity to adapt that they made a successful transition from military life to civilian life in entertainment. The transition is difficult because the experience needed for civilian life can be different from what the military offers.
However, Sanders made the transition sound easy.
“I’ll try to keep this concise. It's a long story, but I can tell you that I was going one direction. And the phone rang, it was for a film piece. A film project, and I, on one hand, had no interest. I had never even considered it.
“On the other hand, I was open minded enough to at least consider it and ultimately say yes. I never thought of myself as a creator at all or as creative. In fact, I probably thought quite the opposite, but, you know, I said yes to that first gig and it was much different than I expected.
“It was much more rewarding than I thought. And then over the years, you know, being surrounded by all these, by the creative process, and by all these creators and artists. I kind of unlocked it in myself.
“So it's been a bit of a process, but I would say that to that veteran that's looking for the next thing. You gotta be open minded ’cause if I would have never predicted this. And just hear everyone out, take a meeting that even if you're not sure where it's going to take you. Because you know veterans have some very valuable skill sets that you don't find, oftentimes in the in the civilian sector, yes, so be open minded.”
The man who distills the combined 48 years of military experience into a cogent, thoughtful narrative is Brian Bloom, who some may know from his work as the voice of William “B.J.” Blazkowicz from Wolfenstein.
Bloom described the creative process of working with Hall and Sanders. Bloom serves almost as an investigative journalist attempting to chisel and carve his story through questions and inspiration from Hall and Sanders.
“I'm constantly mining as I talk to you [Steve], I can't help it, you know. And if you say something interesting, or you tell me a story about something that happened or you mentioned there was one time when we were or whatever it was. And it comes up, especially if I think it comes up more organically, you know, just talking about your old job and it happens with Mitch too.
“Sometimes I'll hit you guys with a with a very specific question to try to or help us solve a problem to make a mission better or make a moment better, or move set better or whatever it is. But there's other times when, just anecdotally, you'll say something that inspires, and I do something with it in the script, it does have an effect on the story or a character I say, ‘Oh, it would be cool if we could do kind of our version of something like that.’ And it gets morphed and moved and changed over the, you know, from what you've said, but. You're all over this thing.”
I asked whether we would see new department or agencies mentioned in the next Call of Duty, and Bloom had this to say:
“We're always looking for new stories and new characters and, you know, to tap into things that feel exciting, fresh and interesting while still maintaining and caring our core characters and our core narratives.
“Recently, in the last game, we ended up Mitch and I dealt with them [members of other agencies], you know, quite a bit. We had a consultant from the DEA and there was a time when we almost considered maybe one of the characters should be DEA, but in the writing process and the narrative, it panned out a little bit differently. But he was able to hook us up with somebody from the Mexican special forces.
“You know, we've had Laswell as a character in the CIA. But you know, you pose an interesting question there and as I said I can't tell you what our you know future plans are but it it's always interesting to imagine.
“Great stories can come from anywhere and, yeah, and see if you got any ideas you know send them over.”
Call of Duty is devoted to authenticity, but not the kind that comments on real world situations.
In most interviews, Bloom is asked if Call of Duty will tackle real events. He was asked again in this one.
“We are always inspired by real situations, but It's an entertainment product all the way. It's designed for people to have a good time, our characters get to suit up, and they get to resolve conflicts. They get to fight alongside other heroes and feel like they're heroes in this case, meaning their favorite kind of beloved, iconic characters and, in many cases, get to feel like they're fighting alongside them and they are them and they're on a team. They've got a squad. They are helping in many cases through our missions, try to go after bad guys and as I often say, ‘If you're a bad guy in the in the Call of Duty Universe, which is totally fictional. You're not long for this world.’ That's really what the game is about.”
Bloom pointed out that this year’s and last year’s Call of Duty contained international voices.
“We work very closely with people like Mitch and Steve to create moments that are in some way related to things that have some sense of authenticity to them. And in the example of somebody like Alejandro, you know I had somebody from the DEA who hooked me up with somebody from Mexican special forces, and I asked them a lot of questions and we spoke to other consultants and thought about their architecture, their language, their colloquialisms, and the things that they're up against.”
While Bloom makes it seem that the story writes itself, it really is due to people like Hall and Sanders who can show how interconnected their work is. It shows the value of cohesion amongst nations and departments of government.
Bloom admits that the franchise is built on the character of these operations, without receiving the tradecraft or other closely guarded secrets.
“Part of the job that or the old job that Mitch and Steve had, it's not really well known exactly what they do. And I think … that's where some of the fantasy kind of starts, is the mystique and the perception of what special mission units do all over the world.
“Our teams, our designers, our animators and myself think, without exception, to different degrees at different times [we would] love to get a little bit closer to whatever that is. And again find little pieces and share it with our players and they feel it…
“Now regarding Steve – where even our AC 130 mission in Modern Warfare 2, where Graves and Shadow are doing close air support for an open ghost and team on the ground in Los Alamos, Mexico – Steve helped a lot with that.
“You know, whether he realizes it or not, there's dialogue we got from [him]. If there's even behavior, or we'd look at a video and say, ‘Hey, Steve… Is this ring true to you? … Is this silly and you know?’ …
“And if they can't help us, they can guide us to the right people. In so many cases. They really help us with an awful lot. I mean their work is sprinkled all across our titles, not just in animation, not just in dialogue, but in ways that are, let's say less tangible.”
This can include “the feel, or the mystique, or the idea, or they help us think about how a combat setup might go or what an enemy might do, and what we might say if an enemy was in that situation, or the disposition or the environment, or the atmospherics of a particular moment.”
Ultimately, while the conflicts and names are fictional, the world of Call of Duty revolves around the authenticity of their military consultants who, if you ask me, continue to be unsung heroes.
We welcome everyone from public and military service to reach out and email us with their own authentic Call of Duty story to publish it on Stripes.com.