Some Call of Duty characters extend beyond cliché

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Call of Duty (CoD), arguably the video game industry’s premier first-person shooter, is mocked by many for its formulaic gameplay, its shallow themes and stories and economically predatory business practices. Many have accused the games and their stories of being pro-war, but frankly, in most of the recent games war is not even some dark but noble cause to take up to lay waste to villains; rather, it’s simply a backdrop to show off braindead unintentional parodies of once-classic characters. 

Viktor Reznov was a far darker exception to the fate that has befallen many of CoD’s characters. Like most of them, the first image one conjures up of Viktor Reznov is a massive stereotypical bearded Russian in a ushanka hat, his voice fueled by a passionate if over-the-top Gary Oldman performance. Reznov serves as a guiding character in the game World at War and as a side character in Black Ops 1 (and a joke in Black Ops 2). Reznov is the embodiment of the wildest fantasies of a Russian warrior, brotherly to those who fight with him and ruthless to those who stand against him and his country. And as far as most are concerned, he is just that, a stereotypical Russian badass with a penchant for saying “revenge” or “vengeance.” 

But there is a more serious aspect of his character, and throughout most of the already-dark World at War, Reznov seems less a person and more some personification of Soviet vengeance itself. The first scene featuring him sees him literally rising from amidst the dead, as if to show that while the Soviet Union suffered grievously, it was still alive, and it was out for blood. Throughout the game, he is a constant appraiser to Eastern front-segment protagonist Dmitri Petrenko, constantly hailing those around him and Petrenko himself with “so long as he lives, the army will never be broken.” Great praise for an average conscript. Some have interpreted Reznov’s constant appraisals and morale boosts to Petrenko as the game praising the player themselves (“a new scope? Nice!” being one of the more egregious examples), but from the view that Reznov is not much a person as much as he is a being of war, one could argue this is less Reznov communicating to the player as much as him communicating to the army’s spirit as a whole. When Reznov speaks, the Red Army listens. When Reznov commands, the Red Army roars with him. His last scene with Petrenko in Berlin reaffirms his motif that as long as Petrenko lives, the army does. But who is Petrenko? Petrenko is like the men around Reznov, faceless characters (at least until Black Ops 1) that are a personification and symbol of a mass that was the real-life Red Army. And who does Reznov constantly encourage and communicate with? That faceless representation of the army. 

The side story of Private Chernov is a darker example of just how Reznov could be seen as a personification of the war. Chernov is a rather thoughtful man, drafted, like millions of others, in defense of his country. He’s seen what the Axis has done to his land but holds a higher moral standard for himself and his comrades and becomes increasingly numb to the retaliatory crimes carried out by fellow Soviet soldiers as they push farther into Germany. He does have diary entries by the end of the game which reflect on some of the player’s actions, but what struck me as far more impactful was his fate and his story within the diary. Chernov is told by the ever-bombastic Reznov that he is too much of a coward, and that he should be the flagbearer for the final push in Berlin, commenting “no one will read it!”. Chernov promptly dies in the push, Reznov picking the diary up while remorsefully backtracking, “someone must read it.” But no one will, for Reznov is the personification of the Soviet war effort. Chernov is one of millions of faceless men who fought and whose legacies only live on in history and propaganda as a grand mass, whose personal thoughts, feelings and emotions now live in a diary taken by a man who has nothing to live for except the annihilation of the enemy. 

CoD isn’t the deepest game franchise by a long shot—in fact, most of it has been lambasted for being too much a Hollywood blockbuster—but that dismissal overlooks the few exceptions, like World at War, with characters like Viktor Reznov, a dark reflection of real-life events with real-life people.