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Sledgehammer cofounder worries that Modern Warfare courts controversy 'for the sake of headlines'

(Image credit: Activision)

Michael Condrey headed up EA's Visceral Games studio before leaving, with Visceral partner Glen Schofield, to found Sledgehammer Games in 2009. Sledgehammer has since developed three Call of Duty games—Modern Warfare 3, Advanced Warfare, and WWII—and while Condrey left the company in 2018, he obviously knows a thing or two about the series.

In an interview with VentureBeat, Condrey said that the Modern Warfare sub-series in particular is a "tough challenge" because of its contemporary setting. But he expressed deeper concerns that the more "uncomfortable" and "ripped from the headlines" approach of the upcoming Modern Warfare reboot might be going too far.

"I maintain that videogames are the most important art form of our time. I respect every developer who strives to deliver their work as an extension or reflection of their artistic vision," Condrey said. "That said, MW seems like a tough challenge for any studio, especially if they are being pushed by publishing to be more controversial and 'darker' for the sake of headlines."

"I absolutely loved the original Modern Warfare series, and working on MW3, at the height of the franchise’s popularity, was a special opportunity. I also believe in creative freedom and artistic expression in our medium. Our efforts on MW3 were focused on storytelling in a universe that dealt with intense conflict but was also very clearly fictional. And with WWII our team strived to pay tribute to a conflict like no other. But the world has changed a lot in the last decade and events like Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and Christchurch are real and heartbreaking."

Condrey said he hopes that Infinity Ward's promised commitment to a realistic depiction of warfare in the game was "an unfortunate choice of words" rather than a statement of intent, because actual warfare is unspeakably horrific. And while good-vs-evil narratives makes adequate frameworks for games based in the Second World War, they don't hold up especially well in current conflicts, which are generally much muddier.

"The creative challenges of realistic 'modern warfare' are complex," Condrey said. "Western 'heroes' killing 'villains' in the Middle East simply isn’t good enough."

Calling it a challenge is putting it mildly: Infinity Ward has to balance a tonally appropriate depiction of child soldiers with the demands of videogame mechanics, and as we said in our preview of the Modern Warfare campaign, two small children taking turns shanking a Russian soldier with a screwdriver until he dies (and nobody notices) doesn't sound realistic so much as just ridiculous. And what happens when that child decides to turn her weapon on an American mercenary employed by ExxonMobil? Making all of that into mainstream interactive entertainment is fraught with all kinds of risk.

Condrey revealed nothing about his own doings at the new 2K Games studio he founded earlier this year, but said that he wants to bring a "significant change" to the team and its creative process "with thoughtfulness to the themes of ethnicity, equality, and acceptance."

"I don’t believe the goals of creating world-class entertainment and also delivering a creative that is inclusive and welcoming to a global audience are at odds," he said. "If so, Pixar and Marvel Comics Universe never got the memo."

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare comes out on October 25.

Andy covers the day-to-day happenings in the big, wide world of PC gaming—the stuff we call "news." In his off hours, he wishes he had time to play the 80-hour RPGs and immersive sims he used to love so much.