Jesse Stern doesn’t look like I expect. I expected the writer of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 2 and the ultra-popular television show NCIS to be some kind of special forces veteran – shaven-headed with scars from close-call bullet wounds. Not quite. Stern is sporting wavy hair, a deep tan, a T-shirt, board shorts and flip flops. He looks like the kind of laid-back guy I’d expect to see on a beach back in Australia.
My goal for our meeting was simple: I wanted to find out how you can take a bunch of guns and explosions and make people care about them. Call of Duty 4 shocked the gaming world by injecting a blockbuster story and believable characters into a first-person shooter. When Stern and I spoke, Modern Warfare 2 was still on the way – but the sequel turned out to be plenty shocking in its own right.
Stern’s role in the original Modern Warfare began long after the developers had started crafting levels and character models. “In Call of Duty 4 they had a scenario already,” Stern says. “They had the levels built and everything laid out. Then they hit a wall in terms of how to tell the story, and that was when they started talking to writers.
“I came in and pitched, ‘Here’s what I would do. I like this; I’d do more of that. I don’t think this is working all that well – instead I’d put one of these in here.’ A few months later, Infinity Ward called up again and said, ‘We’re ready for you.’ From that point on, I was the story specialist.”
Each level of Modern Warfare was like an episode of a TV show, Stern tells me, and each game like a season. “There are a million ways of telling a story,” Stern says. “With NCIS, I love to mess with our format by using flashbacks and scrambling the narrative. Doing a television show, you don’t just look at each episode – you look at each episode as it’s going to have bits of the whole season.
“We don’t do many serialized storylines. The elements of our story that are serialized are our characters. You don’t need to see every episode to know what’s going on, but if you do, you’re going to get a lot more out of it. You’ll enjoy it more. That’s how you build a good season: by sprinkling those serialized elements throughout.”
According to Stern, writing a videogame is similar. Each level is just a piece of the puzzle, and making it click is as easy as shuffling cards.
“This is a level where you do such and such – how does that relate to the next level?” he says. “To me they’re like note cards. To everyone else they’re months and months of hard labor – but to me they’re note cards, and you can just move them around and say, ‘What if we put this level here? Okay, you’ll have to get a thing.’ That will just be a ‘thing’ for months, and then finally it turns into ‘something.’ How about it’s a guy? How about it’s a clipboard, or a bomb? You build it up, and it’s funny how it develops and turns into a story.”
But for all TV and videogame writing’s similarities, there are plenty of differences as well. According to Stern, the biggest difference in in the initial approach. “Building a videogame,” Stern says, “is like, ‘Hey, let’s build a lot of cool sets,’ and then they come up with some ideas of what to do with them. The first thing you do is make the world. You can’t do that in the real world; you can’t get out of bed and say, ‘Let’s go out to the desert.'” In other words, you need a damned good reason to send the cast and crew of a TV show halfway across the world; but when you can build your setting from the ground up, “because it’s fun” is reason enough.
Making a TV show, Jesse explains, is all about telling an entertaining, visually coherent story. But you don’t just watch videogames – you take part in the action. So to make sure that the gameplay flows from one section to the next and players don’t get bored, the developers will shuffle the deck. The studio will take a level that their playtesters loved and move it forward to hook players within the first hour of gameplay. Then they’ll come to Stern and say “Can you still make the story work?” His reply? “No! But I’ll figure it out.”
“When we started working on the second one,” Stern says, “it took us a while to find enough breadcrumbs that we’d left in the first game, to identify things and threads we liked enough to pick up, characters we wanted to revisit and ideas and events that we could add another chapter to. It took a while to get there. There was some conversation of doing another standalone game.”
But in the end, preserving the link between the two Modern Warfare games won out. Making sure players feel connected to the game world is all-important, Jesse says. They need to know who they are, where they are, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. That’s a tricky proposition, especially in a Call of Duty game where there are so many different stories to weave together. One moment you’re in one theater of war, and suddenly you’re in another. You don’t know where the story is going or who is going to see the end of it. There’s an unpredictability that grabs players and doesn’t let go.
Stern recalls one thread of story he was particularly proud of. “In Call of Duty 4 there was Zakhaev, this bald-headed, scarred-up, one-armed Russian with a giant golden gun,” he says. “I remember pitching the idea that he had one arm, and you discover later that he has one arm because you shot his other arm off, and you get to play that mission. I love that kind of shit.”
In fact, Stern considered the villains of Modern Warfare to be one of the strong points of the overall story. “We had Zakhaev in Russia and Al-Asad in the Middle East,” Stern says. “We wanted to present the alliance, how they were involved together and all the double-crossing that was going on and the ultimate ambitions – what they were trying to accomplish. They weren’t the canned madmen trying to kill a bunch of people. You want to keep your bad guys smart. They have an agenda that motivates them.
“One of the things I pushed for was to get more story into that opening scene. Zakhaev gives Al-Asad the gun, and he’s complicit. They animated that sweet thing where he swings the gun. I remember seeing that and thinking, Goddamn, these guys are so good. I kiss their ass an awful lot, but I think it’s warranted.”
Two games into the series, the developers at Infinity Ward have proven themselves masters of playing with its audience’s fears about global conflict. “We’ve had some conversations that were scary as hell,” Stern says. “Last summer there was one where we talked about some Russian guys starting a war in the former Soviet Republic over an oil pipeline. A week later, and tanks are rolling into Georgia. We were like, ‘Huh, that’s bizarre.’ Then we had a conversation about something that would be really terrifying: guys with grenades and machine guns taking out soft targets in a major metropolitan area. We were talking about doing it somewhere in Asia, and then Mumbai happened. We looked at each other like, ‘Is anyone else a little worried?’
“We were tapped into a strange kind of thinking. We wanted to keep it modern, keep it with contemporary fears, but also look just slightly into the future. Like, what’s the next scenario that scares the crap out of everybody?”
Shocking players turned out to be the easy part. A bigger challenge was drawing the stories to a satisfying conclusion. “From the very beginning, the biggest issue we had was the ending,” Stern said. “We’d talk about that, but we’d keep tabling it.” Modern Warfare 2 has been called ‘the Citizen Kane of shooting people in the face,’ but in the original Modern Warfare‘s final moments, you can’t help but feel it’s about more than just that. You have a bond with your team after all you’ve been through, and to see them executed while you lay there utterly helpless is gutting. You see the gun slide across to you, and it’s cinematic and emotional – but most of all, it feels real.
“At the end of Call of Duty 4 you forget about the politics, you forget about whatever it’s all about: It’s just two guys on a bridge trying to kill each other.” And ultimately, that might be the story’s greatest success: In a game filled with tanks, choppers and nuclear warheads, it’s still the characters that have the biggest impact.
Jack Baldwin is an international man of mystery. He is also a freelance contributor to The Escapist and enjoys writing poems about ham on weekends.