The Phair Deuce is a new feature on Tobephair.co.uk that seeks to examine only the best parts of video gaming.
You may have missed it. The words ‘Malkovich Mode’ in tiny font in between the Public Match and League Play of the Multiplayer menu of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Even the more hardcore COD player could miss it, but Advanced Warfare is a game that rewards the most curious of players.
You spawn into the level, some futuristic neon lit holiday resort with curved walls providing deceptive lines of sight from which well aimed head shots could be your doom. “Malkovich!” blurts out your character as you begin navigating around the level, pistol in hand. You are John Horatio Malkovich in a first person shooter video game. It appears as if you are all alone within this space age holidaying resort, but suddenly as is the way of these wave based survival things – things get busy quickly. Out of the woodwork they come, armed exo-suited enemies, all bearing the same face, your face, John Malkovich’s face. “Malkovich!” they reply. The delivery is greatly varied, some in a passive tone, others in gruff military order giving lingo as they shoot and throw grenades in your direction. Malkoviches are cut short with every head shot. A cacophony of ‘Malkovich!’ from every direction, for every occasion, with you – perhaps the one true Malkovich – in the centre of it all.
But are we actually the real Malkovich? This is a video game. Everything is virtual. But the same could be said of life in general and it’s many spheres and spectrums in which we apply our various socially constructed meanings.
Never let it be said that Call of Duty has run out of ideas. Just when you think it’s done, it comes back. Bigger and smarter than ever. The long running franchise is into it’s thirty-third iteration with last years Advanced Warfare. A game which managed to update the formula by it’s futuristic setting of private military corporations and state of the art weapons and equipment. As with the twenty four Call of Duties that came before, the game has just been updated with the brand new ‘Havoc’ map pack. The DLC, contains four new map packs for multiplayer, the returning co-op zombie mode and of course the brand new game mode, the coup de grat, the headlining centre piece, the secret weapon – Malkovich mode.
Having cast Malkovich as one of the characters in it’s brand new zombie mode, Sledgehammer Games – never ones to waste assets – capitalise on the cult late 90s motion picture Being John Malkovich. Malkovich mode plays out similarly to zombies, except you are on your own as John Malkovich, fighting off waves of increasingly difficult Malkovich’s. The run at you, shoot at you, double jump over cover and boost dodge your fire with a boastful “Malkovich!” Cynics may just yawn at another wave based survival mode, but there is clearly something else going on in Malkovich mode. It is possible to hide from the Malkovich’s in some lofty nook of a level. You hear them searching for you below, their inquisitive “Malkovich?” will be the sign that you have some breathing room – you haven’t been spotted yet. Peering from behind some futuristic crate, you stare down at them, like ants they are. You aim down the scope of your rifle and plug away at them from above. There’s Malkovich! There’s Malkovich! There’s another! In the wanton display of murder against yourself, the Malkovich horde descends upon you. You have to reload, and it’s too late, they’re on top of you. “Malkovich…”
And suddenly, you’re dead. No longer the one true Malkovich. But just maybe you never were to begin with.
It provides a new lens through which we can further deconstruct the First Person Shooter and indeed the very nature of war itself.
Call of Duty has always looked to the movies for inspiration. Originally, the series was set in World War 2 and echoed a lot of the visceral feeling of the battle scenes from Saving Private Ryan. Storming the beaches of D-day in the original Call of Duty, death seemed to come at random, your soldier annihilated within a sudden flurry of bullets. As a game it felt unfair, sometimes unbroken. The perennial game over screen took the form of a prophetic saying about war from one of many historical figures, a sobering quality from the perspective of hindsight far away from the battlefield as you could imagine. And then you return, respawned back into the madness, hoping to make more ground.
As the World War 2 schtick became over saturated in first person shooters, the COD series looked to emulate Black Hawk Down for the modern warfare transition. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare managed to redefine the series in a post 9/11 world, where wars were no longer fought by conscripts but soldiers and special forces commandos. In contrast, the harrowing No Russian level from Modern Warfare 2 provided a stark and horrific view of how terrorism functions, putting you in the shoes of an undercover CIA agent as you took part in a terrorist attack. Suddenly you weren’t shooting armed militia or enemy guards, you’re guns were then trained on unarmed civilians, the game giving you control over whether you pulled the trigger or not.
The series then started to get silly, with the Modern Warfare series staging a Russian invasion of the US mainland. One level had you retake the bloody Burger Town from the Russians like it was a modern day remake of Red Dawn. The series then began to slide into further absurdity by emulating the bombastic feel of a Bay/Brucheimer movie before going full Michael Bay stupid. At one point in Black Ops you were firing a minigun from a second storey window of a prison complex, much like Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. There was also a bit where you harpooned a helicopter. But that came earlier in the level. The respectful days of WW2 COD were gone.
Ever since the mid point of Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty has jumped the shark embracing the action movie with both arms and legs. It got to the point in which it felt as if COD was scraping the barrel for inspiration and was starting to serve up splintery wood shavings instead. It’s zombie mode is proof of this whilst allowing it to embrace and bite feverishly into the gushing neck artery of the horror genre. The game’s various iterations of the somehow popular ‘zombie’ mode have frequently dived into stunt casting, in one level, you could play as Sarah Michelle Gellar and fight off a zombified version of George A. Romero. Aside from John Malkovich, the latest zombies mode, casts Bill Paxton for Aliens references, Rosario Dawson as the token action chick and John Bernthal as the token Walking Dead actor. The previous COD – Ghosts included DLC in which multiplayer matches would allow players to become famous movie characters such as Michael Myers from Halloween or the Predator from the Gremlins movies. Doing away with the carefully constructed gun on gun experience that has made COD the billion dollar entertainment franchise of our time.
But Malkovich mode is the first foray into quirky independent cinema. And it’s genius.
Let’s take a measured more in depth look at this emmacuate piece of content. Most gamers are familiar with the concept of the wave based survival mode. It was made popular by Gears of War, and was soon translated into most of the big shooters. Call of Duty’s answer was zombies mode, a goofy offshoot first unlocked as an easter egg for completing Word at War. As if shooting brain hungry zombies wasn’t bad enough. Now you were fending off nazi goose stepping zombies…
Of course, nobody really likes zombie mode. Not really. Not even the people who claim undying devotion to it. Oh sure they’ll squeal with delight as they mow down the undead with random weapon drops and powerups that make EVERYTHING EXPLODE. But look at these squealing people and ask yourself whether they are in fact really people, or the mindless drones they are so effectively killing in their stupid little game mode. Zombies is dumb and generic and undermines most of the feel of the regular COD combat, by providing waves of increasingly toughening zombies. The basic feel of Call of Duty is lessened when the enemies become bullet sponges. As the series has progressed, the makers have tried to add in layers of complexity but it all comes off as nonsense with an extra side of demon dogs. Remember Spec Ops? Remember co-ordinating yourself and a friend through running loops through the shanty down? Lobbing flashbangs to disorientate the pursuing juggernauts whilst choosing your moment to fire off a round from your grenade launcher? Remember how you reached that point on the hardest difficulties, when the military lingo actually became an asset in how you communicated with your team mate? Better days. Before the zombie apocalypse…
But at least there is Malkovich Mode now.
Malkovich Mode takes a more stripped approach to the wave based survival mode and some have written it off as a tired remake of the combat simulator. They are wrong though. There are no waves, only Malkoviches. There are no powerups or weapons to collect aside from those you pry from the cold dead hands of your enemy selves. It leads to an experience that is more run and gun at it’s core, with the layered onslaught of Malkovich adding a deeply unsettling gloss of frantic madness. There is no end. No victory, at least not in the common sense. It is less a question of winning and more a question of how long can you last? One popular twitch streamer did manage to survive 12 hours of the onslaught and afterwards had to be admitted to hospital in New York after being reduced to a gibbering Malkovich mess. You can see an edited version of his stream here, but please bear in mind it has been edited as even some of his audience have had to be sectioned.
More than likely, you’ll all be familiar with Being John Malkovich the 1999 cult classic written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. Starring John Cusack as a hapless office lackey who accidentally finds a tunnel behind a filing cabinet that unwittingly takes people to a portal where the subject enters John Malkovich’s head and sees what he sees. Indeed, Being John Malkovich is perhaps the most ‘video game’ of all movies, in its exploration of the first person perspective, or at the very least taking control of another person or character. After 15 minutes of Malkovich the subject is ejected from the experience and is respawned to a ditch by the side of a New Jersey Turnpike. It’s a film that investigates the relationship between the perceived normal folk like you or me and the perceived special folk, the celebrities, the artisans of our time, the John Malkovich of our time. It exists as a dowdy realistation of that uniquely human fantasy of being somebody else, of occupying their body even if it is just 15 minutes at a time.
The twist of the film, which Malkovich Mode gloriously draws inspiration from, see’s the real John Malkovich find the portal himself. He spawns into a world where everybody, men and women share his own face, speaking only in Malkoviches. It is played mostly for humour, but there is an element of madness, as the real Malkovich runs around this distorted reality ego nightmare, in which all other people are him. Call of Duty’s Malkovich mode asks similar questions as the film… and gives you a gun. What if you were forced to shoot multiple marauding versions of you? How long could you cope? In the act of destroying our fellow man, aren’t we also destroying our own selves? What is really the difference in these virtual worlds between shooting future exo suited PMCs or extremist terrorists? Or even a Malkovich here and there. Isn’t it all just polygons and rendering?
Like the portal, Malkovich Mode forces us to look inward at our own dark nature. All of human expression condensed into three syllables. Like dumb animals we emit the call…
Fucking die all of you! Get away from me!
The last line are our own words of course. But the same rules apply to our words as the call of the Malkovich. More or less. Though we may extract the tone from the words being said. Words are ultimately without meaning in the desperate warzone existing within our primitive war-ape minds.
The fact that Malkovich Mode is a thing, is further proof that Call of Duty can still be the basis of something interesting and meaningful. The franchise gets a lot of flak these days, but I think it’s very promising that Sledgehammer are able to have fun with the concept whilst providing this new lens from which to contemplate the first person perspective. Malkovich Mode is clearly the best thing to happen to Call of Duty since the double jump. Perhaps the whole warping to that gutter by the side of that New Jersey turnpike could be patched out in the future once the initial thrill wears off. Getting back to the UK from New York is becoming a bit of a drain on my financial situation, not to mention my emotional state of well being. You can already see the onslaught of future games that will take this teleporting concept and run with it.
Now the doors are flung wide open, one wonders with much relish on what cult indie film Call of Duty will emulate next?
“Malkovich Mode: not beyond your control!”