“The Problem of Rousseau,” by Julie Muncy

Call of Duty®: WWII_20171106121048

One of the grand traditions of any Call of Duty game is the last-minute rescue. In any one of the series’ campaigns, it’s bound to happen at least twice: at the end of a mission, your protagonist will find himself (always himself) outgunned, cornered, and possibly grievously wounded. Then, at the last moment, an explosive burst of violence emerges from the margins, and the ostensible hero of the story finds himself saved by the unexpected arrival of welcome allies. Call of Duty, more than perhaps any big game series, builds its narrative canon out of a set of recognizable, interchangeable tropes, a dramatic grab bag that feels, after a few games, like building stories out of Mad Libs.

This reliability does however have an interesting effect: it makes any breach of the formula, even a small one, take on a significance that it might not otherwise receive. Which is why it’s so striking that, when a mission in a train yard begins to go awry, the savior of Call of Duty: WWII‘s Private “Red” Daniels is a woman.

Her name is given as Rousseau, the leader of the French Resistance endeavoring to liberate the country from Nazi occupation. Over the next mission and a half, she’ll be an ally to Daniels and a viewpoint character in her own right, taking on the role of player character in far and away Call of Duty: WWII‘s best mission—infiltrating a German garrison in the heart of Paris. Rousseau’s presence is a textual breach in a series that has been defined, even at its best moments, by its conflation of warfare and masculinity, a series that has been resistant to even the idea of allowing women or gender non-conforming avatars to exist in its anything-goes multiplayer modes (it wasn’t until 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts that women were added to the series’ selection of online character options). Here, for one of the first times in Call of Duty history, is a woman warrior and her presence briefly promises to open up a welcome new possibility space for Call of Duty‘s ideological interests.

It would be easy to applaud WWII creator Sledgehammer Games for Rousseau’s inclusion, pointing to it as an exciting, progressive moment in a series increasingly desperate for them. It would also be a mistake. Instead of wrenching the ideals and interests of Call of Duty open, Rousseau breaks them apart. Her gendered presence is something the game can never really reckon with, and her experiences are simultaneously sensationalized and marginalized. Rousseau doesn’t expand Call of Duty: WWII so much as she, by her very presence, deconstructs it.

Rousseau’s mission is pivotal, not just to the Allied military but to WWII‘s narrative. Disguised as a German intelligence officer (one of the few disguises she, as a woman, could get away with in order to infiltrate a Nazi garrison), she is on a mission to recover stolen explosives from a mole and plant them on the gates of the garrison; once the gates are exploded open, it will pave the way for an Allied attack on the base, which is a key installation in the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Accomplishing this task requires the player to take on responsibilities she’s never had to shoulder in Call of Duty’s past. The player must themselves memorize the details of a cover story to be used in a rudimentary conversation system as Rousseau searches the garrison for her contact. Answering incorrectly can lead to death, and the contact’s location is far from obvious, hidden away on the third floor of the building, only accessible via a detour to the basement. During my initial playthrough, I was wary of conversation at all, concerned about blowing my cover, and I stumbled my way down to the basement out of sheer curiosity: a door had a lock that I could pick, so I did. It was, within the constraints of its format, a fairly riveting play experience. Rousseau’s infiltration allows the player to briefly live inside a historical moment, the same historical moments the rest of WWII finds interesting only as vessels for moderately stimulating explosions. Nazis maybe, but surrounded by people, talking, working, and doing things other than shooting guns at one another, the sequence implies a more nuanced, workaday human history. It’s easily the best moment of the game.

And yet, by sectioning off this mission to Rousseau, whose perspective we only occupy here, the game subtly divides away and undercuts the mission’s ideas. Rousseau is the only woman soldier in the game, after all, and so the role she’s given becomes metonymic—instead of a woman soldier, she is The Woman Soldier, the non-masculine role in warfare carried irrevocably within her digital flesh.

What, then, is the role of The Woman Soldier? Infiltration, deception, even some light seduction. Her early salvific heroism reads as a feint. Rousseau’s real calling is here. She is allowed social stealth, and a brief combat-oriented stealth section later in the game. But when the real shooting starts, the perspective inevitably returns to Pvt. Daniels and the Americans, to which the game’s narration constantly refers, in its own insidious metonym, as “our boys.”

Rousseau’s sectioning-off here reaffirms the classic Call of Duty paradigm: armed violence is the quintessential site of power. Being unarmed is to be basically powerless. She is not the one allowed to save the day. She’s only ever a facilitator. The actual work of saving Paris is done by the Americans; the Parisian woman is not even allowed to be an on-screen participant in her own liberation. Women are constructed as fundamentally secondary forces in conflict, without access to the power or fulfillment of the male characters.

She’s also constrained in terms of thematics. Everywhere in the game, the narrative focuses on heroism, nobility, and brotherhood as the quintessential values of a soldier. Daniels is a hero because he sacrifices himself for his brethren and his country. He fights nobly for countries not his own so that, when he returns to the United States, he can bring glory back with him. Rousseau, on the other hand, fights for deeply personal reasons—Nazis have killed her family and taken her homeland. Her violence, emerging from her familial attachment and love of country, is not valorized. It is, like her tactics, gendered and sectioned away. An interesting diversion. A tourist trap, nothing more. To put it another way: Daniels gets a medal for his combat. Rousseau has to settle for revenge.

This, then, is the problem of Rousseau: she is framed as heroic and powerful while also being undercut, isolated, and essentially gendered in every aspect of her depiction. Call of Duty: WWII admits her as a heroic figure but has no conceptual tool with which to incorporate her into a broader heroic narrative. As a result, she becomes a textual black hole into which all of the story’s higher values and patriotic inclinations fall, revealing themselves as shallow imitations of more coherent stories. What’s left is wrung free of anything but bland patriotic sentiment.

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Julie Muncy is a writer and poet based in Asheville, NC.  She’s a contributor to WIRED.com, and has had her work published at Vice, Rolling Stone, The AV Club, and anywhere else she can convince people to post it. You can contact her on twitter, where she tweets regularly about videogames, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. She has very strong feelings about Kanye West.