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Sledgehammer Games’ lead historian and technical adviser Marty Morgan dishes on Call of Duty: WWII and its impact beyond gaming
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Marty Morgan (Photo by David M. Gil/Adelante Film & TV)

MARTY MORGAN, 48, is an author, historian, battlefield guide, and technical adviser. After earning a degree in history from the University of Alabama in 1991 and working as a research historian at the National WWII Museum, Morgan consulted on the popular television mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific. In late 2015 he began work with video game developer Sledgehammer Games as head technical adviser for a new World War II-themed entry in its top-selling franchise, Call of Duty. Released last November, Call of Duty: WWII tells the story of “Red” Daniels, a young Texan attached to the 1st Infantry Division, as he and his unit move throughout northern Europe to rescue a Jewish squad member taken prisoner by the Germans. Morgan assisted Sledgehammer’s development team in nailing down the game’s historical details—but hopes his work will have an impact beyond gaming.

Gaming is a new medium for historians. You’ve consulted on television and movies; how do video games compare?

I’ve actually been working in video games for over a decade, and there are parallels. First and foremost, games are an entertainment product, so there’s more emphasis on story rather than history. That’s why I feel a technical adviser is very important from the start of development. There’s going to be a higher level of authenticity, which resonates better with audiences.

You and the team built the game around a single unit—in this case the Big Red One.

We wanted to follow an American squad from an infantry regiment serving in north and northwest Europe from D-Day to the end of the war. With the popularity of movies like Band of Brothers, our team recognized that a narrative following a group of people—from where things really begin with a bang on D-Day to a redemptive payoff at the end—provides the perfect bookends for storytelling. The developers wanted things such as street fighting in Aachen along with the intense combat of the first-wave at D-Day. We had to blend the experiences of three different regiments of the 1st Infantry Division to get all of that.

There’s a level where players control a French Resistance spy on a mission to obtain intelligence from a high-ranking German officer.

We wanted a story that spoke to the centrally critical experience of the American fighting man in northern Europe—but we also recognized that that’s not the only experience of combat during the war. Civilians also had agency. The French Resistance provided us exactly with what we were looking for because a large number of French civilians took an active role in their own liberation, and weren’t simply passive victims of Nazi barbarism or inadvertent casualties of war.

The game took some liberties for the sake of entertainment.

There were times Sledgehammer’s cofounder, Glen Schofield, would say something like: “I need an experience and a moment in the game that’s big and very cinematic and memorable.” For example, there’s a level where players engage in a street battle in Aachen in October 1944. Glen wanted an airplane crashing into the middle of this scene, but during the war no planes had ever flown over that city at a visible altitude. Still, he wanted to include something artistic and dramatic, so I showed him photographs of aircraft that had made forced-landings—not in Aachen, but around that area. I think that that back and forth between the two of us worked out very nicely.

(Sledgehammer Games/Activision)

You and the staff also visited some of the game’s battle sites.

When I came onboard the staff knew that I lead battlefield tours and they wanted to go. We ended up going almost everywhere depicted in the game. A few days before we arrived in Luxembourg, a cold front came through and dumped snow all over the area we were touring, so they were able to experience all of those places associated with the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge with deep snow on the ground. We spent a lot of time out in the cold, freezing and experiencing what it was like for the soldiers on those battlefields almost 75 years ago. When we returned to the studio, I could see how the experience had been eye-opening for the team. The game’s settings suddenly looked a lot more real.

The weapons sound and look realistic as well.

I’m very into World War II firearms. I write a column about them for a magazine, have published extensively on the topic, and have been collecting them for over 30 years. When it came time to get an audio sample of the weapons, I helped arrange for the audio team to come to a private farm in southern Louisiana and shoot World War II firearms for three days. All of the weapons audio in the game came from that session. Some of the sound engineers had never shot a gun before. Many started off their first time with an M1919 A4 machine gun or a Thompson submachine gun.

(Sledgehammer Games/Activision)

That’s a little intimidating.

Yes [laughs]. But all of them came away from the experience testifying as to how much of an epiphany it was, how much it changed their view and understanding of World War II infantry combat. This is the feedback thatI hope to hear from people in this industry, because in technical consulting for video games, television, and movies, as well as leading battle site tours, all I really want is for people to develop the same interest and enthusiasm that I have about this war.

In the game, players control a Sherman tank to hit the King Tiger at its weak points—the sides. How did that arise?

It was fascinating for me to be in a conference room in Silicon Valley with a bunch of engineers, describing to them the various weak points of the King and Sherman tanks and trying to dispel a lot of the Sherman mythology out there. They had watched the movie Fury and came away from it thinking the Sherman was not an effective weapon. But it was completely effective, especially later versions. The developers took the information I gave them and made it a part of the game so that you have this excellent little window into the real-world tank combat in Europe.

What do you hope this work will accomplish?

When I was of the age of most people today playing video games, what really grabbed my attention were the amazing World War II movies that came out in the 1970s and 1980s. There were great movies like A Bridge Too Far—still my favorite—as well as The Big Red One, The Longest Day, and Tora! Tora! Tora! I had no idea then that that was the start of a long career in World War II history. I’m hoping that someone out there today playing our game will testify 20 years from now that it all started with Call of Duty: WWII.  

This interview was originally published in the June 2018 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.