With the recent apology from CI Games, the studio creating Sniper Ghost Warrior: Contracts 2 who organized a particularly offensive press event, it’s cast my mind back a couple of decades, to the era when I would often go on such trips. It got me thinking about how easily games journalists can get caught up, and how hard it can be to say anything in the moment. In particular, one astonishingly inappropriate trip to Poland that featured Nazis, World War 2 jeeps, and Hitler’s bunker.
It was 2005, and I was 27 years old, working as a freelance games journalist for the UK’s print edition of PC Gamer. As a freelancer, it was perfectly normal for me to receive a call from my editor on a Monday, asking if I was able to fly to the States on Thursday.
Inevitably such trips would involve flying the 12 hours to CA, sleeping, getting up and visiting the developer’s studio for the day, sleeping, then flying the 11 hours home. (I always assumed it’s downhill on the way back.) No frills beyond a hotel room, maybe a nice meal in the evening, and an awful lot of jetlag through which to write up the article. It was cool, certainly, but it was pretty grueling. This time, however, I was asked to head to Poland, a preview trip for Call of Duty 2.
Over the years I went all over, from Sweden to Montreal to Hungary to North Carolina. Invariably you went where the developers were, whether that was swanky highrise offices, or what genuinely looked like a location from Half-Life 2 (hello Illusion Softworks). So when it was Poland, I figured a Polish developer was contributing to CoD2. When we arrived to stay not in a hotel, but in an annex to what we were then told to be Eva Braun’s house, things started to feel a little weird.
This isn’t a tale of my integrity—it’s the tale of a guy in his 20s, thrown into a very, very strange situation, who just went along with it because it was happening around him. I should also, before I get into just how awful this whole thing becomes, explain my ignorance too.
I am embarrassed to say that in my 20s I knew excruciatingly little about World War 2. Blame my education, blame my determination not to care about “history” because my dad loved it so much, blame me for being a dick, but I barely knew who Eva Braun was, and I certainly hadn’t heard of Wolf’s Lair. Which, it would turn out, was just down the road.
We slept the night in this building, and then in the morning after breakfast were told we were going on a journey. What pulled up outside was a convoy of 1940s U.S. army jeeps. I have no idea how Activision got vintage U.S. army jeeps to Poland, but there they were, open-topped with retro-fitted roll bars for us to cling on to. We piled into them, and then started hurtling down a dirt track through the woods, driven by men wearing authentic WW2 U.S. army uniforms.
I will not lie. It was really cool. It felt quite astonishingly dangerous (I’ve long since forgotten how much I found out Activision had had to pay in insurance per person, but it was in five figures), as we bounced and rattled along the rough path. Right up until we all screeched to a halt, jeep behind jeep behind jeep, because of a large branch fallen across the track. Two of the “soldiers” jumped out to move it, at which point Nazis ran out of the woods from all around us, shot our drivers, and then harangued us into a group while shoving rifle butts in our backs.
As I write this out, now in my 40s, a far less stupid person, I cannot believe it’s true. It should be a fever dream that I never shook. But it really happened. As we were barked at in German, pushed and shuffled along, we arrived at the entrance to Wolf’s Lair, to Hitler’s bunkers, the site of the failed 1944 assassination attempt. About which I knew nothing at the time.
At that point the fourth wall was broken, and we were given a calm, informed tour of the site, and were told about the 20 July Plot to kill Adolf Hitler. In that moment, as we walked (with extraordinary freedom) about the site, climbing up 70-year-old ladders, clambering across the moss-and-bracken-strewn remains, I remember feeling a sense of horror and awe to be standing in places one of Earth’s most terrible humans had stood. The feeling was dramatically shattered by our being ushered into Hitler’s own bunker to…watch a presentation of Call of Duty 2 on some large flatscreen televisions that had been set up inside.
The incongruity of this technology—snakes of black wires running from coils across the stone floor, giant speakers stood either side of flat-panel screens, fucking Xbox 360s just sat there—made little coherent sense. It was bewildering. I sat there, watched a ridiculously bombastic trailer, and felt really damned weird.
What I should have done, of course, is get up and leave. I should have said something as I left about how wildly inappropriate this was, how tasteless and shameful, and then quietly asked a PR to be returned to the airport. I did none of that. I sat there and took notes, for the article I knew I’d have to write in a couple of days.
This emotional milieu then became even more muddled as we were shown videos of WW2 veterans, interviewed by the CoD2 team, in order that they could tell their stories in the game. Powerful, passionate recounting from elderly men who will now be long dead, sharing painful memories because they wanted them said before they died. And, to give those early Call of Duty games their due, this was something they delivered on.
The next day we went to visit a U-boat loch, and met up again with the guys who’d been dressed as soldiers on either side. It turned out they were a war reenactment group from Poland, and they’d brought with them artefacts that had belonged to their grandparents when they’d served in the war. I chatted with one incredibly nice guy, who I of course immediately asked how he felt able as a Polish man to dress up as a Nazi. He explained two things.
Firstly, how as a war reenactment society they had grown fed up with shooting at trees, and decided someone had to take their lumps and play the baddies. But then secondly, he told me about his grandfather, a boy raised in Nazi Germany, drafted to fight in a war he didn’t believe in, part of the push into Poland. Where, astoundingly bravely, he defected to the other side, and fought back against Hitler’s troops for the rest of the war. This man was rightly bursting with pride about his grandfather, and wore his former Nazi uniform with a reverence becoming of the act. Oh, and we also spent some time playing the game.
We got back home, I wrote up my early preview of the game from what we’d seen and played, and made no mention of the extraordinary events I’d been through. I talked about the newly-invented particle effects, that it would make use of the next big tech in PCs, multicore processors, and my delight at the improved AI. I correctly predicted it would live up to the first game, and that was it. Because the only moments that influenced what I wrote were those spent playing. The rest wasn’t relevant, so it didn’t factor in. I’m not claiming to be Captain Integrity here, but, “We had a fun ride in a car!” isn’t going to make it into my copy.
I’m assuming what Activision wanted was purple prose. “As I sat there, in the very spot Hitler survived the assassination attempt by Claus von Stauffenberg and the rest of Operation Valkyrie, the living history of Call of Duty 2 sung around me…” If it wasn’t supposed to influence the press’s coverage, they wouldn’t do it in the first place. Since publishers have been pulling this shit since before my time, and continue today with YouTubers and influencers, it must at least be believed to work. At the very least, it only very rarely backfires, as has just happened with Sniper Ghost Warrior: Contracts 2.
It bothers me a great deal that it might work. While the vast majority of the press trips I’ve been on have been entirely focused on visiting a studio to play the game and interview developers, there have been others that have—only discovered on arrival—been ridiculous jollies. I recall an Auto Assault trip (poor Auto Assault) that turned out to involve riding on 4x4 bikes and hovercrafts, before we got anywhere near a copy of the woefully mediocre game. I wrote about a woefully mediocre game. If it influences anyone, then frankly they’re a terrible journalist.
I’m pretty far outside of this stuff these days. Most “event” trips are now focused on the more notoriously impressionable YouTubers and Twitch streamers, and while I co-ran RPS for 10 years we mostly said no to any event-based pressers—it’s been well over a decade since I attended anything like that. (It’s worth noting that Kotaku takes a far firmer stance, and only attends press trips if they pay their own way, and very rarely even then.) It’s galling to read that they still happen, that there are still disastrous foul-ups like Contracts 2 just saw.
I like to think that had I been at that event, and been asked to pretend to shoot at people dressed as Arabs while the organizers yelled about killing Muslims, I’d have made quite a lot of noise as I left. I know I would today, old and tired as I am. But I also know how easy it would be not to.
It’s so hard when you’re there. It’s even harder when you’re in your 20s, working a freelance gig to just about scrape your rent next month, and you just get caught up in the madness. I wish I’d done better. I wish I’d recognized my situation and walked out of it. But I didn’t, and I completely understand why others don’t too. So while I believe the individual critics have a responsibility, and of course the publishers do too, the buck really stops with the editor. Editors have to better check what these events are going to be about, and make smarter choices about who they send, if they send anyone at all. And after the fact, when something like a Nazi attack or Arab-shooting jolly occurs, editors need to make the call whether to offer any coverage at all.
Oh, and remind me to tell you the story about the time I was in Paris for Call of Duty 3, and the police got called because of the Nazi flags hanging visible from the street.