In a strange case of art imitating art that imitates life, the Call Of Duty: Black Ops multiplayer map “Nuketown” was inspired by Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, which itself was based on a real historic event. Black Ops’ game designer/director David Vonderhaar is on the record saying the popular map is based on a throwaway scene from the 2008 sequel in which Indy wanders onto the grounds of a nuclear test site town and discovers that he must find a way to escape an impending blast. The sequence descends further into the realm of implausibility as the aging adventurer manages to hide in a refrigerator seconds before the explosion. He’s tossed hundreds of yards away to safety while everything around him evaporates.
I once assumed that the nuclear test town–the central conceit behind that scene and Nuketown—was a fake, an idea cooked up by some hacky screenwriter overreaching for a visual metaphor that represented America’s free-floating Cold War hysteria and the illusory nature of the conformist 1950s. But it’s true, the U.S. military really did create a faux village called Survival Town and nuked its quaint suburban houses and mannequin residents to holy hell.
The purpose of the grand experiment was to determine how a normal American town could be affected by the detonation of a nuclear weapon. The results of the test seem obvious—we’d be screwed—but this was an era marked by the Army’s willingness to play the role of loopy mad scientist. And so like some early big-budget episode of Mythbusters, the military chose a bleak Nevada desert as the site for Survival Town, a collection of homes stocked with furniture, canned goods, and well-dressed department store mannequins.
On May 5, 1955, the Army initiated a 31-kiloton nuclear explosion nearby and filmed the destruction. The stark imagery from the stills and the propaganda-heavy newsreel video of the incident remain haunting: Nearly identical residential houses are torn to pieces and smiles are frozen on the faces of the Leave It To Beaver-style citizens after their bodies have been charred by the nuclear blast. Survival Town is a creepy dichotomy of the mundane and the terrible.
On the surface, Nuketown contains some of that same visual irony. It’s certainly jarring, at first, to see the bloody firefights of Call Of Duty multiplayer matches in a clichéd ’50s suburban neighborhood street. Most Call of Duty multiplayer maps take place in gritty battle zones—bombed-out barracks or sooty munitions factories—but Nuketown consists of a bulbous cul-de-sac dotted by several prefab two-story and ranch-style houses. Each home is surrounded by manicured green lawns, which look even more ridiculous with the lifeless brown desert visible just beyond the city limits. Found both inside and outside the homes are blank-faced mannequins, seemingly placed to reinforce post-World War II gender roles—a woman working in the kitchen, a necktie-clad man in the garage, a grade-school teacher standing by her school bus in the middle of the street.
But beyond the basics, the map is full of cheeky touches that echo the high camp of the scene from Indiana Jones. The population sign, for example, changes based on the number of players in the game, and a double rainbow in the background references the “Double Rainbow” YouTube video that went viral while the game was in development. There’s also a special Easter Egg surprise for shooting off all the mannequins’ heads within the first 15 seconds of the match. Doing so prompts the Rolling Stones’ classic rock anthem “Sympathy For The Devil” to play on loudspeakers.
But Nuketown’s enduring popularity as a multiplayer stage in Call Of Duty (it was tweaked and revived as an expansion in Black Ops 2 due to player demand) stems more from the layout of the map than its dark humor. Nuketown’s symmetrical nature—each side contains a two-story house with a fenced-in backyard, with a moving van providing another point of cover—makes it one of the fairest battlegrounds in series history. If one team decides to hunker down in the upstairs bedroom to establish a defensive position, another team can counter by doing the same thing or by firing a well-placed rocket through the window.
The tiny size of the map also makes for lots of frantic, close-up combat. Some players choose to create “Rambo” custom characters—soldiers equipped with faster running speed and submachine guns or shotguns—to zip through enemy lines amid the confusion. Nuketown can certainly devolve into chaos at times, and death by a misplaced friendly-fire grenade blast is inevitable. That’s part of the reason why a large part of the Call Of Duty: Black Ops community, especially more skilled players, despise Nuketown—impeccable tactics and hand-to-eye coordination can take a back seat to randomness.
The sadistic joke of Nuketown comes at the end of each match, when a bomb drops and obliterates everything in sight, making all of the desperate head-shooting and flag-capturing seem a bit futile. But that’s all forgotten seconds later when the scoreboard pops up and the game asks you to vote once again for a new battlefield. Ninety percent of the time, the crowd votes for yet another skirmish on Treyarch’s lark of death.