[AVAST, there be spoilers ahead.]
So, Modern warfare 2 finally dropped. As it happens, most people think its a very good game
. But one thing that dropped far before the game itself was the heavily violent and controversial level “No Russian”, in which you assume the role of an undercover CIA agent who is tasked with befriending evil Russian du jour Makarov by helping him massacre dozens of civilians at an airport. But obviously, most laymen heard the words “airport, massacre, and civilians” and of course jumped to the conclusion that Modern Warfare 2 could be re-named “Terrorist Massacre of Doom” and that it would be raising a new generation of blood-lusting mercenaries. So, the media got bitchy
, Germany got censor-y
, and Fox News got crappy
. Regrettably, it was to be expected.
I for one wasn't really fussed by the gratuitous acts of violence on unarmed civilians. I thought the entire mission was an absolute blast, its truly a great piece of video game story telling and the subject matter it deals with just shows how far video games have come as an art form. Killing civilians has never been much of a problem for me too. Sometimes it happens by accident in a heated GTA gunfight on the street, or sometimes you want to silence the stupid beggar women in Assassin's Creed with a blade in the spleen, but it never really hurt me morally. The fact that I'm British also makes me less of a “OMG 9/11!!!!” than perhaps more than a few Americans are, so the terrorism aspect of the level didn't really affect me either.
But in this blog post, I'm not defending Modern Warfare's 2 grisly subject matter or violent nature, oh no. Today, I will be defending it from Anthony Burch, who's latest Rev Rant
took the narrative and interactive components of this mission to town and gave them a thorough drubbing. I do respect Anthony's opinion and his points are certainly valid, but there were one or two things that I didn't really agree with and were probably a bit unfair towards the scene as a whole.
One of the first points he makes in the video is that, despite the lack of freedom in linear narrative games and the fact that you aren't allowed to do certain things in order to keep the game's story together, the concept of them still work, since generally, the things you aren't allowed to do are the things that you don't want to do in the first place, for example, shooting Alyx Vance in the face whilst playing Half-Life 2. This isn't allowed as it would butt-fuck the story no end, but since the game characterizes her well, its not high on your to-do list. He then goes on to criticize MW2, as he himself was forced to keep to the story of the game, not because he was doing something he wanted to do (like NOT killing Alyx Vance), but because he was being forced to do something he DIDN'T want to do, that is, killing the civilians and staying in character by Makarov. In the end, he tried to take down the terrorists and blow his cover but was angered that he was given a 'game over' screen when he did that urged him to stay in character.
He certainly implied that this scene was to blame for his urges of justice, and it certainly is, but not fully. Like Half-Life 2 giving Alyx Vance good enough characterization to make you NOT want to shoot her, Modern Warfare 2 should've been drumming into your head that staying undercover is of the utmost importance, so as to make you not feel like blowing your cover. This is not the scene's fault, this is more the fault of every second of plot prior to the massacre. Since the general plot has not done a good job of telling you that you 100% definitely SHOULD NOT blow your cover, you aren't as motivated to do so, just like if Alyx Vance had been a bitch in Half-Life, you'd be more motivated to blow her face off with a point-blank shotgun blast. Its not the scene that should be blamed for your selfless act, its most definitely the fact that the plot as a whole hasn't immersed you enough to make you carry out a devilish massacre. Maybe a better written and more immersive plot would have, but the point I'm making is that the “No Russian” scene shouldn't be fully blamed for this.
His next criticism was that the game forces you to play it in its way, and that this was “bullshit”. Er, what? As far as single-player campaigns go, the Call of Duty series would probably win awards for linearity, and yet Anthony seems shocked that doing something the total opposite to the objectives of the mission brought a game over screen to his face. Its a simple objective: “Follow Makarov's lead.” You shoot one of his buddies, objective failed, game over, just like how if the objective is “Protect Mr. X” and you shoot Mr. X in the face, you will also get a game over sequence. Anthony seemed to be livid that this scripted, linear sequence wasn't allowing him any choice, but why he would expect THIS one section of the game to give him choices where the other sections do not is puzzling. In the end, you go from point A to point B whilst following the objectives of the game, which is the basis of pretty much the entire Call of Duty series. Just because this time your forced to do something you perhaps have an issue with rather than killing unambiguously evil baddies, doesn't mean that Infinity Ward should break their whole philosophy of game design and give you the choice to perhaps alter the story entirely. And if you really, REALLY had issues with the slaughter of innocents, then maybe you should've taken the game's advice and skipped the scene instead.
Anthony also criticizes the end of the mission, saying that he felt betrayed by the fact that his playing of the part of terrorist did nothing to avert the threat of World War 3. Well, you should feel betrayed considering...you got betrayed. But had you played the game in the way is was meant to be played you might've found this twist like the rest of us – bloody brilliant and unexpected.
Anthony goes on about the nature of interactivity and such but I don't really think that's the point of this scene. This whole mission is, at its heart, a glorified cutscene. Had Anthony simply watched the massacre as if it were an FMV he might've found that it would've been very much more enthralling, but the fact that he himself was given the gun and chosen to be an actor in this scene rather than an observer changed the whole tone of it. Like he said, it was a SCRIPTED sequence, and he chose not to follow the script. What would happen if an actor didn't follow his script? They'd shout cut and start the scene again. Just like what happens with this mission. You can go ahead and ad-lib like Anthony did but then the experience isn't as good, yet following your lines to the letter let you take advantage of the brilliant writer you have on the staff.
Ok, I'm gonna cut that metaphor before it gets out of control, but hopefully a lot of you get where I'm coming from. With linear narrative games, you have to follow the linear narrative, you have to follow the script that the game has made for you, and that's just how it goes. As you can see with Half-Life, Bioshock, and other brilliant linear games, it quite often works.
It does seem like this is a personal attack against Anthony, but it isn't. I assume that there are others who also had an epiphany and tried to stop the massacre and failed, only then to find that completing the massacre ended in the same outcome. But had you just followed the plot of the game and “Followed Makarov's Lead”, then you would've had an awesome experience and a gave the game a pat on the back for such a brilliant twist, instead of the betrayal that you might be feeling now.
Basically, there are two types of people in this scene: those who play out the scene killing civilians or those who try to enforce justice and change the course of the game by trying to end the massacre. This is a message to those in the latter group: you're doing it wrong.