[Needless to say, there are a few spoilers in this article, but I shall try to keep them to a minimum.]
The significance of Modern Warfare 2 and its drip fed pre-launch information are nothing without the controversies that have followed its tumultuous path to existence. We’ve had price concerns, format concerns, distribution concerns, and most recently, content concerns regarding the much lauded “Airport Scene”, in which the player becomes part of a terrorist attack.
There were reactions from all corners of the media, with many lambasting Infinity Ward for scratching the still soft and throbbing sore on the belly of America’s national psyche. Others simply questioned the point of the level’s existence, claiming that it was nothing but another gear in the Activision hype machine that has consumed the media for the past year.
I take a different stance, I not only appreciate, and frankly, applaude the decision to include the scene, but I personally think more games need to break invisible taboos, and stop being afraid of the backlash that may or may not follow.
Hype or not, the mission known as “No Russian” has enlisted a heap of discussion among our staff, and unsurprisingly, just as much controversey in almost every gaming forum and online blog. Even post release, when you’d expect people to focus on their overall impressions, the stark division in the public’s reaction is startling.
Many have questioned not the emotional impact of the scene, but more the quality of it. As a few people have mentioned to me, they found it lacking in an array of areas. “I saw no standout part of this level. From AI and level design, to voice acting, set pieces and lighting.”, one of my colleagues noted, “Can someone please tell me why this level was good?”. In all honesty, he makes a reasonable point. While incredibly visceral and shocking, there was little the game did in terms of what made it different from any other firefight.
While, granted, most of the bullets were headed in one direction, the level of gore was toned down, the level was bright and stark, there was little communication between the terrorists, and the civilians had very little detail to distinguish one from the other. Compared to other portions of the title, it was practically elementary in design, an almost calm and careful display in relation to the ball busting plethora of explosions and chase scenes that encompass most of the title.
But maybe, just maybe, that was the point. Many short reaction tweets and blog posts to the level simply state that people found it eerie that the reaction they expected to have, shock and sadness, didn’t occur. Could the design of the level have been purposely made to dull your senses, remove your emotional boundaries and inhibitions, to make you feel like a stone cold killer? If the civilians had moaned, screamed, cried for mercy, and held their dead children as you mercilessly gun them down, would you have been taken out of the moment?
Another colleague noted that the Call of Duty games have always been about putting you in different boots. “The trainee, the war hero, the invaded, the invader” he said, “it paints a bigger picture of the nature of conflict, and the various roles people play within them”.
It’s to make you feel like you are a terrorist; it helps you switch off your conscience, so that you can follow through with these heinous acts. Infinity Ward had to make it seem easy, but not make it seem fun. It was a job, something that had to be done to push the story. How could you truly understand the fight, if you had not experienced the events through the eyes of your enemy?
Many other games have tried different ways to make you feel like you are involved in a greater cause, but very few have done it well. In most, you are simply told why you must hate the enemy, or shown a cut scene that attempts to create an emotional rise. But none of them are willing to cross the line that turns you into your enemy, or force you to commit unimaginable, but unfortunately, very real and terrible things like genocide or torture.
Many of you are probably asking, “Well yeah, of course you should add systems of consequence, since it helps build a sensible reward/punishment system”. And yes, that’s fine. But there are, right now, at this very moment, acts of unspeakable and unimaginative horror are being committed by madmen somewhere in the world. In the minds of these people, what they have done is justified to them, in whatever twisted way they hope to think.
Interactive situations like “No Russian” are, hopefully, the first step in game designers conveying “taboo” parts of stories, usually glossed over or simply placed in text, in a way that helps gamers understand what they are truly fighting against. Or, if the plot is daring enough to convey, what they are fighting for.
Additional note: I’m aware of the circumstances of your place in that particular mission, but that changes nothing. Once you commit the acts that you commit, for any reason, you have become no different then those who you are trying to defeat. In essence, you are the same. I personally don’t agree to the whole “Means to an End” philosophy, and so it seems, the game agrees with me.