“We will teach you the art of struggle
and the meaning of battle
and the lesson of peace”
- Samih Al-Qassem, “Atillu wa Asghu” (“Look Around and Pay Attention”)
I’m playing Modern Warfare 2. This is a traditional tale of unknown soldiers turned heroes, last minute villains, a war told in a fragmented vocabulary not unlike the fast-food terrorism we get from news broadcasting. It’s one hell of a ride, with a bombastic musical score raging throughout urgent levels that do their best to hide the corridor-like roots of Doom, that spunky grandpa of an entire genre that sits on the porch boasting about all the guts and heroism of his tenure during the war. ”In my day, we didn’t wonder if we could talk to the monsters, we just shot them”.
There are very accomplished moments. One level in particular has a remarkable use of direction and lighting: you’re powerless, sprinting across a series of rooftops dodging gunfire and all you have guiding you – outside your superior’s voice pressing you on – are lights and shadows, revealing just enough of the right direction as they fall across bricks and metal roofs. Another level sees darkness and rain becoming the real enemy and the lighting that emanates from small fires all around is more important to our survival than whatever military toys at our disposal. Moments like these would be ruined in the hands of lesser developers and could only be well executed by a scant few others, like Valve.
You also feel like the bastard child of Bond and Bauer playing around in Michael Bay’s backyard and who gets constantly beaten over the head in the direction of the next condescending objective, whether it’s an invisible checkpoint or a glowing object in the environment. It’s Call of Duty designed by committee, with the usual running around looking for shiny RPGs to down helicopters now with added military lingo. Vague terrorism, vague Middle East, vague Eastern Europe, vague motives. There’s also the odd little moment where the launch of a nuclear missile turns into a Square-Enix cutscene, in length and in over-the-top presentation. Characters that were never deeper than fortune cookie advices develop a misplaced sense of duty and pump out platitudes amidst a chorus of gun porn. It’s pure noise. It shows a studio incredibly confident of what they’re trying to achieve, yes, but it’s more about sound and fury than a cohesive whole like their 2007 prequel.
But still – one hell of a ride.
Until that scene.
I’m playing Modern Warfare 2. For all the press attention and gamer accolades, Infinity Ward is often considered to be a “safe” developer in some circles. That is, a developer who doesn’t take any creative risks in their games. Except they do: they move players into uncomfortable territory. FPSs are no strangers to violence and death – after all, this is the genre that looked to point’n’click adventures and found it would be more fun to pixel hunt some guy’s face and explode it with a click – and traditionally they are meant to glorify, to empower players. The simplest of objectives are often dressed as heroic missions. Virtual women in these games are often commodities or prizes. Headshots are the ultimate expression of manhood for gamers enthralled with the genre, turned into sexual pulsion as we humiliate others with the power of our phallic weapons.
But ever since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the studio has been placing an entire generation of gamers – console gamers mostly, though certainly not all of them – into a unique position. The main characters, characters actively controlled by players, usually suffer death. A final death. You can argue that since you can spend a lot of time in the game ‘dying’ and reloading in a Looney Tunes cycle, that doing so immediately voids any sense of death – except you’d be arguing that videogame death as a result of the underlying mechanics is the same as videogame death as a result of the underlying narrative. But it’s not. In terms of symbolic destruction, of that which used to be the main aspect of player empowerment, it’s a different species under a different lens.
This is because, for all the comparisons to cinema, videogames have a lot more in common with theater. You cannot experience theater without experiencing the space of theater itself, much like you cannot experience a videogame narrative without being aware of the fictional space where it occurs. Both audiences need to accept that they are in a specific place in order for the narrative to become “real”. In theater you have the interplay of stage, actors and audience; in games you have the interplay of virtual world, rules and control methods. Both ask of their respective audiences to understand the inherent coded falsities of the medium as necessary in order to present a natural context.
To repeatedly reload in Modern Warfare after you die is the natural context of the game (the reload is a game mechanism, the coded set of rules that we have to accept in order to keep playing – it’s a mechanism meant to make us more observant to other mechanisms such as enemy position, player health or grenades thrown in our direction); to utterly die in Modern Warfare without such a transparent mechanical artifact is the natural context of the narrative (the absence of a reload is a mechanism meant to make us forget all others even when you are subjected to its rules, like player movement and camera orientation). So when we spend excruciating seconds crawling out of the downed helicopter to watch ash rain from the sky as a nuclear mushroom grows in the distance in Modern Warfare, we accept that up until that point it was all just a game – and that the nuke scene is all just narrative.
And in terms of a genre that always empowered gamers this isn’t the least bit “safe”. Another FPS in recent years that did something similar was Quake 4. Quake is another series that always thrived on machismo, the one man army mowing down hordes of deformed and ghastly creatures. id Software, by contrast, has always been a safe developer in terms of gaming structure and narrative focus in spite of the controversy its gibathons generated – you’d never think they would pull the rug under your feet. You’re playing Quake. You’re the hero. Everything’s going be alright. Except its not and the main character suffers irreversible amputation (a symbolic one: the first ever in a Quake game, the breaking down of the established empowerment) at the hands of the Strogg, his body warped until he becomes the “other”, the very thing he was trying to kill. And through it all, players can only watch.
This is the kind of thing Infinity Ward does, and what they do best.
Or, at least, they used to do so until Modern Warfare 2.
And more spoilers.
I’m playing Modern Warfare 2. The fourth mission – titled “No Russian” – sees the player as a CIA operative working undercover in a terrorist cell in order to take down its leader, Vladimir Makarov. The only semblance of a briefing is given to you by General Sheperd prior to the mission start. Makarov is painted as someone who “has no rules, no boundaries”, who does not “flinch at torture, human trafficking, or genocide”. He’s supposed to be our “new best friend” and it is implied that being placed next to him has cost a lot – but also, that what it will cost us is nothing compared to what we will save.
You’re given an automatic weapon. Elevator doors swing open and the members of the terrorist cell where you are working undercover enter an airport terminal. You tag along. Ahead, a group of civilians waits unknowingly. Makarov and the rest of the group open fire. It’s a clear terrorist act, virtual as it may be. Civilians are pumped full of lead. They fall down. Puddles of blood stain the floor. As the men move across the terminal they fire against helpless, bleeding victims. A man dragging away a victim is shot dead. I can almost swear I heard a baby crying in the background. You can look at the whole event and notice that some civilians use repeated sounds, textures or animations. But this is a technological hiccup – otherwise, convincing animation and superlative audio do a fantastic (in the fullest meaning of the word) job of making the scene a vivid one. This is all “virtual”, yes. It’s also not “safe”. It’s uncomfortable, agonizing, depressing and quite possibly for some, repulsing.
Which is why the scene works.
I’m not going to talk at length about whether “are games art” and “should this be art” or “does this elevate games to art” because I’m ill equipped to talk about art and have no pretensions of breaking down years of self-imposed gamer dogma. In short, most gamers are hypocrites when confronted with scenes like this. Whenever videogames come under criticism by someone outside the medium, they immediately hoist the “it’s art” flag. Yet, if you have a scene like this making the rounds in the fires of controversy, they immediately adopt the stance that “it’s only a game”. Gamers, by large, are stuck somewhere between demanding artistic recognition for videogames and only looking for “entertainment” and “fun”.
Except art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive but neither are they mutually inclusive. Guernica was not painted to have people clap hands to it. Lolita was not written to elicit laughs. And The Rock wasn’t trying to discuss philosophy, either. If you want to make the argument that videogames are art then you have to accept that while they can be “entertaining” and “fun”, they too, are not always made to be so – sometimes, their goal is to cause a reaction, to confront the audience. The intention behind art can be exactly what Ballard intended to do when he wrote Crash – to, quote, “rub the human face in its own vomit, and then force it to look in the mirror”.
In a way this is exactly why, in concept, the scene works. Some gamers under the anonymity that the internet provides have said they found the scene “entertaining” and “fun”; that they had actual fun shooting at the civilians and lamented that the terrorists got in the way of their killing. Other gamers were noticeably agitated, ill and just could not endure the scene. These kinds of moments are important in art – to dislodge the audience from the status quo, to do away with the idea that it can never be as broken, as ugly, as demented or as brutal as us, as those who create art itself. It can and it should be.
So when Infinity Ward places you in the shoes of someone who is not shooting people to survive but to simply exterminate them that raises eyebrows and questions. As it should. Again, uncomfortable territory – you’ve been playing a series that sprinkles achievements over its military bombast. You’ve been playing a series in a genre which is fundamentally nothing more than to kill or be killed. But right now, provided you answered “yes” – twice – to Infinity Ward’s warning that shocking content might follow, you only have two choices: to kill or not to kill. Yes, games do not exist in a vacuum and it would be foolish to say that no other game in the genre, or outside it, has done something like this. But we’re not in Deus Ex or Thief territory where you could avoid direct conflict by using shadows or vents.
Here, even if you do not press the virtual trigger, you are forced to go through the level and watch the execution. Infinity Ward was careful to remove your ability to sprint, ensuring it was going to be a long and slow walk until the very end of the slaughter. The idea is a good one. In terms of character development, it’s meant to make players hate Makarov (arguably, it fails since Makarov turns out to be a fleeting antagonist who doesn’t get enough screen presence or overall presence in the story). In terms of themes, it’s meant to engage the audience about the kind of sacrifices made in wartime (arguably, it fails since the story is a loudmouth and vulgar display of any kind of meaningful discourse in this matter). But here’s the kicker. Infinity Ward have always managed to create a balance of sorts between the two aspects I’ve talked about earlier – a lens that conveys natural context of game and narrative when it needs to. To do this they’ve always chosen the linear path, the one which – much like a director’s camera – guides our vision towards the necessary moments.
But here’s why the scene fails.
Some say that they are not affected by violence in videogames because it is “not real”. Is it a problem with the degrees of virtuality in the work? Is it a problem exclusive to computer graphics? Would we walk out of our living rooms or bedrooms if the game we were playing presented us something analogous to the continuous nine minute rape scene in 2002′s Irréversible? Both cases would operate under the same contract – it’s a fictional story. It’s acting. None of it is real. No one is being harmed. But what it does – what the game does, what entertainment can also do, what art has done – is presenting the audience with a way of looking. You don’t have to create a semblance of “real life” in art to engage with the audience – only a “life”, a context, that’s “real” enough.
Which is why when Makarov and his gang started pulling the trigger I remained a quiet observer. As they went through the motions I refused to open fire, all the while stifling revulsion, some times lagging behind them. A while later, I reach the end of the level and Makarov shoots me point blank, apparently aware that I was a CIA agent. The game continues. Russia invades the United States in retaliation for the terrorist act.
Now, I’m doubting my actions. Sheperd warned me that I would have to make sacrifices. I assume that since the objective is to avoid suspicions in order to nail Makarov that I have to comply with the atrocity so that my cover is not blown. Why was I found out? Was it because I refused to shoot? Because I lagged behind and took a minute to catch up? I replay the level and, against myself, start gunning civilians in the hope I’ll do a “good job” convincing Makarov of my allegiance. But at the end of the level he still shoots me point blank. Russia still attacks the United States.
Making the “sacrifice” is pointless since there is none to be made.
The illusion of choice only presents a false dichotomy. There is no sacrifice because you are not given the choice to make one. You are not forced to kill in order to maintain you position inside the terrorist cell. The civilians are not an objective – they are an afterthought with a bad aftertaste. You are not pushed into a moral dilemma – there isn’t one to be found. Not only does this ruin the otherwise tightly knit narrative web that Infinity Ward always succeeded at creating, you are left with the nagging feeling that with “No Russian”, the studio approached videogame violence the same way Fox News does – out of context.
Why the scene fails – you are free to decide but have already been imprisoned by a choice already made for you.
Think back to the nuke scene in Modern Warfare. A nuclear blast goes off in the distance. The player’s character is inside a military helicopter. Imagine if you will that you could jump from that open ramp – from which you have a privileged vantage point over the blast. You jumped from the moving helicopter, landed on the ground and died – if not from the fall then by the incoming blast. Would a choice matter there? Think back to Modern Warfare’s very last level when you’re on the ground, unarmed and Price throws you his pistol so you can take down Zakhaev. Imagine if you will that shooting or not shooting Zakhaev would result in him getting killed anyway. What would be the purpose of being given a choice which has no impact on how the next vignette in the story plays out?
What is the purpose of being given a choice to shoot or not to shoot in “No Russian” if your decision has no impact in how the story plays out? Call of Duty has always been unashamedly linear. It’s not a role-playing game saturated with choice and consequence. It doesn’t even reach virtual novella status. You just get on the passenger’s seat and try to make the most of the ride while it lasts. This isn’t about criticizing the developer for going down that road but rather, wondering why we’re placed in a crossroads that leads into the same destination. All of it is undermined: you’re told of a sacrifice that never has to be made, you’re warned of a moral cost that never comes back to haunt you, you’re given the ability to shoot Makarov when he is made invincible for the sake of the narrative. A narrative which, otherwise, is good and can often surprise on a purely visual level.
Videogames based around the concept of warfare have mostly always excelled at translating the euphoria of victory. A very small number of them have even represented the agony of defeat in incredibly detailed fashion. But Modern Warfare 2, in particular “No Russian”, only strides into the middle of nowhere. Some gamers have fallen back on the optional nature of the mission as a means to defend its existence. But saying that you are “empowered to leave such content out of your experience” is naïve at best – you can’t argue in favor of the level’s existence and then say it’s optional. You cannot boast that it is crucial to the narrative and then encourage people to skip it. You cannot applaud videogames shying away from having a discourse (be it political, moral or otherwise) and then support the notion that the only way of disagreeing with said discourse is to completely shield you senses from it. You can’t disagree with which you do not know.
When they allow players to remove the level out of the narrative context, Infinity Ward is basically saying that the level is of little to no consequence to the rest of the game – and, if you care to replay the game without accessing “No Russian”, you’ll realize this for yourself. By choosing to include a level of this magnitude in their game, they showed unwavering conviction: by giving us the chance to bypass it entirely that conviction turns into cowardice. Irony: a developer which has taken so many creative risks ends up playing it safe.
Modern Warfare 2 found itself in the unique position to have gamers reevaluate the power of the medium, even if Infinity Ward did not set that goal themselves. Those genuinely affected by “No Russian” will hopefully come out of the experience with a new perspective on videogame violence and the power of the medium. They could also come to ponder about the author’s right to confront the audience but paradoxically, this requires ignoring the author’s proposal of ignoring said expression. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed hardcore gamer whose only kick out of the game is shouting obscenities online or relishing in the idea that anything that resembles a person should be gunned down in order to be “fun”, will see it only as a summer blockbuster with a couple of minutes of shock value which are going to fade away in a couple of months.
By itself or in the greater scheme of things, “No Russian” is nothing followed by nothing. As a message, it’s tenuous; as an idea definitely worth exploring in videogames, its merit is overshadowed by a lack of elegance and context; as a game level, its recycling of genre tropes has no ambition or consequence; as an example of how creative Infinity Ward can be, it’s primitive; as entertainment, it’s an opinion poll in progress.
I’m playing Modern Warfare 2. Some times, it’s a hell of a ride. Others, it’s evidence that designers shouldn’t force significance on gamers unless they’re prepared to accept that without context, the onus of sacrifice is not ours to carry.