Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2 has stirred drama in the gaming community and media alike with a scene which presents the player with a choice to slaughter hundreds of innocent civilians while undercover in a Russian false-flag terrorist group. The scene is a powerful reminder of what gaming can do, and what it should do, as it grows into more mature shoes.
Let’s pretend you have invited me over to your house to, say, participate in a heated competition of table tennis. And let’s say, in the heat of a losing streak I yelled out a threat against your life. You’d probably laugh it off as an idle threat and make the next serve. However, if I continued to follow up that threat with an intricate description of how I was going to kill you, describing morbid details, where I would hide the body and how I’d get away with it, you might begin to find it less funny. If I started including your family in such descriptions, meticulously explaining how I would kill them all one night in their sleep, drag their bodies into a rented pickup truck, then drive it to the woods and burn the bodies with the lighter fluid in my garage then dissolve the remains with lime, you might nervously smirk and start thinking about asking me to leave your house. Even further, if I began to sketch out elaborate plans about killing you, planning the best possible routes to invade your home without being detected, and describing with what weapons and in what manner I would kill you, you might begin to actually fear for your life. If I showed anyone these plans the authorities would probably be notified, and most likely, I’d be arrested for what looked like planning a murder.
Where in that story did that stop being fun and start becoming a criminal activity? Was it when I first threatened you? No, it would be when I had gone beyond an idle threat and began defining the details of its execution. Creating an increasingly believable narration of a murder would probably begin to make you believe that I might actually do it. However, if I had done all this under the guise of being a writer, published the book, and started a controversy fit for Fox news—most likely no one would be arrested. Thus we have an interesting conundrum. Detailing the plot of gruesome and/or criminal activity in private is a crime, where as publishing these detailed arrangements to the public could be, if properly contextualized, art.
It happens all the time in film. The details of violent and thoroughly disturbing situations are researched, written about, then re-enacted on screen for audiences to observe. Much of this is done to enhance the realism or immersive qualities of the film. Director Michael Mann is known for obsessively detailing the types of guns, sounds, and wound patterns produced by any weapons in his film. His attention to detail makes a film like Heat or Collateral far more enveloping, as it reveals things I otherwise wouldn’t know about violent encounters. Also consider Riddley Scott’s Blade Runner: the scene in which Zhora is ‘retired.’ In 1982, this was an astounding amount of violence, portrayed in slow motion to make sure the viewers caught every movement of the replicant’s gory death. Scott had Zhora wear a clear rain jacket so the audience would see her blood spray against the inside of her coat as she stumbled through plate glass. This overwhelming scene is built around a meticulous representation of death, and by extensions forces the viewer to grapple with Zhora’s suffering and sentience.
The intricate description of the details and the unflinching execution of my book with an invisible main character gruesomely murdering an entire family would probably be considered a detailed account by an author who had done his research to create an immersive experience. And the purpose of that immersion would be to make my audience feel something, probably in a melodramatic way. Or maybe just shock value (I’m looking at you Eli).
So apply this to one of the more recent controversies in gaming right now, the level “No Russian” in IW’s blockbuster release Modern Warfare 2. In it, (the video embedded below) one of the early missions in the game puts you in the shoes of an undercover CIA officer within a rogue Russian militant force. The scene opens as the group walks out of an elevator and opens fire on a crowd of travelers waiting in a security line. It then allows you to slowly walk forward, gun in hand, and watch or participate in the slaughter of several more innocent Moscow travelers as they drag the bodies of their loved ones to safety. Others, as they struggle to breathe and spit up blood, can be executed or left to bleed out.
The scene is effective at wrenching an emotional reaction from the player. The first time I watched as the gun pulled up in front of me and it was implied that I was to mow down this group of civilians, I was caught by surprise and overwhelmed. To be fair, most of the shock was due to the fact that the game was from the perspective of the ‘good guys’ and here I was suddenly looking through the eyes of a ‘bad guy.’ (Or good guy pretending to be a bad guy, but really, what’s the difference when you’re mowing down civilians in droves.) The title itself, “Modern Warfare” highlights one of the main plots of the game—modern warfare is no longer cut and dry good guys and bad guys defined by uniform color. When a military pursues things like undercover missions, it asks individuals to participate in smaller acts of evil in order to achieve a calculated noble good. As the game plays out, the CIA is blamed for the massacre as your character is shot at the end of the scene no matter what you do. Russia declares war on the US and millions die in an attack on DC. The rather thin plot illustrates small evils can become larger ones, regardless of your illusion of well calculated moral equations (Also, whoever considers destroying hundreds peoples’ lives a smaller act of evil deeds needs to learn some math).
Why does this scene work so well in shocking the player? Let’s first break down some technical details. Right now Modern Warfare is probably one of the most detailed games out graphically. It also has a myriad of perfectly recorded sound effects that drown the player in its bloody world. Its settings are exotic and mostly believable, and its voice acting is spot on. This is all capped off by what I think is one of the most important elements of gaming realism—smooth, well acted animation. You can see for yourself, as one character whispers “Remember, no Russian” and snaps his head about casually to face the door as if to say, this is just business. As you walk through the plaza with these killers, they make gestures that imply they are doing something akin to rounding up cattle for the slaughter, rather than taking lives. Combined with the way the civilians genuinely look terrified as they crawl across the floor in pools of their own blood, IW animated some of the most believable NPC acting I’ve ever encountered. That in itself has a shock value to it, as you feel that IW endowed these polygons and pixels with hints of life—then prompt you to viciously snuff it out. Combined with the fact that you are holding the gun and looking through a potential murderer’s eyes, IW struck a painful chord in any gamer. And if you think I’m exaggerating, just look at the number of players in forums who say they couldn’t bring themselves to shoot anyone in the mission. IW went out of their way to illustrate the intricate details of how a murder of hundreds of civilians would look, feel, and sound. Somewhat like my murder plan above, but infinitely more realistic. (Also, if you think there is a difference because the scene does not ‘target’ anyone in specific, then take note that IW chose to remove the scene from the Russian edition.)
Here’s where IW succeeded in an important step in gaming. They, maybe for the first time in the history of mainstream releases, inspired a gamer to choose whether or not to pull the trigger based on who they are as people, rather than some sort of Pavlovian point-based reward system. Consider how this scene would be different if points were awarded for every civilian killed, a la Grand Theft Auto. Well, the game would then be more of a bizarro world of dark humor rather than a serious commentary on the ethics of killing. Instead, the mission can be played out by either never firing a shot, or participating in the slaughter.
However you cannot be the hero and preemptively kill the Russians. And here lies the problem with the scene, and by extension a major problem with gaming to this day.
This level, and the game by extension, does not really provide you with any choices. It is more of post-cinematic experience rather than an interactive story. You push the plot forward by clicking some buttons and hitting a few targets. Some parts of the game even play out more like the rails shooter of yore (remember Rebel Assault?) rather than a true interactive experience. The story is linear and unavoidable, which disappoints me when the game’s plot so heavily depends on making moral choices. The major choices of the game are: Do I buy the game and play it? and then Do I play this mission? (It allows you to skip it if you choose.)
Sure you can choose to shoot or not to shoot, but both end in the same result, and aren’t really choices. If you want a player to comprehend the full nature of the moral quandary in front of them, they need to be able to draw on the full spectrum of their decision making and moral capabilities. If IW was serious about the moral questions raised by the story (which it probably wasn’t) this level demands a dynamically branching sequence. Even if the choice of betraying your enemies results in a brief ending, it should be explored. Who says the good ending has to be the longer one? If you choose to blow your cover and stop the slaughter, you are killed, but heroically reveal the Russian false-flag operation. Thus you avoid the entire tragedy of a Third World War. If you want to play the game through by going along with the slaughter, you endure more painful and long-term consequences. This would be a much stronger statement, and one that would prompt me to play through either way. Frankly, I might be too shocked to do anything the first round, thus catapulting me into the World War Three scenario. The second time through, I might try to do something different, thus revealing different results and making me question why I had done nothing the first time.
Ultimately the scene succeeds in the short term by proving that a videogame world can be both immersive and emotionally jarring like any other accepted form of art, but taken in its entirety the piece fails. Most of the story line is made up of absurd characters who participate in other-worldly situations like the nuclear destruction of Washington DC—only this scene seems ‘believable.’ The realism of this scene is also ruined by a lack continual narrative. Most levels simply drop you in the middle of the action with little or no time for any attempts at character development resulting in a less than satisfying clunky story line (unlike the uninterrupted narrative of a game like Half-Life). Nor does the game provide a really rich interactive story which allows you to explore the consequences of any of the characters’ actions within the game-world.
Instead IW seems to have run across an excellent scene, in which they could have explored gamers’ moral fiber and critical thinking abilities, and decided they’d rather force the viewer to pretend to explore it, then yank them away from the ability to do anything meaningful about it. It reminds me of one of Professor Milgram’s experiments in which he tested individuals on their ability to torture subjects in another room. Regardless of the screams coming from the other room, the majority of subjects chose to follow the orders of Milgram’s assistants and continue to press a button which caused unseen (but overheard) pain. Only a fraction of the test subjects refused to participate in the experiment. Modern Warfare 2 does not allow you to step back in the game world and decide for yourself if you want to continue the slaughter, let alone make any positive action to stop it. And by doing that, IW cripples the key difference between a genuine interactive experience and any other existing linear narrative form. Rich interactive stories free us from the reticent wall between authorial intent and reader response. A great interactive experience breaks through that barrier, and instead invites both author and audience to explore actions which can offer exciting and unpredictable stories.