Editorial: Interactive Discomfort in Modern Warfare 2

WARNING: Spoilers for the“No Russian” mission of Modern Warfare 2

It’s been a week since Modern Warfare 2 dropped into stores like a tomahawk crashing through a plate glass window, forcing thousands of overexcited gamers to skip school, call out sick from work, and cancel long-standing plans all because they couldn’t pull themselves away from their night-vision goggles. Despite the tremendous pre-release buzz, I carefully dodged all of the coverage to go into the experience with a pure, untainted outlook. Imagine my surprise when “that level” began to play…

In case you haven’t been watching Fox News lately, one of Modern Warfare 2’s early missions casts you as an undercover agent. It’s called ’No Russian’, a reference to the words spoken by the group’s leader moments before the carnage begins. The man opens the door in front of you, revealing a bustling airport packed with people minding their luggage and waiting for their flights. The men raise their weapons without a hint of hesitation and begin to open fire, slaughtering dozens as their screams and cries get muffled by a hail of gunfire. You maintain full control over your character during this massacre, and can even participate if you so desire. Of course, that was the last thing on my mind, as the only thing that I could muster the courage to do was gawk at this pitiful scene in a stunned silence.

I’ve heard many describe this sequence as a gut-punch, a sentiment that I would agree with wholeheartedly. I have done my fair share of nefarious deeds in games, but have never participated in one that felt so real. Living in New York City for my entire life, I’ve been around as tragic, out of control events transpired, and have seen the consequences of these horrors firsthand. Much akin to reality, there was no heroism in No Russian, no dashing rogue with a clever one-liner who could save the day. Instead, it was a savage slaughter, one that interrupted and ended the lives of innocents on what would have been a normal afternoon. As the men began to prepare for their escape from the airport, I began to think about how it was portrayed. Had I just seen a turning point for gaming, a maturity that allowed for a real-world crisis to be presented in a lifelike, convincing interactive environment? Or was it just a ploy on Infinity Ward’s part, a carefully engineered shock put in place to rile up the mainstream press and create a Rockstar-esque buzz around Modern Warfare 2? After finishing the mission, the answer was clear to me: Infinity Ward blew it.

No Russian is presented jarringly, graphically, and with a hint of bravado on Infinity Ward’s behalf, but what follows completely degrades its impact. As your associates finish up their dastardly deeds, a firefight breaks out between the crooks and the cops. Unlike earlier moments in the level, you’re forced to kill here, as there is too much of a police presence to rely solely on your criminal cohorts. This immediate switch into Hollywood action-mode barely gives you any time to contemplate what just happened, and completely downplays the horrific nature of the act. And logically, wouldn’t these villains have had a better escape plan, one that didn’t require them risking their hides against countless trained enforcers? They were obviously crafty enough to get automatic weapons into the airport.

All of this is made far worse at the conclusion of the mission, as the group’s leader puts a bullet between your characters eyes just as you are about to hop into the escape van. The first Modern Warfare shocked gamers by killing off several player-controlled characters in unexpected, ghastly ways, making this moment in MW2 feeling more like a call back reference than a true, genuine surprise. What’s more disappointing is that they failed to explore other possible avenues with this undercover character, one that could have potentially gotten far darker than a single act of terrorism.

I’ve spoken about being the bad guy on a previous episode of TGR’s Big Red Potion podcast, asking that more games let you play as true evil. Modern Warfare 2 does let you engage in an act of absolute darkness, even if it’s just to protect your cover, but pulling the trigger at the end of that mission completely severed an exciting dynamic that could have been. Imagine going deeper within the group’s ranks, watching them plot out their next act of violence as you wait for a sign from Washington that you can take these bastards down. What if they had given the player the option of choosing this agent’s fate: does he participate in the next act of terrorism to keep the ploy going, knowing firsthand that many more innocents might die to protect a larger group of civilians in the long run? Or does he blow his cover to save lives now and risk hurting more once he’s exposed? It would be a tough dilemma, one without a clear moral answer, and one that would have inspired discussion in a way that I believe Infinity Ward intended to with this sequence. Instead, the agent dies, the player doesn’t care, and impact of the scene is forgotten as the adrenaline from the next slam-bang action moment begins to fill your body. Sigh.

Despite their possible intent and my own aggravation, I do applaud Infinity Ward for trying to some extent, as developers need to push boundaries if the industry is ever going to move forward. I believe that games have the potential to showcase real-life problems as well as cartoonish ones, leaving the player with consequences to weigh and guilt to deal with. Sure, that may not sound fun, but its guaranteed to be something unique, and an experience that you’ll never forget. That would be something that I think that we’d all like to play.

Author: JoeDelia