Thursday, November 19, 2009

More Russian: Modern Warfare 2 and Games in a Post-24 World (Spoilers)

Much is being said about the campaign for Modern Warfare 2, and in particular, a level called No Russian. Personally, I thought the level was effective and the campaign as a whole was nothing short of spectacular. It's easily earned a place as one of my favorite shooter campaigns of all time.

One of the criticisms I've read levelled at the campaign is that the writing is poor and the story is ludicrous. I agree completely that the story is ludicrous. I think that most video game stories are ludicrous. But so what? The important thing in a game like Modern Warfare 2 is to cram as many intense moments into its five-hour campaign as it can. I can't think of a game that sustained such an unrelenting pace, and since the story does its job of providing a vehicle to string all these things together, in my mind, it's a success. I won't argue that it's great writing for a second. But it's writing with a very specific purpose, and I think it does a great job of accomplishing that purpose.

There may have been a time where I would have enjoyed it less, where I would have spent half my time stepping outside of the absurd action of the story and yelling at the screen, "Oh, come on! That would never happen!" Perhaps it's all that 24 I watched, but at a certain point, my outlook changed, and I realized that I was willing to sacrifice a certain amount of plausibility if, and only if, something succeeds in delivering over-the-top thrills so incredible as to make my suspension of disbelief worthwhile. Most of the time, 24 succeeded here for me. In the end, it's not the overall story of a 24 season that matters, but the moment-to-moment thrills that story allowed the season to deliver, and seriously, if you think Modern Warfare 2 is implausible, watch a season of 24. I don't know for sure, but I'd be willing to bet that 24 has been a direct influence on the Modern Warfare games.

24 ushered in an era of television where viewers could no longer be sure, one week to next, that any character (wiith the possible exception of Jack Bauer) was safe. Audience favorites are routinely killed suddenly and unflinchingly. The Modern Warfare games certainly followed in the series' footsteps here. The death of a player character in the first Modern Warfare, like the death of lovable Edgar on 24, was shocking. Perhaps in Modern Warfare 2 they go a tad overboard with this and it starts to lose its impact a bit, but I still found most of the twists and character deaths surprising and impactful.

And then there's No Russian, in which, as an undercover CIA agent embedded in a terrorist cell, you must stand by, or even participate, while your fellow terrorists slaughter hundreds of civilians at an airport. Many of the arguments I've read about this level are rooted in the illusion of choice. There you are, holding a gun, but you must stand idly by as this massacre takes place. You are unable to turn the gun on the terrorists and attempt to stop this atrocity, which is something that any moral person would surely at least consider doing in that situation. Anthony Burch, in this Rev Rant at Destructoid, argues that as the player, your feelings of revulsion about what's happening totally pull you out of the moment. (At least that was what I took away from his argument, but I'm paraphrasing, and I encourage you to watch it for yourself.) And maybe that's true. He contrasts this, though, with the player's relationship with Alyx in Half-Life 2. In Half-Life 2, he says, you like Alyx. Because the game reinforces your positive feelings about the character, Gordon's choice to not just use the gravity gun to fling her into the nearest bunch of headcrabs and run jibes with your own feelings, creating a seamless relationship between you and the character you're playing. But to me, that's an arbitrary distinction. Another player may totally loathe Alyx and actually wish to kill her. In both Modern Warfare 2 and Half-Life 2, you have no choice. Choice is a complete illusion.

Some may feel that games are more enjoyable when we always feel a positive connection with the character we're playing and the actions of that character. I'm fine with that not being the case, with sometimes being cast in an unsavory role. If Modern Warfare 2 were a film, could the actor cast in the role the player plays in the No Russian level say to the director, "You know, if it were really me in this situation, I think I'd say to myself, 'To hell with this undercover thing, I'm turning my gun on these monsters!' So is it okay if I do that in this scene?" Of course not. It's essentially the same thing here. We are cast in this role. We have a part to carry out, and we must carry it out, whether we like it or not. If you're playing Metal Gear Solid, you must stop Liquid Snake. Trying to join forces with him is not an option. If you're playing Ocarina of Time, you cannot shirk your responsibility to defeat Ganon and just go live on a farm somewhere, no matter how much you might rather do that. In games, almost always, choice is an illusion.

The other criticism I've heard about No Russian is that some feel such a horrific scene of violence is inappropriate in something that's essentially just trying to be a piece of pure entertainment, that it's exploitative to use something so terrible in the context of something that, let's face it, doesn't really deal with the consequences in a serious, meaningful way. Maybe I'm just callous, but I didn't mind. Again, perhaps it's all that 24, which doesn't shy away from crashing commuter jets, releasing chemical weapons in hotels, and detonating nukes in densely populated areas, killing anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands at a time. Nor is it reluctant to try to make you feel the loss of a single human life.

And always, not long after one of these moments transpires, Jack Bauer is back to kicking ass and walking away from unsurvivable situations unscathed, all in the name of delivering pure entertainment.

1 comment:

jervo said...

Well said. Did you see Rock Paper Shotgun's take?