Now that Modern Warfare 2 is out, perhaps we're past that particular gamer-centric controversy that I wrote about last week, and we're just in time to focus on the next controversy surrounding the game - this one from the non-gamer point of view. I refer, of course, to the first mission of the game, colloquially known as "That Airport Scene." (Oh, and by the way, if you don't want spoilers for MW2, even very early ones, you should probably stop reading right about ... now)
We've already seen the first waves of controversy over "No Russian," an early mission in the game, which puts you as an undercover American operative joining in a terrorist attack on a Moscow airport and massacring civilians. MW2's particular execution and presentation makes it a very different experience from gunning down innocents in, say, a Grand Theft Auto, and I've heard many gamers say it makes them uncomfortable to be put into that situation. That is, of course, the point - the game wants to make the bad guys feel like horrible bad guys, and uses the interactivity of games to drive that point home (though of course, Your Mileage May Vary).
But when a certain Senior Editor of mine (who shall go unnamed, but whose name may rhyme with "Busan") asked me whether or not I thought that a developer could pull off a similar scene in an MMOG, I paused. The thought honestly hadn't occurred to me - can events in an MMOG be as emotionally jarring as That Airport Scene?
Let's get all the necessary assumptions out of the way, first: The hypothetical MMOG in question would have to have graphics and animations far beyond even NCSoft's gorgeous Aion. Part of what makes the MW2 scene so effective is its realism, with screaming crowds, people writhing on the ground in pain or trying to drag themselves away from the massacre. Would it be possible to do the same thing in a less graphically-advanced game? Probably, but let's just skip that argument entirely.
The argument of persistence - "Oh, it's okay, they'll just respawn in 10 minutes" - doesn't really apply here either, assuming the game would have a system similar to WoW's Phasing mechanic, where completing a certain quest moves you into a new "phase" of the world where your action has had permanent consequences. It would be easy enough to have you do something abhorrent and have it be permanent. But even so, I'm not convinced that MMOGs - which as I've argued in the past can certainly tell a story - could actually pull it off. At least, not without subverting all the norms of the genre.
The chief advantage videogames have over movies and TV is that they're interactive: A movie (or even a cutscene) where some guy blasts his way through civilians can have the viewer watching in horror and asking, "What did that guy just do?" But a game that tasks the player to do something they find reprehensible can have the player asking themselves, "What have I just done?"