Fair warning – spoilers to follow.
As Modern Warfare 2 breaks retail records, the focus inevitably turns toward the predictable controversy of a game in which you are briefly tasked with a mission of unspeakable atrocity. It is a conceit that begs for controversy; that literally gets in line at Fox News studios to stand under the glare of the inquisition.
It also deserves some more reasonable contemplation that it is destined to receive in such echo chambers. There could be a real question here of pushing the boundaries of what interactive fiction can do, the emotions it can stir and the commentaries it can make on a modern world.
Rather, there could have been, had the subject not been handled with such a sophomoric and ham-fisted sensibilities.
We have been trained by decades of shooters to avoid hitting the civilians. Even when our lesser demons hold sway, we know that reckless destruction of innocents is not in the official playbook. But, this is murder on an unprecedented level, even for this medium. There are hundreds of bodies on the floor within moments.
You are trapped in the scene, whether you choose to pull the trigger or not, walking slowly, methodically. It should be like a nightmare. It should evoke the sense that you are in the presence of evil. And, maybe for some, the simple, totally unsupported context will be enough to be evocative.
For me, I was making pixels of color on a screen move around.
For as much as I wanted to be affected, to feel like the developers were driving me to look at the medium through a new lens, what I actually felt was a little bored and a little disappointed. I had no possession of the moment, no narrative, moral or logical context for what is happening. I’m a robot with an empty task.
Here are the things the story tells me up to this point: I know that I am an undercover CIA operative and that I’ve been put next to an evil Russian name, Makarov, who likes to blow people up. The game explains that he has no ideology or loyalties, which is shorthand for “we’re just going to create a generic bad guy and make him interesting by showing you how really bad he is.” Though not uncommon, these are historically the most boring villains possible.
Makarov has no context for his controversial evilness. I have no context for being next to him, and most importantly, I have no reason to believe that he is valuable enough in the scheme of things to get American intelligence involved in the most heinous terrorist act possible.
It isn’t just controversial. It’s stupid. It is lazy writing without any sense of logical construction. Whatever positive thing can be said about the other qualities of the game, and make no mistake that much can be said in praise of Modern Warfare 2, on the point of justifying the carnage it portrays, I can find no redeeming qualities.
The whole incident is a clumsy set up for a Russian invasion of American soil. It’s all very “Red Dawn.” This is international diplomacy and intrigue on the scale of a Michael Bay movie without as much subtlety. It is death and destruction with whimsy, which is fine enough, I suppose, except that it all just reminds me of children poking a hornet’s nest with sticks.
What it is not, is pushing the envelope on how games can tell a story. To make the terrorist sequence meaningful and powerful beyond the knee-jerk level of wanton controversy, there would have to be depth to the story of the villain. There would have to be a believable impulse that compels CIA intelligence to allow such an atrocity to be committed – something far beyond a simple, “hey, you’re undercover just go with whatever ’cause it cost us a lot to get your there.”
It would be laughable if it weren’t so childishly offensive. Let me be clear, I’m not offended because they dared to cross into the sacrosanct realm of terrorism. I am offended because they didn’t take the time to make the moment even remotely meaningful or believable. They put a virtual gun in your hand, a level full of virtual rag-dolls in front of you and infused the whole incident with what feels like marketing-driven controversy.
And, hey, kudos where kudos belong. It worked. They will certainly sell hundreds of thousands or millions more copies based on the exposure alone. Mission accomplished, I guess?
I won’t stand here and tell you that Modern Warfare 2 is a bad game. Actually, when you look at it mechanically, it’s pretty solid. It’s certainly nice to look at, and you will never be bored playing it. I would otherwise be pretty positive about the game from a big picture perspective, but looking at this terrorist level in an isolated context of advancing videogame storytelling, it’s all just smoke and mirrors.
If you are affected by this level, it’s all internal. I suppose it could be a good moral compass, a gut-check to see where you stand on the “desensitized to fictionalized violence” spectrum. Beyond that, the game really does nothing to make this controversial moment particularly meaningful. It’s just different painted skins for polygons, and that seems like a shame to me.
I honestly wish they had taken some time to create something better.
Sean Sands is a writer and podcaster who definitely waited until his wife went to bed before playing Modern Warfare 2.