What’s alarming about Modern Warfare is that the “shocking moment” has become token. In Modern Warfare 1 the nuclear blast genuinely was surprising and elevated the game slightly above the average level of gung-ho realistic war shooters. What made it even more interesting for me was that it played with the expectations one has of a game. You do not expect the character you are playing as to bite it in such a drawn-out, hideous way. The one thing you’re usually sure of in a game is that whatever happens to everyone else, you are going to survive. There’s no game otherwise. Even while watching your arms and legs getting sawn off half-way through Quake 4, or getting thrown clear of a crashing vehicle in every fucking shooter in the universe, you know there’s no possible way you won’t live on. Even better, moments before that moment in MW1 your lads had just gone back into the danger zone to rescue a comrade, which you’d think would give you a double layer of plot armor.

By MW2, though, the series had rather drastically devalued killing off the player character, and virtually every temporary protagonist who isn’t palling around with Captain Price’s unit gets knocked off by the end of their moment in the spotlight. Instead, the game finds a different way to play with our expectations of a player character by having us participate in a massacre of innocent civilians. It gives us the usual nose-leading mission directive but simultaneously, within the context of the world, condemns us for following it. It brings to mind that one science experiment where members of the public continued electrocuting a prisoner because an authority figure told them to. How much would it take to persuade an average person to commit an atrocity?

When we come to Modern Warfare 3, the “shocking moment” has become just another item on the checklist, and is a hollow, incidental event. There’s no toying with the perceptions of a player character and their role; you just get to see a small child get blown to bits in London. Presumably just one of many children who were killed in the slightly ridiculous simultaneous chemical attacks on every European city, but apparently the one worth focusing on was the American tourist. Perhaps they felt all the native London children would be less relatable because they’d all be picking pockets and covered in dirt from sweeping chimneys.

But that’s not why I’m complaining about it (for once). I’m complaining because it failed in its purpose. It wasn’t shocking because I saw it coming a mile off. And it bothers me because it wasn’t included for its importance to the plot or for any kind of gratification (at least I hope not), but because there had to be a shocking moment. It seems almost bureaucratic, like it was requested by the accounting rather than the story department. And there’s something very disturbing about a large faceless game publisher coldly and emotionlessly tearing apart a simulated child purely because it was on the schedule for that day.

Still, not quite as disturbing as this Facebook comment that was left under my MW3 ZP video:

“Or they could have zoomed in on Makarov caging up a bunch of children “HoloCaust style” And using chemicals on them first. It would have made an ironic statement and it would have been quite the upgrade, since it wouldn’t have been instant incineration, but slow torture.”

Er… thanks for your input, Mr. Poster Man, but I wasn’t talking it down for not being extreme enough. Or ‘ironic’ enough. I doubt emptying an entire lorry full of toddlers into the woodchipper would have improved my opinion any. You know, I was drifting through the comments seeking inspiration for this week’s column, and then I saw this. And then I read the news story that modders have put child murdering back into Skyrim. So here’s the discussion topic I’ve come up with: “What the fuck is the matter with you people?”


Because it always seems like not being able to kill the children in huge, open-ended games is something that gets complained about with alarming regularity by a certain demographic of hardcore gamer, and it’s often the first thing to get modded in – after the nude patch. And I can picture in my head an argument with a non-gamer who comes into the room to see you throwing nine-year-olds off a mountain. “Oh my god, that game looks absolutely monstrous,” they might say. “No it’s OK,” says the modder. “It’s not a game about killing children. You’re never told to do it and it’s never necessary.” Which would then raise the obvious question, “Why the hell did you go out of your way to mod it in, then?”

Because of realism, is the usual argument. We don’t need no immortal kids ruining our immersion. But if we’re playing that card, you could also argue that it’s unrealistic that you can’t lash a bunch of swords together to make a sporty go-kart. And if we’re talking Skyrim, if realism is your concern I’d think you’d want to start with making all the characters look and act like actual human beings.

Alright, maybe that’s a flawed argument, because the code for killing things already exists in the game, and you just want to extend it to every living thing. Okay. But let’s recontextualise this. What if Skyrim had standard controls for making love to people? Say, left click to deploy a bunch of flowers, right click to stick it in. Would you mod the game to allow players to also fuck children? Not because you want to, you understand, but just for the sake of realism. When you set out to seduce every single person in a town you don’t feel properly fulfilled unless the neighbourhood kids have also been ticked off the list. Of course not. This is a horrible notion. But why more so than murdering them all?

You see, even in a game as open as Skyrim, the designers still exercise a certain amount of control over the general tone, that’s why there won’t be any helicopters or rainbow ponies available right off the bat. The designers of Skyrim are trying to create a setting in which you forge an epic fantasy story. And whether your story is one of a fine upstanding swordsman, or a neutral mercenary, or a morally flexible assassin-thief, pausing on your way to work to methodically slice your way through a row of innocent schoolchildren is going to turn that story into something it doesn’t want to be. For the same reason you can’t stop and exchange insurance details in Saint’s Row. The range of roles available may be wide, but there are still some things the game’s agenda will not permit. You are an adventurer. You are not an accountant. You are not a circus lion tamer. And you are not a child murderer. Alright?

Anyway, everyone knows children never die in fantasy stories, even if everyone else in the village does. ‘Cos then the child is expected to go off and train for fifteen years until they’re built like a bullock barbecue and can take revenge on the dark lord who orchestrated it all. It’s pretty much the law.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is

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