This post is part of "The Sensationalist," a continuing series here at Experience Points in which we examine games' abilities to evoke emotions and sensations in video game players. Please have a look at the series' introduction as well its previous entries. As always, we welcome your thoughts on all the matters we discuss, and look forward to analyzing one of gaming's most powerful, yet intangible, abilities.
WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It also contains mature themes some might find inappropriate.
I would like to preface this piece acknowledging the amount of work already discussing Modern Warfare 2 and its 'No Russian' scene in particular. Forgive me for adding my own voice into what is already a cacophony of critical thought - considering the array of emotions this particular scene evokes, I feel it is necessary.
Here is a synopsis of the scene in Modern Warfare 2: Early in the game, the player controls Private First Class Joseph Allen, an Army Ranger tasked with going undercover for the terrorist Vladimir Makarov. In 'No Russian,' Allen joins Makarov and a few other terrorists as they walk into a crowded Russian airport and proceed to gun down hundreds of innocent civilians.
The scene is undoubtedly horrifying. Civilians scream and run in terror. They try to drag themselves to safety, clutching their side as they create a path of blood on the floor. Some civilians sit on the floor, bleeding out in front of you. One of Makarov's men stands on a balcony, slaughtering a crowd of people trapped a floor below. The terrorists show no mercy, and their demeanor of casual intent is incredibly unsettling. After the havoc, Allen and the terrorists fight their way through a group of police officers. In the end, Allen is betrayed and left to die. Russians finding his body amongst the massacre ultimately leads to an invasion of the US.
As expected, many have reacted to this scene with revulsion. In a piece by Kyle Orland of Crispy Gamer, Kyle details his reaction and ends by saying "that it is easily the most affecting scene I've taken part in in a video game so far, and for that alone it deserves careful attention." During her playthough, Cary of Play Like A Girl froze with "sheer, honest shock" at the scene's onset. Lono of the Sarcastic Gamer was physically disgusted and Tom Chick of Fidgit mirrors the initial thoughts of these writers when he calls 'No Russian' "unnecessary, cheap, and disgusting." Chick announces Modern Warfare 2 is our "new enfant terrible in town to embarrass and shame us all."
All of these emotions are completely legitimate. Killing civilians is supremely detestable, deplorable as an international war crime. Developers Infinity Ward knew exactly what sort of emotions this depiction of extreme violence would evoke, and they created this scene with the intent to stir up these very difficult sensations. To many, this feels like betrayal. Personally, I consider it a daring success in many ways, something the gaming community should respect even if they find it too unpalatable to admire.
There are a few arguments that have arisen frequently amongst critics that I want to address specifically.
1. Children will play this game.
This statement is undoubtedly true. Thanks to the "undiscerning parents" Cary mentions, or the ignorant grandfather Chick describes, a child who should not be playing war games in the first place will experience one of the most violent scenes ever depicted in a videogame. But this doesn't mean Infinity Ward has failed in their duties as developers. Nor does this imply content should be strategically censored from popular games.
Stephen Totilo of Kotaku recently appeared on Fox News Strategy Room discussing MW2. Totilo
aptly describes this 'undiscerning parent' as "subject to the expectations that videogames wouldn't go there." These are the symptoms of a consumer base with a naive understanding of videogames as toys. These are the expectations many of us have committed to changing in an effort to mature the medium. It is not morally consistent to relegate truly mature themes to indie titles where the most affected players are less likely to stray. Unless we want to make the argument MW2 should have been given the equivalent of an NC17 rating, we should stand by its M rating.
2. 'No Russian' is unnecessary
Lono most succinctly frames the gist of this claim: "Couldn’t there have been a half of a billion ways to show that Makarov was a bad guy within the game’s narrative, other than playing out a first person terrorist attack?"
There are two ways I want to address this statement. The first, is that the purpose of this scene was not only, or even primarily, to show the depth of Makarov's evil. The purpose was to show you how evil one might have to become to achieve good. During the loading screen introductions, General Shepherd describes Makarov to Pvt. Allen: "I ask much more of you now...He trades blood for money. He's your new best friend. You don't want to know what it's cost already to put you next to him. It will cost you a piece of yourself."
The confusing emotions 'No Russian' evokes, the desire to stop, the helplessness and sense of inevitability the linear scene creates, are exactly what the player is supposed to feel, because that is how Allen feels. Allen's confinement is elevated by the players own limitations. During 'No Russian', the player cannot jump or turn quickly, they cannot run ahead or bounce around the level like they are accustomed to. Even if the player chooses to shoot, they are more of a spectator to the violence than an instigator. This creates a level of unease that the player shares with Allen, which would have been less affective in another format.
One could still make the argument the scene was unnecessary for the larger storyline, that we need not share these emotions with Allen. This again becomes an issue o moral consistency. I value the freedom the medium gives to developers in allowing them to tell a story of their choosing. If the scene is too visceral for your personal tastes, Infinity War gives you every opportunity to skip that segment of their story. Certainly, some depictions of mature themes could be too much for myself, but that isn't to say I don't respect the developers addition to the medium. There is no reason to be ashamed of a medium willing to broach uncomfortable material well beyond your comfort level.
3. The ending makes the whole scene pointless
This is a variation on the above argument, most passionately discussed by Anthony Burch of Destructoid during his Rev Rant. Burch believes Allen's death eliminates the driving conflict of the scene - the sacrifice of the few for the benefit of the many. Not being able to kill the terrorists, and get treated to a depiction of "Chicago going up in a nuclear fire ball" is detrimental to the scenario we are supposed to experience. This is a misunderstanding of 'No Russian'.
The purpose of 'No Russian', in my interpretation, is not to show that A will lead to B, therefore having the means justify the ends. Rather, the purpose was to show how people make evil decisions based only on an order from the top and the hope that the ends will justify the means. Allen is meant to die unredeemed. The moment of "what have I done" succeeds so well because it infuriates Burch. This is to say nothing of the criticisms we can lay on General Shepherd for giving this order in the first place - a man who becomes the ultimate enemy and is clearly motivated by selfish interests. For Shepherd, the ends always justify the means. Pvt. Allen is a victim of that belief.
4. We should be allowed to act differently
This is one of Anthony's major criticisms, and is vaguely mentioned by many critics. Why, some ask, are we not allowed to shoot the Russians? The answer is relatively simple: Because Allen does not shoot the Russians. Burch has this to say on the author's control:
"Play the right way so you don't break our story [they say], and that's bullshit. Interactivity, by its very nature, implies some degree of choice. Which, again, we are free to have infringed upon so long as it feels its not actually being infringed upon... Don't fall be on that non-interactive story structure when you are rubbing my face in something which is horrible and provocative, and disturbing and is supposed to make me think and decide, and then just take away my ability to decide because I have to be a puppet in your bullshit story."
Authorial control is a treacherous subject. There are so many reasons player created emergent gameplay is a valuable tool in a developers toolkit. That being said, non-interactivity is also a tool we should not be so eager to critique when it fits our whim. The player is allowed to feel betrayed and angry and confused during 'No Russian', they are intended to feel that way. They are not, however, allowed to act on those feelings with Allen's agency.
Games are a conversation between player and developer. Some game designers are happy to give the player a great deal of control over the narrative elements, but this control is still defined by designer created boundaries. For Burch, role-playing as Allen was too much. He could not stay in the "narrative box" created by Infinity Ward because his priorities were different than the protagonist's. That is not an indictment of Burch or Infinity Ward, but a statement on the incompatibility of player and story designer for this particular scene. Skipping might not be optimum, but it is a conversation Infinity Ward is willing to engage in.
None of this is to say Modern Warfare 2 is a good or bad game, and by no means is 'No Russian' a perfect scene. I would say the first MW approached its content with more awareness and maturity than its sequel. However, MW2 succeeded in the area the Sensationalist series is designed around. For many, 'No Russian' evokes dark, hideous and unsettling emotions rare in videogames. For this reason alone, I welcome its presence in the medium.