Monday, November 16, 2009

The Sensationalist: In Defense of 'No Russian'

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.


  1. My issue with the scene, and my comment will be brief as I've already written about it at my personal site, is that it doesn't work quite the way I think Infinity Ward intended it to. It's intent is, as you say, to "[evoke] dark, hideous and unsettling emotions rare in videogames," but all of those emotions for me were not directed within the game universe so much as they were at the writer of the game. "No Russian" feels like a brute force attempt at conveying mature themes; within the context of the game, it doesn't fit, it comes out of nowhere, and the only reason it successfully conveys any dark emotions at all is because its premise is one of slaughtering a hundred or so civilians.

    In the scope of the whole game, this scene makes absolutely no difference other than the initial macguffin for starting the war. It's not fuel for revenge because the game doesn't know who to make the bad guy, it's not fuel for the "the ends don't justify the means" counterpoint to the character's insistence that they do, and it doesn't even do a particularly good job of building that supposed hate for a throwaway character. For a scene like this to exist, the developers need to justify its inclusion in the game fiction and, for this mission, that simply isn't done.

  2. @ Mittens

    I agree with you that the scene doesn't work as intended, at least for a large group of people. This is the difficulty in criticizing this particular scene. Even if it came out of nowhere, meaning it bore no important connection to the story line, I would still support it the developer's desired narrative (albeit an unnecessary one).

    That being said, I would disagree that the scene doesn't fit. For me, it worked to confuse my preconceived notions about "do the ends justify the means" question. In a world full of warmongers and potential threats, when should we risk our souls for safety? I don't think it gave an answer, but as a descriptor of modern warfare, it seems appropriate.

  3. I've been mulling over the scene in my head for several days now and was looking forward to your defense of it to see what you had to say. I was with every point you made up until the last one.

    The idea the scene can vindicate itself by challenging you notion of the 'end justifies the means' and behave the way it does is a fallacy. Why can't you shoot the Russians and avert nuclear disaster and avoid global war. To me that is the end and the means is killing the terrorist. Makarov is right there in front of you, what is stopping you from killing him? What would you gain by keeping him alive and following him around? This sort of thing isn't a lead up to his master plan; this is the plan. Terrorists' plans revolve around causing terror by any means necessary. If you kill the Russians, then from a security standpoint there is no downside. If Makarov wasn't there I could understand needing to do it to get close enough to put a bullet in him, but this is what we English majors like to call a plot hole, a big fat gaping one at that.

    Mittens, you invoke the term MacGuffin, but this isn't that in any sense of the word. A MacGuffin is an object that is the center of everyone's desire, but really is one a device to get the real story going. The MacGuffin is an object, not an action or choice. The scene is not a MacGuffin, because no one but the bad guy wants it, there is no desire for it and it is an action not a material object. It is lazy story telling. Gaming is full of that, but it's brought to the forefront here, because of the disturbing nature of the material.

    Yes games should be allowed to explore this subject matter, but not like this, not lazily and for shock value. Makarov doesn't even show up again, so how bloody important was he in the first place they were willing to risk the nuclear national security of the country on.

    Also why do we need to establish how evil Makarov is if he never shows up again. So, were just explaining how evil he is for the one scene in which we show it to explain how evil he is?

    I'm sorry, but there is a lot of game writing and plotting that is just plain lazy and this is the at the top of the heap right now. I don't feel repulsed, I feel insulted.

  4. @ TGC

    I don't want to suggest that I believe the ends justify the means. They likely don't. It makes sense that we want to kill Makarov in that scene, even Allen wants to kill Makarov. What he doesn't want to do is disobey orders.

    Had IW done a better job of Shepherds explanation for why he shouldn't just kill Makarov then and there, perhaps we would all be more satisfied. Or perhaps a more explicit explanation that Shepherd sent you on this mission knowing what would happen would have been better.

    Unfortunately, they turn Shepherd into a bad guy rather quickly and will little explanation. I don't want it to seem as if I am saying this is go writing.

    It may not be perfect, but I get the feeling some individuals at IW tried to do something important here and it didn't pan out the way they would have wanted. I would prefer we allow developers to explore these themes, even if they risk laziness. I don't believe the scene should be ostracized and forgotten.

  5. Ostrasized - no, forgotten - no. Admired - no. Called out on all counts - absolutely.

    I don't want to make this a discussion on your job or mine, but as a critic we have to call something out when in our minds it doesn't work. And then to seperate an intelligent view point to one that sees shiny things we do our best to eloquently explain it.

    Also, if you see a view you don't agree with for reasons you don't agree with you call that out and discuss it.

    I don't think anyone out of all the people you linked wants never to see such a scene or another scene that evokes a powerful emotional response regardless of subject matter, a liberty other mediuems had for some reason to earn like video games are trying to do now.

    The thing is, the more controvercial - for lack of a better word - a work, the more attention must be paid to it in its creation. It doesn't always have to strike a chord of revercence, but it has to realize what its doing in the larger aspects of the work, otherwise it comes of as stupid and detrimental not only to the audience, but to the work itself.

    The fact that the writing is that weak and there is a huge plothole that really couldn't be adequetly explained in the hyper real universe of Call of Duty, means that attention was not paid. I am calling the game out on that.

  6. @ TGC

    Completely agreed. My critique of the arguments against 'No Russian' is an attempt to explain what the scene would lose based on my own interpretation. When something as controversial as 'No Russian' appears, I fear some are too eager to disregard the scene entirely or lambast IW for intentional exploitation of the player; something I simply did not see.

    One last thing (And thanks to everyone for leaving their comments), I'm still undecided about how much special treatment controversial material should get.

  7. @Jorge

    Regarding your last point about how much attention something controversial deserves: I haven't played the game and yet I still have a strong impression that the scene was lacking in several key categories.

    I'm not sure whether this is a good or bad thing, as when I eventually play it, I'll not have an unbiased opinion going in.

  8. I must say, I'm with you guys on this one. The scene is quite difficult to swallow. I had an interesting experiece: I described the scene to a fellow gamer. His reaction was "you're such a pansy". But then I watched him as he actually played the scene and he totally admitted that the actual experience is very difficult to take.

    The ending is what really sealed the deal for me. Letting all those people die was bad enough but seeing how this sacrifice was done for naught - that was a punch in the stomach for me.

    I also like how you comment on Anthony Burch's critique. One thing he mentions is how he feels betrayed by the game because he can't act they way he would like to. Doesn't that mirror the feelings of the protagonist in the game - albeit on a different level?

    I must admit though that I would have an easier time to approve such scenes in games if the rest of the story would be mature enough to rationalize it. The rest of Modern Warfare 2 is quite summer-flick-ish so there is room for doubt if it is really necessary.

    On the other hand, if games are to be taken seriously, we better get used to stuff like that. One of the most profound movies I ever saw was Irreversible. It was horrible and equally difficult to swallow. But that's the whole point. Sometimes, showing things neat, cutting away at the crucial moment, letting things happen off-screen diminishes the actual meaning of what is happening. Irreversible exposed the dishonesty of every other rape scene ever made. I think No Russian did the same for depictions of terrorist attacks.

    Finally, a question. There is some censorship in the German edition (of course). In this particular scene, you aren't allowed to shoot even at the civilians. What are your thoughts on this? Does it change the message?