Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Modern Warfare 2 opening

I've seen the opening level for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Normally, I'd suggest you stop reading if you don't want any spoilers, but this is an unusual case. This is worth spoiling, and I'll explain why.

The game opens with you, the player, as one of the terrorists who are gunning down dozens of unarmed civilians in what appears to be a shopping mall. The killers are calm and indiscriminate. It seems like the player might be able to choose whether to help the terrorists murder people or just walk with them as they do it. Either way, you're part of it. At the end of the level, your terrorist comrades betray you by shooting you and leaving you to die.

It's a powerful scene. And, honestly, I have mixed feelings about it. But I'm inclined to think Infinity Ward made a bad decision with this.

What is gained?

That's the most important and perhaps most obvious question. What did Infinity Ward hope to accomplish? At this point, I can only speculate. If they wanted players to experience this sort of atrocity first-hand, why not give the player control of a child or other unarmed civilian who could hide near the killers? If it is only the terror of the situation Infinity Ward wished to communicate, then the player's role as one of the killers is clearly unnecessary.

I have read a first-hand account of a similar atrocity, the genocide in Rwanda, by Immaculée Ilibagiza. The book is called Left To Tell. Immaculée's account speaks of thousands of regular people -- including her own neighbors and friends -- trained by culture to refer to persons of her tribe as "cockroaches" and exterminate them as if they were faceless pests, rather than human enemies worthy of consideration.

In Modern Warfare 2's introduction, we see similar evil. Perhaps a video game can offer exceptional insight to such a mindset, since we gamers are used to seeing simulated enemies as impersonal objects. Perhaps such insight is what Infinity Ward hopes to achieve with this level. Honestly, I don't think we'll know how necessary or unnecessary to their goals it is until this segment of MW2's story is contextualized by the rest of the game. Ultimately, I'm holding judgment until release.

But what can we know now?

One thing I know is that some gamers are never comfortable participating in play-evil. I have no idea how many gamers are this way, but I have known more than a few... and war games seem to appeal to the personality type. The same effect I mentioned with sadness occurs in scenarios that ask us to act in contradiction to our morals. Some gamers will have trouble mustering the will to play through this level even if they are not shooting people. Others could do it, but won't.

Another thing to consider is the politics which will inevitably ensue from Infinity Ward's decision. The non-gaming news will definitely pick up on this sooner or later, particularly since Modern Warfare 2 will be one of the best-selling, most popular games of this year and next. The controversy might just mean a lot of the usual noise about violence and games. But I believe it might also lead to political posturing from liberals and conservatives alike, Obama included. Again, Modern Warfare 2 is not a run-of-the-mill or indie game. This is a major title and the news agencies will respond accordingly. I'm not predicting anything specifically, but I wouldn't be surprised if this generates enough general public interest that politicians use it to create new regulations for video games, in America and elsewhere.

As I said, I'm going to wait until I play the full game to decide whether this level's design was a good or bad decision. But without clarifying support from the rest of the game's story, it seems like reckless sensationalism. Let's hope there's more to it.

edit: see comments


  1. The player character is a deep cover CIA agent.

  2. The setting is an airport, not a shopping mall which makes the impact even harder. As I understand it(thanks Sara) you are undercover but am not convinced.

  3. Ahh, thanks Sara. I knew I should have waited until Infinity Ward responds. Here's a copy of ckuh's comment at Hellforge:

    I think most of you are missing the point because the briefing is in French. It explains that to gain trust from Makarov you need to work
    for him, and that the people you will sacrifice to achieve this are worth it in order to prevent more people to be killed in a nuclear
    terrorist attack.

    "I won't tell you what it cost us (the CIA) to get you close to him. It will cost you a part of yourself... which is nothing compared to all
    that you will save."

    You are NOT a bad guy in this sequence, or at least you don't consider yourself to be a bad guy, you're doing that for a reason (even though
    you obviously fail). I wouldn't call the whole thing art, but it definitely is innovative storytelling in my opinion.

  4. I'm sorry but I have seen the video and no matter the reasoning this was a terrible mission to include in a video game. The opening sequence in Modern Warfare 1 was a tasteful and well done sequence that put me in the mindset of why I hate and want to go after the terrorists. This level in MW2 goes way too far by putting you in a position of killing civlians with your buddies, whether you are under-cover or not. If they were trying to put me in that similar mindset from the first game, they should have made the player an escaping civilian instead.

    Watching the video of this sequence made me sick to my stomache. Some would say that is a good thing and that's what this "art" is intended to do. But I have to say, it makes me sick to my stomache not because of the evil I'm witnessing but because of the thought that a room full of game designer's spent a lot of time designing this carnage thinking it would be a good idea for everybody to experience.

    I don't play video games to kill civilians or the good guys, no matter the circumstances. I play to get the bad guys. I will not be buying this game. And that's really too bad because I loved the first one.

  5. If nothing else, this is distasteful. It's also disrespectful to people who have lost friends and family members to this sort of violence.

    I think it will be traumatic and I think it will turn out to be a bad business decision for Infinity Ward. I know that two less copies will be sold because of it because I'm not getting it for myself or my son.

  6. You can skip this part of the game


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