*Note* If you have not yet played Modern Warfare 2, and do not wish to have any aspect of it spoiled for you, then please look away now. Otherwise, read on.
Inspired by http://bit.ly/3Wde4V – A article by Taelur Kim for GamePro *Now headed by John Davison*
As a medium, videogames can be compared to many others. You can have full cinematic experiences as you might get from a film, gripping drama that you may have previously only experienced in a TV series, and fantastic stories only available beforehand in a book. However, the crucial element that gaming holds above all these other mediums is the fact that the player is the one directing the events as they unfold (up to a point, naturally). Mario will not save the Princess unless a gamer has sat down, run through the necessary levels and defeated Bowser. Conversely, Bond will always beat the bad guy, get the girl and save the world.
It’s because of the necessary user interaction that the Airport scene in MW2 has received such a violent reaction. After all, in terms of media, this wouldn’t be the first time that an audience has seen innocent civilians being killed (in a fictitious setting), but it’s one of the first that requires the audience to be the one to pull the trigger.
During the pre-release hype for Modern Warfare 2, I was lucky enough to completely avoid all news regarding the Airport scene and, like Kim, experienced the Airport scene the way it was meant to be – as a complete shock to the system.
As Kim mentions in his article, the level makes sense in the grand scheme of things – it is a logical narrative progression, and without it, there would be no cause to initiate the devastating effect that the later levels depict. However, that brings up the question, did Infinity Ward really need to include it in playable form? Of course, they offer you the chance to opt out at any point (in fact, if you pause the game during the level, there is an option to ‘Skip level’) but is that enough? Whilst it might make sense in terms of narrative, did it really need the player to question their own morality?
I think it’s clear that Infinity Ward wanted to make the player think about their actions, and the repercussions that they may have. It is unfortunate that no matter your actions, the repercussion is the same. The real question here is, does a game like Modern Warfare 2 need moral choices?
Bioshock is notorious for its morality issues, what with it being one of the first mainstream FPSs to really implement such a system. The idea of saving or harvesting the little sisters was an interesting first step in the direction that Infinity Ward have gone, but did it really affect anyone? Some might argue that it felt wrong to harvest these little girls for their ADAM, but they weren’t depicted as being “fully human” – there was something not right in their looks (what with them being almost demon-like) and so it was almost acceptable.
RPGs such as Fable II and Fallout 3 rely far more heavily on their moral choice systems but, like Bioshock, never really place a sense of guilt upon the reader. Fable, with it’s almost cartoon-like visuals could never be taken seriously, and with everything in-game being so flamboyant and extravagant, no matter how evil you were, it never made you feel as though you were the cause of people’s deaths. Similarly, although Fallout has a far more ‘realistic’ visual style, whenever you chose an option that would give you ‘bad karma’, the game never truly made you feel the ramifications. If you choose to blow up Megaton early in the game, you are not made to watch the citizens die in front of your eyes. You see the town explode, but naturally, you’re at a safe enough distance to be unaffected physically, as well as mentally. Never does it make you truly feel as though you have influenced something bad; it’s more of a “Oh, well I can’t go to Megaton anymore” as opposed to a “Holy Shi-. I just…”
This, in my opinion, is where Modern Warfare 2 differs so greatly, and it’s most likely through the use of the First Person viewpoint, as well as the sudden impact of the scene.
As the level booted up, I initially smiled, recognising the “Remember, no Russian” line from the initial teaser trailer. The smile soon left my face as I realised what the game wanted me to do. In fact, my initial reaction was pure disgust – “MW2 is sick. As in disgusting. How do they expect you to go that? Airport scene” was the first thing I posted on Twitter, having experienced the level. I honestly could not believe that Infinity Ward expected you to mow down innocent civilians, regardless of the narrative motive.
Although my initial feeling was of disgust, as Kim quite clearly points out in his article, the inner conflict I was experiencing – whether or not to shoot innocent people – was likely Infinity Ward’s true motive. No doubt the character would also be feeling such anguish within his own heart, and they hoped that we, the audience, would feel it too.
I, unlike Kim, decided to shoot hundreds of innocent people. For the first few seconds, I just followed, mouth agape. I soon began to think about the implications that might have; what if Makarov realised I was an undercover agent?; how would they react?; how many killings would make it believable?
It’s this that made the final part of the scene so… shocking. I had gone against my vital human beliefs, logically thought about the process of killing innocent people, and yet the end cutscene leaves me dead on the floor with a bullet in my head. Personally, I felt cheated. I had done what was asked of me by the game, and yet I was punished for it. Should Infinity Ward have taken into account the fact that I had followed orders and devised an alternate plotline (albeit one with the same repercussions)?
It’s also interesting to note, that if you do decide to skip the level, there is little to no explanation as to what happened. The game very basically tells you that a massacre had occurred, and that the Russians were now angry. Perhaps Infinity Ward could’ve included a simple cutscene depicting the level from an outside perspective so that the narrative would not be broken, and anyone who felt opposed to the killing of innocent people would still understand the reasoning behind the game’s later plot.
Which brings this full circle. Why did Infinity Ward truly decide to include this scene in-game? If it’s such a pivotal moment in the plot, why did they offer the player the chance to skip it, without fully explaining the consequences of your character’s actions? Kim uses his article to describe the ‘almost-greatness’ of Infinity Ward’s bold move, but I have to ask – Was it really thought through? It’s understandable that they wanted to do something different, and to be remembered as something other than “the one after Modern Warfare 1, and the one before Modern Warfare 3”, but I think that if you’re going to do something like this, then you really have to go the whole hog, which is something I’m not sure Infinity Ward have accomplished.
What did you think whilst playing?