Everybody has a line. We all draw it in different ways. That’s the theme of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, this year’s first-person combat game from the Infinity Ward studio and big publisher Activision. But it’s also my own reaction from playing it, which has some of the most brutal scenes I have ever seen in a video game.

When I saw (but didn’t play) a couple of scenes during a preview event in May, I felt like the designers went too far. The scenes were devoid of context, and I could not imagine why that level of violence belonged in a video game, which I assumed was a work of entertainment. Now that I’ve played the whole game and interviewed narrative director Taylor Kurosaki of Infinity Ward, I understand the creative intentions better. (Here is our formal review).

It’s still brutal. Parents should pay attention this year, if they don’t already do so, to the mature rating on the game. But with the context of the full game, these scenes are no more violent than things I have seen in HBO shows like Watchmen, Westworld, and Game of Thrones. If you think you know the Call of Duty or Modern Warfare brands, this is where it has moved. It’s not simply the mainstream brand that you can trust your kids can play, even if it is M-rated.

For a series that has sold more than 300 million copies, this is a darker game. It is based on a reinterpretation of the words “modern warfare” and what they mean in 2019, said Kurosaki, in our interview. One of the characters in the game asks the veteran Captain John Price where to draw the line. And Price responds, “You draw the line wherever you need it to be.”

This reminded me of a conversation I had with Michael Condrey, the former co-head of Activision’s Sledgehammer Games, another Call of Duty studio, earlier this year. He was also concerned about where Infinity Ward was drawing the line in the depiction of war’s horrors.

“But the world has changed a lot in the last decade and events like Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and Christchurch are real and heartbreaking. So, I’m torn Dean, to be totally honest,” said Condrey, who is now running a new 2K games studio in Silicon Valley. “The creative challenges of realistic ‘modern warfare’ are complex. Western ‘heroes’ killing ‘villains’ in the Middle East simply isn’t good enough. Equally, I hope the game’s stated goal to depict the realism of war was an unfortunate choice of words, rather than the actual intent to depicting the unspeakable atrocities that are the reality of today’s modern conflicts.”

This story has some spoilers, but I’ve tried to minimize that.

Where’s the line?

Children are victims of an evil gas attack in Modern Warfare.

Above: Children are victims of an evil gas attack in Modern Warfare.

Image Credit: GamesBeat/Activision

This is a very violent game. I’m surprised there wasn’t more debate about whether this game should be an Adults Only title (18 or older), which would have been the kiss of death at retail, rather than a Mature-rated (17 and up) title.

I won’t say who should or shouldn’t play this game. That’s up to each individual. And I will grant that Infinity Ward has the right to make this kind of game, so long as we know what doors we are opening here. But I would put the following description on the box.

This is a game where you fight one-on-one as a Middle Eastern girl against a Russian soldier, who has already murdered your father, as he attempts to murder you with a gun or his hands. It is a game where you will see victims — like a dead child or a quivering dog — of air bombings or chemical weapons attacks. You will see a Russian guard waterboarding you, torturing you so that they can extract information from you that they already know. And it is a game where you have to decide whether to pull a trigger as you aim at an unarmed woman who is not heeding a command to halt. In only one scene, still another torture scene where the Americans are extracting information, do you have the choice to opt-out and not participate.

As I played the game, I pondered the decisions carefully. As Farah, I showed no mercy to the Russian soldier who murdered her father. I defied the Russian who was torturing me, yet I chose not to torture my own prisoner. As Kyle, I preemptively fired at the unarmed woman, who turned out to be going for a bomb detonator. When a soldier was holding a woman hostage later in the game, I fired at him, even though I risked shooting her. Kurosaki was looking over my shoulder as I made this decision.

A lot of people roasted me for being squeamish when it came to pointing out this brutality in this Call of Duty. They wanted this game. It was unfiltered and unflinching in its depiction of war. To them, this was not entertainment but a documentary of war. These fans were passionate about this. I even got two death threats over my comment that these scenes should be removed. But I’ve played every game in the series to date, and those past titles haven’t disturbed me. They clearly fell into some kind of fantasy, divorced from the real world by the line of fiction. That line is blurry now.

A dog killed by gas in Modern Warfare.

Above: A dog killed by gas in Modern Warfare.

Image Credit: GamesBeat/VentureBeat

I’ve also had a brother who was killed with a gun, about 26 years ago. I have not fought in a war, and I have empathy for those who have. But as someone who lost a family member to gun violence, I prefer to honor that memory by being sensitive to real killings. That experience has helped me figure out where my line is. I do not compromise where my line is in my feelings about the promotion or celebration of violence. And I am relieved to say that this game does not cross it.

The reason I say that is not because I’m backing down from my prior beliefs. It is because I have seen more context. And the investment that Infinity Ward made in narrative has paid off. After the founders left years ago, Infinity Ward rebuilt its talent, and Modern Warfare was a magnet for it. The studio recruited people like Kurosaki from Naughty Dog and brought some of the original Modern Warfare developers back to work on a re-imagining of Modern Warfare for 2019.

The single-player campaign is not just a collection of missions that show off the different kinds of weapons you can use in modern warfare. It is an interconnected story, with themes that resonate over and over across different places, settings, and characters. The story has twists and turns. And it winds up in a place that makes you think, said Patrick Kelly, studio head and creative director for the game at Infinity Ward.

“We wanted to make a game that made you think,” said Kelly, in a briefing. “A game that was thought-provoking. We hope you have fun. But we also hope at times you are a little uncomfortable when you play it. Ultimately, we tried to make a game that was topical. It’s relevant. It reflects what soldiers today live with. We wanted to make a game that reflected the world we live in. And yeah, that doesn’t make us feel entirely comfortable. We didn’t try to be sensational with it. You try to find that right line. It never gets to be too much, and hopefully, we hit that.”

Before I heard this and played the full game, I worried that these scenes and this game would stir so much hatred. I worried that the creative interest here was purely commercial or sensational or gratuitous. I worried about the hatred this would stir if the stereotypical rules applied: that the Westerners were all good and the Middle Eastern people were all bad.

If this game was going to stir up a lot of hatred in the hopes of achieving another billion-dollar year for Call of Duty, then I could not get behind it. And if the game was going to allow players to engage in very bad activity, streaming it online for all the world to see, I worried about that as well. But I saw that this was an area where Infinity Ward chose to trust that its players would do the right thing — without surrendering total control to the player.

“If the question we’re asking our players is, “Where does one draw the line in these morally complex, convoluted conflict zones?’, then we have to allow our players to make some of those choices themselves,” Kurosaki said.

Empathy

Above: These are friends, not enemies, in Modern Warfare.

Image Credit: GamesBeat/Activision

In their wisdom, the storytellers had the presence of mind to create Farah Ahmed Karim, a Middle Eastern woman who leads a rebel faction that is against terrorists and Russians. You also encounter other strong characters like CIA operative Alex, SAS member John Price, and Farah’s brother Hadir. But Farah represents the moral center of the conflict, someone who was forged in the atrocity of a chemical attack against her village. She has seen what those weapons do, and if you use them, you are her enemy. No matter who you are.

In all of the years of Call of Duty, the franchise hasn’t had a key character such as this. She is drawn in an empathetic way, as someone who experienced trauma and loss at a young age, who grew up with enemies occupying her country, the fictional Urzikstan — which could be some like Afghanistan or Syria. She fights not only the occupying Russians, but the Urzikstan-based terrorists, Al-Qatala, which I interpreted as a fictional version of Al Queda.

Farah is good, with a moral center. And she allies herself not just with the enemies of her enemy, but with similar soldiers like Price and Alex who have empathy for what has happened to Farah’s people.

“We can have empathy for lots of different people,” Kurosaki told me. “Empathy not only for the soldiers who have to operate in this complicated environment, but empathy for people whose communities are shattered by conflict as well.”

As I was playing this game, I felt like that was the way to identify who was good and who was bad in this game. It didn’t matter if they were soldier or civilian. Or if they were Westerners or Middle Eastern. It made me think about the shade of difference between Farah and those around her, those who might be willing to cross a line for the sake of an ideological goal. In that way, I could see  plenty of good people and bad people in the American military and among the Urzikstan forces.

The game’s writers recognized good could be found anywhere, even among freedom fighters in a war-torn country far away from where we live comfortably. They were able to create empathy not only for our own soldiers as they went into battle but also for the people who were from some distant place. If the heroes were all Westerners, I would have a different view of this game.

An artistic endeavor that makes you think

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Above: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare

Image Credit: Activision/Infinity Ward

This game certainly made me uncomfortable as I was shooting up the enemies. Back in May, when I said that the developers should not include these scenes in the game, I was that ultimate irony: a journalist who lives by free speech asking a developer to censor a game. So many people viewed me as a hypocrite.

I could see that the game was hyper violent. But now that I’ve played it, I also see that the story about crossing a line resonates in so many ways. The game made me uncomfortable, but it also made me think. It is also memorable. Those scenes are seared in my head but so are the choices that I made and the characters that I met. It was artistic. It said something and it made an impression on me. And when it comes to censorship, works of art get a pass.

I realized that a lot of young people (and hopefully not too young) might learn about these things — waterboardings, torture, chemical weapons, bombings, mass executions, and the gray area between soldiers and civilians — from this video game. In that sense, Modern Warfare is a memorable accomplishment.

Perhaps I appear to be flip-flopping. So be it. I think everyone should have an argument with themselves once in a while. But until I played this full game, I didn’t have my hands on the controller. I didn’t know what it was like to make the hair-trigger decisions to shoot or not shoot.

And I also did not know for sure what the game developers would allow players to do. As Kurosaki told me, the game shows no mercy for the player who behaves badly and shoots the wrong people. That kind of player cannot progress in the game, and I think that is the right way to handle that. Players can take matters into their own hands and make their own decisions, but they face consequences for those decisions.

Because I finally got that chance to play, and I saw that the creative team did indeed put a lot of thought into each situation, it made me feel like I was in the shoes of a soldier and feel empathy for them. I think they pulled it off well.

To blame them for making a game that is too violent is misdirected, as we should be blaming ourselves for allowing our world to have such violence in real life. If they made a game that is too real, then shame on us allowing real life to be so horrific.