The first moment in the game (beyond the publisher’s, developer’s, graphics card’s, 3rd party software’s and the game itself’s splash screens) is a disclaimer about controversial content, something like WARNING: THIS GAME CONTAINS A MISSION THAT MAY BE CONSIDERED CONTROVERSIAL OR OFFENSIVE. ARE YOU OKAY WITH BEING CONTROVERSED OR OFFENDED? Y/N.
Is it possible to say no to this kind of question? Did people go to vaudeville geek shows, only go, “excuse me!? He’s going to hammer a nail into his head? I, sir, would like my money back!” Did grindhouse cinema turn away any of its core audience with these kinds of spine-tingling warnings? Has this kind of warning ever been served as anything more than an appetizer, something to get an audience salivating? Are there people who play a military FPS who aren’t interested in seeing some shit? I’m going to make a blanket statement: if you are interested in pseudo-realstic morally-justified murder for fun, then you are also probably the kind of person who is always in the mood for seeing some “real shit,” in which real is defined as something so unreal that it actually is real. You feel me?
I do. I feel me all the time, so I said yes. I’d read so much about No Russian — the airport, the civilians, the <rainbow>massacre</rainbow> — and was curious to see how the game would go about convincing me to go along with the whole thing, perhaps hoping that it had found meaning in the situation, that the developers used their years of craft to take it from digital transgression to something more substantial, that the endless piles of corpses would come to mean so much more than their basic elements of applied blood decals and simulated aggression.
But there was some unknown quantity of gameplay to get through first. The game proper began with a long and unskippable cutscene that recapped the action of the last game. Sort of. It was all pretty abstract: people’s faces float by, yelled something, some credits were displayed. The most I could get out of it was that some guys wanted to kill some other guys, but then a third group of guys got involved and things turned out in some particular way. I suppose it all worked out, but not too well or I wouldn’t have been sitting there playing the sequel.
It should be noted that even though the cutscene is ridiculous in how uninformative it is, the production values are exquisite, which is something that holds true for the rest of the game. The voice acting, map design, texturing and cutscenes all pop off the screen and out of the speakers in a way that goes beyond mere simulacrum and approaches holographic memory. It was surprising to see how much care was put into the game’s interstitial levels; where they might have been cutscenes in other games, if not skipped entirely, here they were fully rendered little set pieces.
It is this kind of generosity that informs the best of the game’s content. Most impressive were the cutscenes between levels, which are told from the point of view of several orbital satellites transmitting the voices, blueprints, photographs, surveillance footage, chat windows, and battle plans that comprise the game’s plot. The sheer density of data is thrilling, like I’m being entertained by a cyborg historian that is searching for, collating and presenting the huge amount of raw data that collectively describes the game’s history. Except its approach is even more than that. It is the stream of reality being corralled and condensed in real-time, converted from a torrential rush of unrelated personal, public and political fragments into something that approaches a cohesive whole, such that the their interrelated truths become apparent, the cracks between them are sealed, and a coherent world is born before my eyes.
The game’s approach to its material even resembles that of a history. It makes no judgments, draws no conclusions, and seeks to create no internal framework beyond finding an organized way to convey all of the facts in their logical order. In its combination of man-on-the-ground reporting (via the actual missions that are played), a viewpoint that watches everything from a global context (the cutscenes) and a presentation that finds a way to make all of this easily digestible (the collective effect of the game), it suggests the potential for a new way of processing a history, one that allows for a deeper, richer understanding of the material.
I should note that these implications are also a farce, the wild dream of the storyteller who is compelled to make the sum total of facts accrue to more than simply a record. To quote Guy Davenport, “One difference between history and imaginative literature… is that history neither anticipates nor satisfies our curiosity, whereas literature does.” Make no mistake: the rigorousness of its nods to the real world and its own just-the-facts-ma’am approach to everything that occurs within its walls has made Modern Warfare 2 a work of fiction in which all of the allusions truly are incidental, coincidences coincidental, and potential meanings more the product of an active imagination than the collective drift of anything contained therein.
In any case, the first actual LEVEL of the game fades in and I’m in the desert, standing under a tent and in front of a folding table that has a rifle and some grenades on it. My name is something like Pvt. Joseph Campbell. In front of me is a sergeant telling a bunch of rookies to stop firing from the hip, because it’s way less accurate than using the iron sights. Behind this clusterfuck (how did these guys get through basic without learning how to use a gun? More importantly, why doesn’t the game just ASK me if I want to play the tutorial? It’d be like the DO YOU WANT TO SEE SOME CONTROVERSY question, except it would say DO YOU WANT TO SEE SOME TUTORIAL?) are a couple of guys shooting hoops with the b-ball. A desert wind blows. The sergeant is rambling, asking me to demonstrate how a REAL private shoots a gun, so I pick up the gun and try shooting him. The screen fades to white and says something like DON’T SHOOT ALLIES. I respawn and try to shoot the rookies. I respawn and try to shoot the b-ball jammers while one is in mid-dunk. I respawn and try to shoot the b-ball itself, but the bullets just pass through and the ball continues its scripted trajectory to the backboard.
After I suck it up and play the tutorial, in which I am briefly introduced to the General Shephard character and am told that “he’ll be watching my performance,” I’m sent to the front line of an unnamed middle eastern country (probs Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, or Yemen tho) to shoot some dudes and get my feet a little wet. The conventions of the game revolve around using iron sights or a scope to steady my aim & zoom in, and then doing a little strafe dance while I pick off the AI from a distance. Confrontations can be deadly, but usually only at close range or on maps that have too many points of entry to cover simultaneously.
The most memorable parts of the game are distinct: the defense of a very large suburban strip-mall/parking lot complex, and the defense of a two-story house in the woods. The former had me bouncing back and forth between chain restaurants across sprawling parking lots as wave after wave of guys parachuted in, were reinforced by APCs, helicopters did flyovers, and my squad was slowly whittled down as we tried to protect the president of the united states of america. I’m getting a little teary-eyed by how awesome it was. The latter was a pretty similar scenario but scaled down for a house, so I had less area to defend, less people on defense, and was more susceptible to getting popped from simply not being on top of the situation.
The link between these two scenarios is that the scale and persistence of the combat work all of the game’s advantages: the mechanics are basic but well-tuned versions of realism-lite, the AI is deadly cannon fodder, and the production values are high enough to make a cascade of bullets flying through a Burger King storefront feel both tense and exciting.
The last axis of the game’s fun is derived from special-case spectacle, the success of which probably has more to do with the player’s personal tastes than anything else. After the middle east mission, which goes from SNAFU to HOOAH in the span of fifteen minutes due to me being a robust PC shooting a bunch of frail AI, Pvt Campbell gets General Shephard’s notice and is recruited to Taskforce 141/the CIA (i.e. a bunch of rootin’-tootin’ sons of bitches). The perspective then changes from Campbell to Gary “Roach” Clip. Roach is on the ground in some snowy, blizzardy, mountainous place and he is with his good buddy Soap, who is there to hold Roach’s hand throughout all of the coming set-pieces. First is the ice-climbing sequence, where I alternated left mouse and right mouse to simulate alternating arms that are reaching, hooking and pulling their way up an icy escarpment. After that is the silenced-SMG-heartbeat-sensor-sneakaroo-in-a-blizzard, where I sneak around a base during a blizzard and pick guys off with the help of a motion tracker. We get discovered (by the entire base) at some point, which kicks off a brief segment of unadulterated AI shooting before returning to the spectacle parade; by which I mean we hopped on some snowmobiles and raced a bunch of other guys on snowmobiles down a mountain, Roach driving with one hand while he used the other to burn through clip after clip on an automatic pistol until we jumped across a fucking gorge and made it to the escape chopper.
I enjoyed about 2/3’s of that level, finding the whole escape sequence to be, by turns, rote and zany. Which isn’t to say that there is anything in particular wrong with it; one person’s zany escape is another’s zesty escapade. More important to note is that it is the last thing which occurs before the main event, No Russian.
The mission ends with HOOAHs all around, and I’m switched back to the perspective of Joseph Campbell, who is now posing as a CIA operative undercover as Aleksi Ruskanovich. General Shepherd gives a pretty high fallutin’ speech about doing the right thing, and how it might not feel like the right thing, but it’s more right than some other things that might also be the right thing. What he means to say is that I’m supposed to do whatever is necessary to get in with Makarov, a Russian ultra-nationalist who is posed to cause a whole heap of trouble if I don’t get my eye on him pronto. Fade out.
Black screen. Ominous sounds of heavy fabrics being zipped, guns being loaded and locked. The humming of heavy machinery. Fade in, and I’m standing amidst a group of men in suits and kevlar vests, each holding a SAW. Makarov is there too! And he’s saying some stuff, but I can’t remember what…and then his last words are, “And remember: no Russian.” What does that mean?? The elevator opens… and there’s all these civilians… and the guys I’m with raise their guns… and ohhh noooooooooooooooo…. they’re shooting everyone!! What do I do!?!? I… I can’t shoot them… can I? Should I? But what would Papa ShepShep think? Dare I… gulp betray him? Dare I do the right thing?
I mean, I guess that is my condescending version of what my reaction was supposed to be to No Russian. My real reaction was what I assume is also the normal one:
I turned and fucking shot Makarov and his pals, ejecting several pounds of hot hitscan lead into their skulls. I said fuck this and made a fucking decision for the good of humanity, that no duty to god, country or hypothetical father figure could be worth a terminal’s worth of fictional innocent lives. I weighed the rhetoric versus my personal values and voted yes to life. I tried to kill the bad guys.
They in turn revealed that Infinity Ward had graced them with invulnerability. After flinching a few times from the bullet impact, they shot me. Fade to white; DON’T SHOOT ALLIES.
Allies? But… what? I reload and try it again only to get the same result. This must be a mistake. I reload and try running ahead to fire some warning shots to get the civs moving, but find that my run button is broken. Great time to take a fucking walk, Campbell. I try to jump on a table of books for the sole purpose of jumping on a table of books, but apparently Campbell has also decided that jumping would be too much as well. Meanwhile, bullets are flying and civilians are screaming. Some kind of gated bassline with an LFO + sound design is playing. It sounds like a more serious version of this. Ah, here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MH-XNuxmxlI. It’s all pretty serious seeming, which I guess is the point. Can’t take a massacre seriously without a Hans Zimmerman score in the background, or some goofus horsing around, running and jumping all over the airport bookstore, shooting the bad guys. Right?
Oh, and the end of the mission has Makarov shoot Campbell during an in-game cutscene. See, it was all a plan to start World War 3 by pinning the massacre on an American. One telltale dead American terrorist means that Russia will retaliate against the US and invade. No Russian is thus the genesis of the game’s entire plot, and raison d’etre for the remaining six hours of gameplay.
When something is so catastrophically broken, does it even matter anymore? Is it fair to pay attention to it when it is so obviously oblivious to the words coming out of its mouth? What if that something is the crux of a work’s very existence? Does Modern Warfare 2 ease to exist if I don’t accept its entire reason for existing?
No, it continued merrily on its way with nary a word towards it railroading me into allowing the plot to happen. And god help me, I kept playing. It didn’t hurt that there are some pretty fun segments in the rest of the game, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was immaterial, a divergent timeline predicated on the entire universe colluding against me, willing this history into existence by dint of royal fiat.
The end of the game features a betrayal by General Shepherd, where he shoots the main protagonist you’ve been playing and another good guy because he wants to prolong the war for the purpose of “earning his men the glory they deserve,” which to me implies that he had a direct hand in planning the entire airport shooting. Shit, he’s probably the dude who gave Joseph Campbell rubber bullets and implanted the chip in his brain that debuffed his intermediate motor skills.
Is General Shepherd a metaphor for Infinity Ward???
…you know, the whole thing reminds me of Garth Ennis’ 2001 run of Fury. The Cold War is over and Nick Fury is a relic being bounced out of SHIELD by a group of newbloods who are too soft and two-faced for their own good. He meets up with an old Russkie nemesis in a bar, where they lament the passing of the good old days: Russia vs US, agent vs agent, secret plot vs secret plot. In a lull of conversation, Yuri Gagarin turns to Fury With a glint in his eye and asks, “what if we could do it all again, Nicky?”
Cut to a pineapple republic being toppled, a Gagarin-backed nuclear threat, and Fury leading a team of crack US youngbloods to take the island and stop the whole thing from spiraling out of control. Blood, guts, sacrifices and explosions escalate until we’re at the climax, and Fury is strangling Gagarin with his own innards against a background of exploding bombs while screaming, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? WHY WOULD YOU FUCKING DO THIS?”
Gagarin: I did it for you, Nicky! I did it for us. One last battle, Nicky.
Fury: YOU FUCKING PSYCHOPATH! strangle strangle
Gagarin: Admit it Nicky. You love this. You wouldn’t know what to do without it.
Fury: FUCK YOUUUUU super strangle, Gagarin dies
Gagarin and Shepherd and Infinity Ward are right, of course. Players need things worth shooting, otherwise what are they doing? Being the assholes they wished they could shoot.
The emerging layers of role-reversal and mirroring (from player to bad guy, Makarov as Shepherd in micro, Shepherd as allegory for Infinity Ward, and Infinity Ward’s entire design philosophy being summarized in No Russian, in which the player is railroaded-via-action-rollercoaster and lead by the nose through certain activities under the premise of potential fun) are mere analytical games at Modern Warfare 2’s expense, of course. From the outset, the game has let us know that the only real way to interpret it is as a contemporary history of a fictional universe. It has no interest in the player’s curiosity, let alone in providing a real platform for it, or in being about anything more than what it depicts: the events leading up to a fictional world war and its first seven days.
At best, the game illustrates that for the top countries in the world, modern warfare is reminiscent of a videogame, something that would be an indelible strength if Infinity Ward were interested in it for any reason beyond how much faster it makes their rollercoaster go. But by being a work of fiction that completely denies its potential for meaning of any sort, Modern Warfare 2 sacrifices its ability to endure beyond its epoch, relegating itself to the fate of most histories: to dust.