It began with my character, Ramirez, in an underground bunker that’d seen better days. Soldiers monitored the airwaves while faulty electrical wiring sparked and popped from exposed breakers, and wounded soldiers peppered the place. They jammed gauze on bullet wounds and fists into bloody eye sockets. Scores of body bags lined up outside a makeshift medic ward where men laid on cots and would not make the night. I wound my way through morbid halls, the dull bulbs dimmed and flickered as mortar fire hammered down from above, until I passed a Ranger sat on his ass and staring at the floor. He looked dejected and in need of a lot of winks. Instead, Sergeant Foley tossed a rifle his way and gave the orders. Our mission was to secure an extraction point for helicopters en route. I followed Foley up the stairs and out of the bunker, while a sight familiar to all Americans, the Washington Monument, broke over the concrete horizon. The straight, splendid opulence of memory gave way to a hollowed out, broken, tangled mass of steel girders, amid a landscape that looks like a page straight out of Dante. It was Hell made of barbed wire and bomb shelters. Trench lines were sawn into the Mall, trees burned in a night sky choked with rockets and choppers, and everywhere there was gun fire. The Russians had landed, a homeland invasion most Americans swore could never happen. They fired from the streets, from the windows, from APCs and Jeeps, SAM sites, choppers, and tanks.
They fired from our memorials. Our monuments.
Sgt. Foley barked to stay close, but I lagged behind as I looked in horror at the destruction of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial lit up with muzzle flash, and far in the distance, the dome of the Capital Building caved in and smoking. Our symbols of democracy, our legacy of great men and ideals, reduced to soot stained, crumbling stone and serving no purpose higher than to provide cover from incoming. It was too much. I paused the game and took a moment to collect myself, as tears threatened and welled in my eyes.
Never have I been moved so completely by a videogame.
Modern Warfare 2 begins with General Shepherd spouting one line after another so heavy-handed with war mongering that Arnie or Sly Stallone would buckle under the weight. At first, I was disgusted by the game’s blatant “patriotism.” I thought it served to justify the past eight years of war with Iraq, an impending war with Afghanistan, and all future preventive wars. I didn’t play to get an education in combat philosophy, though; I came to bust heads like hi-def melons, and quickly brushed off the plot as no more than filler between fire fights.
Yet, when you die, as the game loads up your last check point (assuming you don’t meet your end by grenades, exploding barrels, cars, or those damn dogs), you’re treated to quotes by famous figures throughout history, which I didn’t know what to make of. Quotes like, “If you set out on a journey of revenge, you must first dig two graves,” and “Patriotism is loyalty to your country all the time, and to your government only when it deserves it” certainly didn’t fit in with Shepherd’s We-Will-Win-This-War speech. The tone MW2 kicks off with was much more in line with Dick Cheney’s, “It’s easy to take liberty for granted, when you’ve never had it taken from you.” That the quotes are both for and against vengeance only made things more confusing, until I realized that majority of pro-vengeance stances are so zealous they’re almost comical; the most recently famous one (due to Fahrenheit 9/11) belonged to Donald Rumsfeld about exact knowledge of Al Qaida’s whereabouts: “…to the north, east, west, and south somewhat.” Some quotes were so recent, they stung.
I had recently visited Washington, DC, a trip that left me with mixed feelings. As my friends guided me through the district, pointing out foreign embassies, the vice-president’s house, and places where famous Americans had lived over a hundred years ago, I was filled with wondrous pride for our heritage, and marveled at the rustic yet timeless beauty of it all; nothing but fresh grass, green trees, and a smorgasbord of gorgeous, gorgeous women. It felt very appropriate for the capital of the “free world.” But over the course of my visit, an altogether different feeling set in and took hold. Things started to feel a bit “off” in DC. Police lined the streets. An hour wouldn’t pass by without sirens, somewhere, blaring in the distance. Helicopters swung low and drew attention as they chopped through the air. Escorts tore through the streets at high speeds. Tourists snapped happy photos in front of the White House, just steps away from people on a hunger strike for the sake of abused prisoners in Tehran, and under the watchful gaze of snipers perched on the roof. The Reflecting Pool was a bog; filthy, green, and a place even the ducks seemed to steer clear of. The Iraq section of the American History Museum was labeled “America’s New Role,” referring to our Super Power status as we policed the rest of the world in the name of “freedom” and “democracy.” The exhibit included the surprisingly small uniforms of Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, and a twisted beam from the fallen Twin Towers. What motivates a curator’s selection, I wondered, when the museum is free?
I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, when it struck me how flat DC is. An entire district leveled in deference to the Washington Monument. The place felt designed to make the average person feel subordinate and small, straight down to the Natural History Museum with its larger than life shark jaws and a war memorial what seemed every ten steps. Oppression hung in the air like fog soup, and I knew exactly where I’d want to be if the chips were down: anywhere but DC. I had lost faith in an America I thought I knew, had once loved, and long ago grew jaded with. After eight years of war that’s claimed the lives of thousands of American soldiers and over half a million Iraqis for nothing but a foothold overseas; after a regime that, time and again, proved to care little for the people it supposedly served, and replaced by a new one that represented “hope,” but now clamors for more war, more spending; the monuments, memorials, museums, and relics- the symbols of America- had come, in this exhausted citizen’s eyes, to represent little more than ruthless oppression and imperial tyranny. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, among the mindless tourists and their constant photo-ops, I gazed at those symbols stretched out before me. Something stirred within. I was moved to give them all my own personal salute: a middle finger, raised defiant and high and angry. I turned to the Capital Building, where so much of our country and its people have been sold over the years to the highest bidder, and for a brief, radical moment, wondered what it would look like if that building were bombed.
Modern Warfare 2 showed me exactly what that would look like, and the sight will stick for a long time. As the game progresses and the actions of the parties involved escalate until it’s all out war in suburban Virginia, it dawned on me that MW2 actually has something to say, and “Of Their Own Accord…,” while definitely an example of social commentary, may well represent one of the stronger examples of a Game as Art. I believe, in that level, through your actions, the greater theme of MW2 emerges. It’s not until later in the level, after you secure the extraction point, climb your way into a waiting chopper and man the turret that this occurs. What follows is an intense fly-by on Russian soldiers and, much more importantly, American monuments. You’re told to target the RPG soldiers camped on top of the World War II memorial. When you open fire, the sheer power of your weapon blisteringly carves through anything in its path. The memorial, built in memory of the 50 states and an alliance that brought an end to Hitler’s wrath, is eviscerated in seconds. I could point out where my friend, just months ago, washed her feet in the water, next to a sign that ordered, out of respect, “Don’t.” When the chopper passes a colonial-era building loaded with Russians, the force of your bullets shatter the windows, tear chunks from the walls, and crack columns. As you fire on the enemy, you can’t help but wreck American symbols that represent valor, honor, democracy, peace.
Is this a mirror to the opening level, when a mini-gun caused the same mayhem on Afghani streets? What symbols of theirs were ruined? Did you catch, in that same level, before heading into the city, the soldiers wonder aloud which of the two identical buildings was gonna get bombed, then cheer as that Afghani building collapsed?
Were you reminded of anything?
I couldn’t shake the feeling, as the chopper-mounted turret reamed swaths of destruction, I wasn’t firing on Russians. I was firing on what brought America to this point: namely, the profit of few at the cost of many. In this light, are Shepherd or Makarov, and their mad quests for vengeance, so different from Bush? Is our world that different from theirs, or am I reading into this way too much?
The game may stumble in its execution. It’s saddled down with a James Bond popcorn plot and outlandish politics, but it’s no less viscerally effective when it stabs straight at the heart of what makes us American: love for our country. I had forgotten what that love felt like. But symbols have power and meanings can change. When I saw the Washington Monument ruined, its girders bent out of shape and exposed, our nation’s capital reduced to a war zone, and the carnage cause by a single turret, my heart broke for an America I wanted back, the idealized America I was brought up, since birth, to believe in. Where was the benevolent leader of the free world, the shining beacon of democracy? Instead, I was left with a district in ruins, minutes away from a nuclear strike, and no clear victory in sight.
I believe Modern Warfare 2, beyond the bullets and bravado, has a message. The game’s reached six million homes- those of hardcore gamers, frat boys, a Kotaku Girl’s Night Out, and even (regrettably) young children. I hope the message reaches more than I expect it will. Because, as those in power spill more money into a war we were tricked into and no longer want, instead of healthcare, education, or jobs; as long standing nuclear treaties are weakened and broke in support of short sighted self-interests; as tensions across the globe are continually heightened by our own actions that, in the past, we deemed “terrorism,” try not to ignore the message from a company that dared to show an America on the brink of ruin:
Don’t Let This Happen.
I check my heavy rifle one last time, slide the chamber back to make sure the motion’s smooth, as I know it will be. The guy in front of me works out the kink in his neck while the other two move their weight from foot to foot and watch the numbers light up on the elevator. Makarov looks back to me and reminds us all, “No Russian,” as the elevator chimes pleasantly, its doors glide open, and the five of us- matching suits, flak jackets, and serious firearms- calmly stroll into a packed Moscow airport terminal. The people mill about; eager to get where they’re going and bored with just another day in their lives, when slowly, one by one, they notice us behind them. Makarov waits just long enough for them to realize, let them know what’s going on, then opens fire on the lot. Instantly, his cronies do the same. The citizens are mowed down by a vicious spray of lead, and I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to do.
Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 begins with the same junk you’d hear from any number of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer flicks; the tired, bloated, empty and (sometimes) fun popcorn pap flicks that stuff summer theaters. While General Shepherd puked one “patriotic” phrase after another out of his mouth and dribbled it into my ears, I quickly switched my brain to “off” and let the game go “Oscar Mike.” It’s good that I did, for there’s hardly a moment to think as you take the reins of an ATV mounted mini-gun through an Afghani town loaded with insurgents, rip buildings to shreds with 6,000 rounds per minute, and toss grenades through grade school class room windows. Modern Warfare 2, much like God of War before it, doesn’t exactly show you new things; it just looks and plays better than most everything else on the market. It’s a ’67 Chevy with a tricked out engine, slick coat of paint, and a debt to Rare’s Goldeneye much larger than Infinity Ward would probably care to admit. It’s a beautiful paint-by-numbers with a few interesting flourishes dabbed in here or there. That is, until “No Russian” comes along and shits all over the brush. “No Russian” is a straight sucker punch to the gut that lasted with me for days.
The set-up is bare bones at best. General Shepherd stressed the importance of my mission, hinted at the sacrifices that were made to get me in position, and generally bored me with shadowy details while no-doubt hideously expensive computer graphics zoomed around the world and displayed newspaper clippings of terrorist actions. But as soon as Makarov and his thugs opened fire on the helpless crowd, I was struck dumb with horror. Bodies dropped like sandbags, blood splattered over clean tile floors, people moaned and dragged themselves away only to be picked off, and metal detectors bleated as we walked through into the larger area of the terminal. The gun shots warned the rest, but their shock and panic caused them to flee in herds, slow each other down, get shot in the back. I followed slightly behind my cohorts, the terrorists, gun at the ready, unsure what to do. How could I slaughter innocent people, as they fled and screamed and cried and tried to save one another, like they were witless cattle? My mission was to infiltrate, get next to Makarov, fit in. I couldn’t possibly fit in if I didn’t open fire, but my conscience worked against my trigger finger. I was conflicted, but in the end, I had my orders. And so, reluctantly, I did my duty. I cut down the women, I fired back at the security guards, I picked off the stragglers; and as the scene escalated, as a grenade blasted an elevator full of guards off its bearings and all flights were delayed on the boards and the police sirens roared close and loud, I felt worse with every passing moment.
A game made me hate what I was doing.
“No Russian” is meticulously detailed massacre, an achievement of set piece, scripted events, and- this is what sells it- sound design. You don’t just see the carnage, you hear it. The spit and bark of the heavy rifles are right next to you, distant yet immediate when the group spreads out. The screams of panic and pain echo and ring long after the bloody work is done. The real triumph of videogames are when you experience an event you never can in real life. In the case of “No Russian,” it’s an experience I hope to never have.
Critical reception’s been across the board for the level, with the bulk of it summed up succinctly with Rock Paper Shotgun’s, “It’s bullshit, innit?” Infinity Ward’s been raked over the coals for attempting something daring, and, in their minds, failing to hit the mark, given that just minutes ago your character was zooming around the Russian landscape in a snowmobile like James Bond on a bender. I’d argue that it’s precisely the erratic “plot” and gameplay that makes “No Russian” work beautifully. I found it incredibly hard to follow what was going on in the story-based cut-scenes. Many times I carried out entire missions without a clue why I was doing so. I mean, why did that Washington VIP shoot himself in the face? And what made him a VIP in the first place? Did Shepherd really allow a nuclear strike on home soil just to foster his own revenge? Confusion like this works in “No Russian’s” favor, because you never see it coming. Like the Bays and the Bruckheimers I compared MW2 to, if you’re looking for character development beyond field-dressing a wound and a thematic arc to rival United 93, you never turn to the guys who make Independence Day. But imagine if Independence Day had been made today, and the alien’s first targets had been the World Trade Center. That would arouse emotions to make you want those space-crustaceans burn. “No Russian” does just that. You want to play our game? You want to shoot hundreds of AI like cattle to get to the big baddie?
Do you really want to?
Crispy Gamer’s first reaction to “No Russian” was that, given the size of the crowd, Infinity Ward must have really been pushing the poly count. Another commenter instantly saw how many body models repeated with swapped color palettes, and that took him out of the moment. I think these people missed the forest for the trees. Several pieces have commented that in “No Russian,” your actions have almost no meaning. You can kill Makarov, but you’ll get a game over screen. I ask, why would you shoot the terrorist you’re trying to get closer to? You can execute all the civilians yourself, but they’d have ended up dead anyway. Why would you, as a human being, gleefully cut down digitized, though no less innocent, lives? You can shoot no-one, and your fellow terrorists won’t bat an eye. But, why would you not shoot the civilians, when you’re supposed to fit in? What would be more jarring: the game granting amnesty because you chose not to kill, or a game over screen because you didn’t shoot enough people? When you decide to ignore the way the game asks you to play, does the fault lie with the game? If you ask me, “No Russian” and the larger game community’s reaction to it falls right in line with what Ebert was saying about authorial control, and might serve as a grungy beacon against Games as Art, though I would consider it as a shining example.
People seemed to have been jaded from the get-go, hung up on lofty promises and missed marks, but I tell you this: the revulsion I felt when I first pulled the trigger on a helpless man, trailing blood over the floor as he crawled away, is probably exactly what an undercover CIA agent would feel if forced to do the same.
For that, I applaud Infinity Ward on a magnificent job well done.