Six years ago I wrote about Modern Warfare 2. For a long time, that post bugged me–because I realized my reading of the game was wrong.
I don’t know when my feelings on MW2‘s story changed, though I’ve never lost my admiration for the game. I still feel it got a bad shake as a mindless shooter. It’s a lot smarter than people give it credit for. I’ll try to explain why that is and why it should be reconsidered as a good example of what’s unique to games storytelling.
The story (thanks to Wikipedia. It’s been six years, after all) opens in Afghanistan. The player character is a US soldier tasked with smoking insurgents out of a nearby village. What makes them insurgents? The same reason they’re bad guys in a game: they’re against the player character. We don’t know their background, their political views, their reasons to pick up a gun. They’re simply the enemy, same as any other shooter. We’re told to shoot them, so we do.
After securing a bridge, you climb behind a massive gun atop an armored vehicle and invade the village. “Invade” is the right word, too. You’re an American in a foreign country that– in the real world– was invaded for crimes they didn’t commit. This is exactly what the player character, the invading force, does. The level climaxes at its final location: a school, though there are no students, no children. That life is over. Nothing will ever be the same in this village. It’s almost sad, as US soldiers crack jokes while gunning natives down in a place of learning, education, peace…
I believe this is echoed much later in the game, during the level I wrote about before, “Of Their Own Accord…” The last time I wrote about this, I concluded that the message was we — America — got to this point because of our own actions. While that remains true, it’s only partly true. It wasn’t until later I realized this level is a mirror to the opening level.
In my last article, I went into great length about the powerful emotions I felt when I saw D.C. under attack. Tears welled in my eyes to see the Washington Monument broken and burning. I can hardly be called a patriot but these images stirred patriotic feelings within me. I was sad to see America brought low. This is the effect Infinity Ward wanted “Of Their Accord…” to have on the player but it wasn’t just a cheap trick to make headlines. The game’s story had built up to this moment, in order to drive its theme home: that America’s War on Terror was wrong.
GB Burford, in his post Modern Warfare 2 Deserves More Credit, does a great job of going into the story’s specifics to draw the same conclusions I have, so I’ll only paint in broad strokes. Both the opening level and “Of Their Own Accord…” involve an unstoppable, invading force (America, Russia). Both countries are invaded for crimes they haven’t committed (Afghanistan for the War on Terror, America for the massacre in the level, “No Russian”). Both levels involve massive amounts of structural damage to homes and monuments. This is repeat imagery. This is the strengthening of a theme. This is story telling. Unfortunately, MW2‘s story has dual personalities.
One is a very real, very effective take on America getting a dose of its own invasion medicine. The other is a mash-up of every Michael Bay film from the 90s. Why MW2 plays out this way, I can only guess. Maybe because the last game also had its big, action-film-like moments. Maybe because the Bay levels explain how America could be invaded in the first place. Regardless of the reasons, it made MW2 an uneven game and ultimately hurt it. The Bay levels detract from the theme, when everything in a good story should work towards strengthening it. The Bay levels aside, MW2 delivers their theme in the way only a few games accomplish: by making you feel it.
How I felt when I saw the Washington Monument in flames? That’s how the Afghanis (and Iraqis (and Iranians (etc.))) felt as we invaded — and continue to invade — them. The incredulity most people feel about “No Russian?” A level, perhaps justifiably, labelled as unbelievable and over the top? That’s probably how Iraq felt when we blamed them for 9/11 and their non-existent WMDs. MW2 had an agenda, it had a theme, and the gameplay backed that theme up in a big way. How many games accomplish this? Who would have expected it of a blockbuster shooter? Most importantly, how was this almost completely missed by games journalism at large?
I’m not sure. This article won’t change the perception that MW2 is big, dumb trash. This article is merely my clarification that I caught it, that MW2 made me feel it, and I put it on my top shelf of how games can deliver a worthwhile, meaningful experiences unique only to the medium.
As a last word, Modern Warfare 3 missed these lessons completely. Now that game was big, dumb trash that wasn’t even fun. Okay, I can finally stop posting about this series now.