Wot I Think: About That Level

By Kieron Gillen on November 19th, 2009 at 10:21 pm.


It’s bullshit, isn’t it?

The big problem is – like a big chunk of anything that manages to be controversial – the debate shakes down to “they shouldn’t be allowed to do this” versus “they should be allowed to do this” while entirely neglecting the more important “Is this any good?”

It’s not any good. It’s bullshit. It’s a lie. It means nothing.

In terms of craft, Infinity Ward are… well, joint top of their field. The idea of turning a progression through a linear, scripted environment into a storytelling experience had its moment of apotheosis with Valve’s Half-life back in 1998. Specifically, its opening. The first people to really grasp the implications of Valve’s innovations were Infinity Ward, in their previous life at 2015, whose Medal of Honour: Allied Assault was the first game to not entirely ignore Half-Life and hope the lessons would go away. They (with Valve) have had a duopoly on the form ever since. Everyone else is frankly, second best, at best. So while it’s easy to pick holes in the illusion of a scene of No Russian – oh! The shirts repeat occasionally! – it doesn’t change the fact moving through it is like walking through a living painting. It’s a clockwork machine. In the seconds I managed to step back from what was actually happening, I felt a lot like I did when playing its opening scene in a military base – as in, I was scared to look anywhere, because there was so much stuff happening everywhere. No matter where I lay my eyes, there’d be something I’d miss.

“No Russian” positions you as an undercover agent, trying to infiltrate an evil terrorist’s group. By doing this, you’re helping out at a massacre at an airport. You walk in. People look at you. Your four comrades open up at the crowd, and they fall. People run, cry and die. You walk slowly through the airport, slaying those who haven’t run. Eventually, a military response arrives via chopper. You fight them and then… well, spoilers.

It’ll be foolish to deny it doesn’t provoke a response. Of course, the level and nature of that response isn’t solely about the game, or even the person playing it. So, yes, merely talking to my friends, I find people telling stories of leftist political radicals and pillars of the community mowing down people while cackling while bar-room thugs dismiss it as exploitative war-porn. Like any work of human creativity, the seriousness you bring to the game impacts upon your experience. But it’s more complicated than that. People’s response seems to change depending on who you play with or in front of. It’s like an inverse of the ErotiSim reaction I talked about previously. Playing with friends, we all fucked around with the Sims. Playing by myself, I took the emotional turmoil more seriously. Conversely, with No Russian, with someone standing behind you and judging you, even the most sociopathic may feel a little twinge before pulling that trigger.

But it’s bullshit.

It’s bullshit because, like a whole lot of Modern Warfare, it’s bad writing. By which I stress, I don’t mean “the writer can’t write”. Because the real nature of writing in games (“Everything which appears in front of your eyes with which we create the story”) rather than the responsibilities of the word-dude (“Whatever you can write quickly on freelance which the team ignore and/or present badly”) is what matters here. As others have noted, the most disturbing part of No Russian is its context. A few seconds previously you’re involved in a high-speed James Bond chase involving snowmobiles. A few seconds later, you’re mowing down civilians. That tonal shift isn’t brutal. It’s laughable. At best, you’re comedy. At worst, you’re cheap exploitative trash. Modern Warfare leans towards the latter. You have to earn the right to shove an audience’s face in that material. Before it, Infinity Ward do nothing to earn it. Afterward, they do barely anything with it – by which you can read there is slightly more than “nothing” there, which I’ll get to eventually – to justify the leap of faith you’ve taken with them.

And then there’s the matter of realism… oh, shit.

Yeah, realism is a tricky thing with Call of Duty. It’s clearly ludicrous, unless you’re the person in Alec’s Wot-I-Think comment thread who somehow thought that 24 was a documentary or something. But it lives of the sense of authenticity. It wants you to believe in its techno-thrillerness, at least on its own terms. The problem comes when you introduce this attitude into something like five dudes strolling into an airport and opening up.

Because as accurately, as disturbingly rendered as the slaughter is, it’s not convincing. The beat where people try to surrender… yeah, that’s impressive analysis. People would assume they were taking prisoners, even if they weren’t. But the rest is simply ludicrous. Machine-guns are loud. People are gone the second they start firing. Anyone anywhere near doesn’t hang around. They certainly don’t find themselves hanging around to be gunned down in lobbies. Rent-a-cops with pistols – and fuck me, if you’ve been in a Russian Airport, you know you get guys with SMGs, not pistols, walking around – don’t charge guys with hefty-machine-guns. They get the people hanging around OUT OF THERE. And crucially, SWAT-or-local-equivalent response isn’t a wall of men walking slowly towards you with riot shields. It’s snipers on the rooftops taking down these psychopathic shits.

In other words, Infinity Ward have taken great effort to render a scene of a massacre which bears no relation to any massacre that could ever happen. It’s nothing more than that moment of revulsion (or, for those sort of gamers, excitement) when you open up on civilians. It means nothing human because it’s about nothing that’s human.

So it’s exploitative and pointless. But its real failing, ironically enough, is one of cowardice. Let’s assume you accept the warped reality of their airport slaughter. It’s their universe. Let’s roll with it. Well, the idea that you’re an undercover agent who can walk alongside your homicidal comrades without you firing a shot, without them realising or caring, is openly stupid.

(I’ve heard people say they take notice and call you a coward. I’ve played through it three times and not had it once. C’est la vie.)

For the level to matter – to be the true Jack Bauer ends-justify-the-means statement – you must be forced into joining in. You’ve got a chance to skip the level. Great. But to play the level, to accept it on its own terms, you must open up at those people. That’s the cowardice of Infinity Ward. They realised a level where you had to kill the innocents is more offensive than a level where it’s your choice… but choosing the latter is the single thing that stops it ever being some manner of effective artistic statement and rendering the whole thing laughably pathetic.

There is – AND SPOILERS ARE NOW – a twist to it, of course. Your terrorists comrades shoot you at the end and pin the attack on the yanks. Which, if you look at it, could be an excuse for them not caring that you’re not mowing down people with them. Except it doesn’t matter when you get shot, as long as they can pin the attack on you – so having someone who’s coming along and not helping is merely someone who could open up at them when their conscience cracks.

(Why you don’t just shoot this terrorist leader now that you’re close enough to him isn’t really explained. Why infiltrate the cell to stop an attack when you can just kill the ringmaster now?)

Part of me likes to think that the whole section – in fact, the whole game proper – is actually a statement that the blind following of orders leads to the death of the world. The one irony of the twist in the plot is never commented on in the game – that being, the Russians are entirely justified in being phenomenally pissed off. An American organisation knew there was a serious attack wiping out dozens of Russian citizens… and rather than warning, they sent a man to join the attack. They were complicit. You were complicit. Imagine what the US response would be to the tables being turned, and there was real evidence that a foreign government helped out a 9-11-esque attack on US soil to infiltrate a terrorist organisation. Throughout the game you’re forced into performing tasks which only lead to worse devastation, because you’re following fucking brain-dead orders.

You could see Modern Warfare 2 as the sister of BioShock – as in, mocking the player for being stupid enough to follow this linear string of events. Giving up your morality to a higher power and obeying those orders only leads to World War 3.

Well, you could if they’d only actually made their statement clear. As it is, it’s just a mess of sound and fury signifying jack-shit. The final half of Modern Warfare 2 is the sort of thing which Wikipedia entries were made for flicking through and catching up on. Clarity never hurts. Rambling purple prose sections about the nature of war do. If the above is actually what Infinity Ward were trying to say they should have made sure they fucking said it loud and clear.

That’s the most annoying thing about “No Russian” though. It’s not that the ideas are necessarily bad – I wrote a hell of a lot to defend Super Columbine Massacre RPG, after all. It’s that the execution is weak. If you’re going to do this, you do this. You make the move knowing that you’ve thought it all through. That you’ve considered everything. That you know what you’re saying and what it means. The sickening thing is that communicating simple yet powerful messages is what Infinity Ward have excelled at (Cross Ref; Call of Duty’s River landing missions, with you forced to progress with no gun due to Soviet supply problems). That clarity is missing. Instead, we’re left with a dumb shock.

That’s the problem. That’s what sickens me. It’s that they had the balls to try to do this… and they blew it. They fucking blew it. Anyone else who tries it will be living in their diseased shadow. If you want to try to do this thing you have a responsibility to do it properly, or not at all. Infinity Ward failed the medium and failed themselves with No Russian.

They’ve always cut levels which weren’t good enough, arguing for a concentrated, higher-quality experience. They should have cut this one. It’s bullshit and they should be ashamed.

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326 Comments »

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    I’m not quite agreeing with Karry’s wonderful desire for an American killing sim (wasn’t Postal enough for you?), but I think we should wonder about IW’s use of Russians as massacre fodder. Why not place the massacre at JFK, if controversy is your goal?

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