So, the biggest title this season finally drops. The successor to 13-million-strong-in-sales Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is finally out, sans the Call of Duty prefix, marking a true beginning to a new IP and, possibly the birth of yet another gaming related but general-population-targeting controversy.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or failing to read Tap-Repeatedly) in the last couple of weeks, you are aware just what we’re talking about here. In one of the introductory missions of Infinity Ward’s latest, shiniest first person shooter, entitled Modern Warfare 2, you, the player are stepping into the shoes of a covert agent infiltrated into a stereotypical terrorist group. To make sure you bring their evil deeds to an end and let the goodTM once again reign supreme on earth, you are supposed to put up with some of their usual activities without enforcing law and order (which would be your primary objective otherwise).
Of course, their usual activities include shooting an airport full of people to bloody, messy death.
(Before you click for more, be warned: if you’re really uninformed or really anal, the following article contains mild spoilers.)
Now, the nature of this controversy has been tackled by Steerpike in the article linked above, but after playing the mission in question I am kind of in two minds about the whole thing. For one, I simply don’t think that the controversy is controversial enough.
Now, look here, I am a reasonable person (despite the looks) and I do understand that the largest blockbuster of the season is never supposed to be the one to be the most thought or at least temper provoking. But can we, the thinking gamers of this world at least keep our panties on?
Yes, what is somewhat shocking about this particular mission in Modern Warfare 2 is the level of graphical detail. Remember, you’ve killed whole cities in your gaming career and, if you’re like us, you’ve grinned genocidally watching mushroom-cloud epitaphs to thousands of nameless lives you’ve just terminated. What Modern Warfare 2 does is not exactly put names to those lives, but Infinity Ward does at least give faces to people dying pointless, ugly deaths.
The set up is exactly as the ‘80s action cinema had us believe these things happen: a bunch of immoral terrorists strolling leisurely through the airport, shooting automatic weapons at civilians who are screaming, running away in fear, begging for their lives, praying to be spared etc. The contrast between people in mortal fear and people appearing to have fun doing their job is, of course horrifying. No game to date made killing unarmed civilians so detailed, so lifelike, or, more precisely, so movielike.
The issue is even more complicated because this is not a cutscene. The player playing the game is one of the terrorists (albeit, actually, on the side of angels, but in deep, deep cover) and the player is also given firearms as well as the command to kill everything that moves. So, after all those games where you were the one saving the world from scum like this, you are supposed to play your role (because of higher interests, of course) and join the killing. You are supposed to aim your gun at harmless, unsuspecting, crying people and pull the trigger.
Now, judging by the stuff people write on the Internet in relation to this mission, this is something you don’t normally do in games. You kill, yes, but only when it’s justified. This is what we tell ourselves and this is why we can justify to ourselves all those kills in all those games.
Which is scary as the justification used in games is exactly the same as justification used in the real world when sending troops across the ocean to kill nameless, faceless indigenous peoples. Sure, that guy you just dropped in your game of Call of Duty or Splinter Cell or Crysis is your enemy. He never saw it coming and you killed him in cold blood, but trust us, he would have killed you if he’d seen you first. How do we know? Things just work that way!!! Sure, he may have had a beautiful wife running a shelter for parentless children at home and perhaps he was a Buddhist who would never even shoot back at you (because, you know, some of the AI we’ve seen in games over the years certainly acted that way even after we dropped their whole squads in front of their very eyes), but goddamit, stop this, we are right and you are wrong and you have to kill if you want to go ahead, this is just how things work and that makes it justified.
Yes, the combined body count from the games I have played in the last 25 years has probably passed the hundred thousand mark somewhere around the time Left 4 Dead dropped – hell, I killed over 1600 people in my first playthrough of Soldier of Fortune alone – but those were all justified kills. My life was threatened. Or the fate of the world was hanging on a thread and I was the only person with a full clip and testicles sufficient for the task at hand. So, all those kills – they are OK, you see, because they were either in self defense or for the greater good.
But what greater good can justify slaughtering dozens of commuters on an international airport asks Infinity Ward without actually saying those words. Instead, they make sure to explicitly ask you (more than once) whether you want to skip this mission. No penalty, no bad conscience either.
Now, from the, let’s call it general population viewpoint, this is a sensible, almost mature approach. Yes, the controversial stuff is in there, but the player is not forced to play it. And since the game does not penalize you for skipping this mission, it is as if to say “No worries, buddy. You’re still a good person.”
However, from a gamer’s viewpoint, I really have to ask myself: is having a game let you skip part of the gameplay (and an important part of the story too!!) actually good design??? I suspect the answer is somewhere between “hell” and “no”.
Because, yes, as stated before, Modern Warfare 2 lets you kill harmless civilians and displays the spectacle of slaughter in unprecedented cinematic detail. But, and don’t let this one be forgotten so easily this time around: games are NOT movies.
Yes, I appreciate narrative in games and I absolutely love big cinematic moments in games. But let’s not forget that at the end of the day it is gameplay what I am here for and no amount of cinematic detail can ever replace gameplay.
In gameplay terms, I fail to see Modern Warfare 2’s controversial mission as being particularly controversial. Yes, killing people who do not kill you back is supposed to be controversial, but, hang on there a second, I did exactly the same thing in Uncharted 2 the other day. It was during one of the early missions, we were sneaking through a museum in Istanbul and, despite using tranquilizer guns to put unarmed guards to sleep, I actually killed one of the guards by pulling him from the rooftop into the gaping abyss and onto the hard, unforgiving street below. It was a scripted moment too, I know that because I tried reloading and doing things differently, but the result was always the same.
So, the character who I was controlling in the game, who minutes before that expressed concern about having to kill innocent museum guards, killed a man. A man who was not threatening him in any real way, a man who was not even aware of his presence. My character did it because I told him so, and because this was more convenient to him (my character) than finding another route through the museum, the one not involving killing an innocent person.
Now, I am picking Uncharted 2 rather than Manhunt 2 for this example because the latter game makes a point of killing harmless or unaware or basically innocent people. No matter how loudly we may be screaming “Exploitation!!!” and pointing our fingers to Manhunt 2, that game’s narrative revolves around making an ordinary guy into an immoral killing machine so in the context of that game, killing innocent people is logical, if not ethically justified. But Uncharted 2 is basically a family friendly action adventure, right? Right?
The shock that Uncharted 2’s casual murder of the mentioned museum guard is so… shocking precisely because it’s hardcoded into the game. There is no way to avoid this murder (aside from not playing the game beyond certain point) and it grates particularly hard because it’s totally out of character. Nathan Drake, the protagonist of Uncharted games does tend to kill a lot, but these are all justified kills. Or at least, they are justified if we follow the reasoning we mentioned above. Usually, Drake kills those who try to kill him or threaten to kill his friends, or threaten to kill the world etc. Killing a seemingly random NPC and not even talking about it afterwards is simply… murder.
Now, there was another game that had you kill an unarmed, defenseless character in a totally scripted, hardcoded scene. This game is called BioShock and, not surprisingly, this part of the game came through as a rather deep and intriguing (meta)comment on the nature of gaming, freedom in games and gaming habits. BioShock didn’t let you step away from the murder your character committed and it certainly didn’t let you skip it. You were watching your character murder someone (as opposed to watching him just kill, in the rest of the game) despite the fact that neither you nor your character wanted it.
But not Modern Warfare 2. True to the spirit of Call of Duty franchise (where it still belongs despite shedding the name), Modern Warfare 2 is the game of set pieces, scripted and hardcoded and any illusion of the world it might be creating is crudely shattered once you decide to go against the rules.
Case in point: I tried playing this mission so that I don’t have to shoot any civilians. I just walked, watching my terrorist comrades mow down dozens of screaming people (shooting either of them makes you fail the mission) and of course none of them reacted. They are, after all, scripted to kill, not to observe.
However, managing not to kill one civilian is pointless since, as soon as the police/ airport security reaches the scene, there is no way out of the mission but kill. The game, in the true Call of Duty fashion will continue respawning enemies until you shoot (or pumell) enough bodies that you can step over an invisible trigger and move the script further. As the script is set so that no matter how long you wait, your comrades can not kill enough enemies to make you walk over the trigger safely, you have no choice but to kill law enforcement troops in order to finalize the mission.
And this is exactly where the catch is. This is not controversy. In terms of game mechanics this is just ancient game design.
Controversy should relate to ethics, I believe, because this is exactly what is being addressed in all those writeups about this mission – the ethics of killing unarmed people (whom, as demonstrated you’re not required to kill by the game). Ethics exist only where there is choice. Good and evil (or at least good and bad) make sense only if you can choose between them. Choice is the foundation of ethics and moral.
And Modern Warfare 2, just like Uncharted 2 or BioShock offers no choice. At least not where it matters.
Now, as already said, murdering (as opposed to merely killing) in BioShock or Manhunt 2 has narrative justification. These are games that deal with ugly topics and make you uneasy for a reason (as opposed to Uncharted 2 where murder is vehemently out of place on all conceivable levels). But Modern Warfare 2 does not improve on this idea. Sure, it renders people dying in more graphical detail but to believe that this equals to pushing the envelope of gaming as an interactive, visual and narrative medium is close to admitting that games would be better if they were movies.
Modern Warfare 2 is, in gameplay terms, as controversial as Space Invaders. Both games require you to kill in order to progress and neither game leaves you any choice in ethical terms. The only choice is not to play the game – that is, to be taken out of the immersive environment of the game by making a real world choice – only in Modern Warfare 2’s case, this is camouflaged by giving the player the option to skip the mission in question. The end result is the same: you make your ethical choice through refusing to engage with the game’s mechanics.
Which is a defeat of sorts for gaming as a medium of any kind. Shouldn’t games address ethics through gameplay, not through abstaining from it? Shouldn’t games marked with an 18, such as Modern Warfare 2 be about allowing the player to make a choice that requires playing through content and bearing the consequences?
Because, you see, all those justified kills from all those other games you played – their justification in narrative terms is meaningless (meaningless, I say!!) if there’s no underlying game rule that says “you HAVE to kill in order to progress”. This, and not the narrative is what makes those kills justified. This is, then, the point we should be addressing if we mean our games to move forward in terms of narrative and ethics. Because gameplay is king and game rules define gameplay. Letting the player not play the game and pretending this is somehow an ethical choice in harmony with the game’s rules is just wrong.
Because, when all is said and done, people have shat all kinds of crap all over Grand Theft Auto for giving the player the ability to hire then kill prostitutes and take the money back, but Grand Theft Auto never once made you do it. You could do it, but you were not required to. And, yes, you suffered a small penalty in terms of the game economics if you didn’t do it. But the game was perfectly playable and enjoyable even if you didn’t. So, did you do it?
I know I didn’t. Nor once in all those GTA games. Because I was given meaningful choice and freedom to choose and bear the consequences. And then and there, for a short period of time I was an ethical being. Alas, in 2009, playing (admittedly fun) Modern Warfare 2, I am just another first person shooter.