Justifying the Means

[This post contains spoilers as to the entirety of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's plot. I loved Modern Warfare 2 and will write about the brilliant core gameplay, mechanics, and level design in a later piece, but this is not that piece.]

“Two men took down an entire base. I ask much more from you now.” General Shepard says as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 loads the upcoming mission. Shepard goes on to tell the player about the danger of a Russian named Makarov who has “no rules. [And] No Boundaries.” Shepard says “You don’t want to know what it’s cost already to put you next to him,” insinuating the lengths which this special fictional task force has gone to in order to get the player in deep cover alongside a Russian terrorist. Shepard then says “It will cost you a piece of yourself,” and “It will cost nothing compared to everything you’ll save.”

The screen fades to black and the game pops up a “Disturbing Content Notice” window detailing that “disturbing or offensive” content is forthcoming. You hit “Continue.” Modern Warfare 2 asks “Are you sure?” You hit yes. The sounds of an elevator descending or ascending are heard alongside the unzipping of backpacks and the loading of magazines into weaponry. The details of the new mission slowly appear on the screen. The name of the mission: “No Russian.” Makarov’s face comes into view, alongside three other people dressed in body armor wielding large machine guns and M4 assault rifles. Makarov says “Remember – no Russian.” The five of you walk into what is revealed to be a bustling airport terminal as the objective is displayed on screen: “Follow Makarov’s lead.” Civilian men and women are standing idly in lines while security guards watch on; the audio scene is that of typical airport noises, conversations, and general foot steps all around. And then you have access to your weapon and Makarov and his henchmen open fire on the crowd. Dozens of people are mowed down, you hear screaming in the background, see some people fleeing the area.

Checkpoint reached.

You walk slowly, forced into a slow speed by the game, making you wonder if the name of the mission, “No Russian,” is some sort of bad pun. You set off a metal detector as you progress while your “teammates” continue to fire on any civilians or security guards in sight. Someone is crawling on the ground in pain in front of you and one of Makarov’s men shoots him down. Someone is stumbling and breaks into a run near you, he too is gunned down. And the mission continues like this, with the very detailed gore and civilians crawling on the ground (trailing blood), for about three or four more minutes. Dozens upon dozens of dead civilian bodies later, the typical Call of Duty gameplay kicks in against the very well-armed and bullet-resistant Russian equivalent of a SWAT team comes in with riot shields.

This is a mission that is given to players under the conceit of “the ends justify the means,” a popular theme amongst antiheroes like Jack Bauer and Vic Mackey throughout the decade. The problem with this is that Infinity-Ward tasks players with having faith that both the ends, the means, and the entire premise of the game will all come into focus at some point. “No Russian” is the fourth mission in Modern Warfare 2; preceded by a training mission, a generic trek through a village in Afghanistan in a jeep with a minigun, and a trip into a heavily guarded Russian base to get an ACS module (which is…?). By the time players get to the airport scene, they know all of nothing about Modern Warfare 2′s overarching plot other than that it involves Russians and a secret task force that may or may not be part of the CIA. Yet, the game tasks them with this mission under that ever-tenuous veil of the greater good. The mission is intended to be shocking, confusing, dark, and controversial. And this mission exists in the same video game that has an entire mission which is essentially a recreation of Michael Bay’s The Rock.

As I went through the mission, without killing a single civilian until I got the point where I would die if I didn’t fight against the SWAT-like “enemies,” I thought only of one thing: why do I have to do this? Why can’t I make the rational choice to kill Makarov then and there? Maybe the greater good will suffer, but I want to make that simple, very obvious choice. Games as an interactive medium can’t get (and shouldn’t) away by providing purely shocking or horrifying content even if it’s handled expertly; there has to be a ludic reason for a mission. I applaud Infinity-Ward for keeping “No Russian” an interactive mission where I have the kind of agency the game has accustomed me to, but by not making every target on the screen someone that the fiction supports me wanting to shoot, it opens up door that it needs to have keys to.

Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t have the kind of interactions necessary for the interactions I naturally desire in “No Russian.” At no point did I want to shoot a civilian in this mission. And I actively wanted to stop the ones who were shooting them. “No Russian” is not like Grand Theft Auto IV, also a very graphically realistic game, where I’m goofing around and accidentally run into a civilian and laugh while the impressive physics send the civilian flying. In GTA4 when I kill a civilian, it’s purely an accident or just random messing around with game systems, but it’s never something the game has its fiction enforce and reinforce. There is never a mission in Grand Theft Auto 4 where I’m tasked with killing a completely innocent civilian and I cannot progress unless I do so. And, if anything, I should be more okay with that game asking me to kill a civilian as my character has a very defined personality and role in that world. Infinity-Ward asks me to act as the character I’m playing (though they do try to dissuade that feeling by having Private Allen, the character you play in “No Russian,” talk in a preceding cut scene). For “No Russian” to work, I have to buy into the premise fully. I have to know that what I’m doing is vile but necessary. I have to have Vic Mackey‘s conviction that what I’m doing is the right thing to do, as hard as it is.

Being only the fourth mission in Modern Warfare 2, though, “No Russian” does not have the luxury of my trust or belief in its world. The mission comes out of nowhere with only the setup I gave at the beginning of this piece as reason to kill innocent civilians. I don’t even see a single shred of logic in what the game did offer me for reasoning. How does killing hundreds of people in cold blood somehow prevent a later atrocity? I don’t believe that doing any of this brings me closer to Makarov’s trust, but I do believe it makes me just as awful a human being as the game is telling me my enemy is.

Maybe that’s the point. I got it wrong: the ends don’t justify the means but, rather, I must become as evil as the worst men in the world in order to save the innocent. It’s a flawed concept, but I can almost see what the mission is constructing if that’s the case. I’m supposed to be revolted, I’m supposed to hate the game for giving me this task, I’m supposed to have no way out, and I’m supposed to feel that my only purpose is to have faith that the task I’m given will work out in the end. Okay. I can almost see that. It’s a flawed idea, a flawed execution, and a contrived situation which takes the fears of the modern world and preys on them… But, okay. I’ll try and buy into this. And so I do. I finish the mission. And when I get to the end of the mission and get into a van with Makarov and his men, one of Makarov’s men says “That will send a message!” Makarov says “No, this will send a message” and he shoots my character. And I’m dead.

So now I feel dirty for everything I have done and for attempting to reason my way out of the terrible position the game illogically and undeservedly put me in… And it ends with the game twirling its metaphorical mustache by pulling a plot twist lower than even 24 would ever go by having my American character get framed for the killing of all of these Russian civilians and igniting World War III. To make matters worse, the game never ends up actually justifying the actions of my character at the Russian airport. The airport terminal massacre sets the game’s overarching events in motion but no more. The game simply raises the stakes from mission to mission until I am to the logical extreme of battling in a war-torn Washington DC, popping green flares (The Rock, again) from above the West Wing. And, what’s worse, Makarov is never heard from again other than two lines of dialogue at the other end of radio chatter in a mission in the game’s final act.

The issue being raised by journalists and gamers is whether or not this kind of content has a place in games given the incredibly varied audience of a game like Modern Warfare 2. And, definitely, more games should attempt to portray controversial and mature content in interesting, relevant ways. To boil the issue down to as clear a point as possible: the problem with “No Russian” is that Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t earn the fictional right to present the content that it does. Whether this specific mission is well-executed or not, and I don’t think it is, if the reason for its existence is not contextually supported then its presence is gratuitous and its intent lost.

In “No Russian,” Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 compromised the integrity of its gameplay, its narrative, and my implicit trust solely for the sake of a macguffin.

16 thoughts on “Justifying the Means

  1. I think I disagree with this part of your contention: “For “No Russian” to work, I have to buy into the premise fully. I have to know that what I’m doing is vile but necessary. I have to have Vic Mackey’s conviction that what I’m doing is the right thing to do, as hard as it is.”

    I think it's very limiting to say you as the player have to buy into the notion that what you're doing is the right thing to do. By demanding that, you're essentially arguing that games can only present sympathetic player characters–you can't create the game equivalent of, say, A Clockwork Orange, because as the player you (understandably) can't be convinced that what Alex does is in any way justifiable.

    I don't think it's right to say that the player should always have the same motivations as the player's character, or even sympathetic motivations. I realize this could be a problem, in that a game — unlike a book or a film or a play — doesn't keep going without the player's complicity. But I'm not sure that's actually that big a deal, considering how many critically and commercial successful games don't give two shits about what the player actually wants to do in any given scenario. Uncharted 2 is a recent example of that model; it's just that all the serial killing in that game is of the run-of-the-mill type that we're accustomed to, intentionally being non-shocking rather than (as in MW2) being intentionally shocking. But you certainly can't ask yourself, “These guards are just doing their guarding jobs, why should I kill hundreds and hundreds of them?”

    To me, the lack of sufficient character motivation isn't the crucial issue with this Modern Warfare 2 level. (It certainly makes the plot of the game ridiculous and idiotic; I don't mean to give it a pass in that regard, because it's stupid, and I agree with you there.) I don't think there's anything wrong with making the player do something uncomfortable because his character has different motivations than the player does. If, in every game, the player is nothing but a player-validating power fantasy avatar who acts out the player's own moral impulses, then it's going to be really difficult to ever convey any meaning that isn't completely facile and pandering, which is generally what happens.

    Rather, my issue is that the GAME didn't have the sufficient motivation. Whether my faceless character did or not is one thing, but whether the game was actually using that bizarre act to any purpose is quite another. I'm only I think about halfway through MW2 so far, but after having played through this level and a few past it, the entire game seems like a scattershot selection of totally disconnected scenes that some designer or writer just thought were individually totally badass or crazy. The reason the snowmobile bit was in there is because somebody thought it would be thrilling (and it pretty much was). The reason you're suddenly in South America running though a hostile mountain village is because somebody thought it was awesome. And the reason you're stalking through a crowded airport murdering hundreds of civilians is because somebody thought it would be shocking and provocative and edgy–but they never actually stopped to think what they were trying to achieve.

    The ultra-pastiche structure of this game was already getting on my nerves by the time I got this level, but after finishing this level (and this feeling only intensified as I played more, until I quit the game for the night) I was actually bordering on angry. It was cheap and distasteful and gross, and it seemed to have no reason to be there at all.

  2. You make a number of valid points. The one I specifically want to comment on is this (and this is late for me, so apologies for sloppy rational/grammar): “I think it's very limiting to say you as the player have to buy into the notion that what you're doing is the right thing to do.”

    I think I poorly communicated one aspect of my post; in this specific game, I think that believing that what you're doing in a mission makes sense is an important thing for the game/story to establish. There isn't really a strong characterization of the “good guys” or the “bad guys”, especially at this early point in the game, so believing that what a player is doing makes sense in the world or is a worthwhile thing for the player to spend time doing is an important mindset for the game to establish. The character that a player is controlling is, especially, a non-entity within the game world. The player's actions define the self of the player character, so forcing a player to commit terrorist actions can be done, but it feels like it should have some justifiable or understandable logic attached to it. If the game asks the player to commit a terrorist act for no stated or understandable reason, regardless of if its justifiable or not, it seems like the game is being as gratuitous as a Saw movie.

    Your comment makes absolute sense, and I by no means support the concept of forcing the player to commit actions that only line up with his personal ideas of morality or justice. Creating gameplay that solely reinforces our personal worldviews or doesn't expose the player to new, confusing, or undesirable feelings is an absurd thing to limit games to. That said, and hopefully this clears my perspective up, I feel that creating those feelings needs to be done for an understandable (fiction-supported) reason. If that's not done, then throwing shocking scenes into a game is done solely for shock rather than meaning.

  3. One of the worst parts of the mission in the context of the game's plot is really that there's no coherent narrative reason for either its existence or your character's presence at it. How did you get inserted into this guy's (apparently) elite crack team of civilian shooters? It just seems to happen, and rather abruptly at that.

    The following plot is no better; did Shepard intend for this to happen, since apparently his personal motivation is to have something horrible happen so he can reap personal benefit from it? The thing seems to be this random island thrown into the middle of the narrative, and isn't nearly as well handled as I expected considering the (presumably intended) emotional weight of the content.

    Like I said earlier, I figured that the complete disappearance of Makarov later in the game's plot was a weak nod to the Bush administration's pursuit of bin Laden, but I'm not sure if this is actually a point they meant to make or some sort of accidental allegory that they missed an opportunity to mine.

  4. A problem that you seem to be having is that you keep assuming that the means were actually supposed to be justified at some point, that it actually does prevent some later atrocity. You're forgetting the part where Shepard is not to be trusted. He never wanted to prevent any sort of atrocity. He wanted war, and a big one, at that, with lots of willing pawns under his command. The man wanders the battlefield with a revolver and no armor; he was not made for this era of peace.

    I'll say it again: your actions in the airport are NEVER justified. All that mission is is a plot to start the next world war, and you, Joseph Allen, don't have a clue.

    This goes back to how the entire game is structured: you're always a minor character, following orders. You don't make command decisions, and you never have all of the information. You are one of many like yourself, and the only reason you, the player, survive as long as you do is because you are the lucky one.

  5. I have only played through a few missions in Act II, so I don't know the whole picture yet (I'm on the oil rig), but however Trent's thoughts are on the mark or not in the context of the plot, the mission is outright stupid and completely implausible.

    First off, just because you were shot and left behind this starts off WWIII? I know the Ultranationalists are in charge, but Makarov says Russia will rally for a full scale assault on the US. Um, what? Because one American, who was obviously betrayed by his team with the point blank shot in the head, was found on the scene? Was there not a single witness, not a single bit of security camera footage showing Makarov and the other three obviously non-Americans killing civilians? And how about the American obviously not shooting any Civilians (should you choose not to)? And why does the FSB swat-like team allow an ambulance to just waltz on out of the massacre as they approach your dying body at the end of the mission? Lunacy.

    Then there's the actual attack. So we're mean to believe that an ACS Unit (whatever that is) on a single downed satellite will allow the Russians to completely subvert America's ENTIRE defense system? Even if you buy into that completely implausible situation, it's obvious the Russians have no intent on sparing civlians in this attack, what with that armored vehicle firing like crazy on homes trekkiing down the street. Why wouldn't the Russians just nuke DC and get it over with? And what is with this cat and mouse mission you go on? What is so strategic about a gas station and a couple chain restaurants in suburban DC?

  6. Good article, I saw on your twitter when you first started talking about this, and I have to say I agree. I wish IW would have thought to allow you to kill Makarov in the airport, but then maybe you find out that wasn't the real Makarov and just a double then they set a preplanted bomb off. It would have still accomplished the goals they went for, made the player look guilty, kept Makarov alive and caused mass civilian casualties.

  7. That would be why they didn't kill all of the civilians: many reports of english-speaking aggressors. If there are no survivors, who will there be to provide witness accounts of the attack? Your would-be comrades were calling out tactical information in english during the entire mission, loud enough to be heard by anyone in the area.

    On the Russian penetration of the coasts, you're right. That is a pretty huge plot-hole. Even if our satellites were disabled, we still have ships off the coasts with their own detection systems.

    It seems like the entire Russian offensive was a giant “fuck you” to America. They insert millions of soldiers, bulldoze suburbia and everyone in it, and take our capital away from us.

  8. The narrative has to justify the scene; since there are no real strong identifications with primary or supporting characters by that point, Infinity Ward, essentially, has to fictionally “earn” the right to use a scene like that in their game. It doesn't have to morally justifiable, but its existence needs to be justified by the story. It isn't and, as such, a scene like that comes off as being tasteless shock-fodder rather than a thought-provoking attempt to inflict very unusual feelings on players.

  9. The more I think about this mission and Makarov's subsequent absence from the game, I realize that it'll probably be the loose end tied up in Modern Warfare 3 or some future DLC.

  10. The “twist” at the end of “No Russian” was a giant fuck-you to the player. “Oh, you think you're an action hero? Surprise! THIS JUST GOT REAL”.

    Except it didn't get real, at all. I think it would be great to have an interactive experience of the compromise and hard choices entailed by the “war on terror”. This game is so far from being that. So far, the only goal of Modern Warfare 2 seems to be the glorification of a vicious cynicism- “whatever works”. Why am I supposed to find that a fun gameplay experience?

    Thanks for writing this- it's what I've been trying to explain coherently to everyone I've talked to since I played that mission.

  11. What do you mean it isn't justified? Any single mission except for the last could be eliminated from the game. There is no single mission that is “justified” in terms of plot. I mean just think for a second: could there ever be a scene like this that NECESSARILY has “strong identifications with primary or supporting characters”, especially for a video game plot. Of course not! No mater what, it would ALWAYS be viewed as “shock-fodder” because people would always have a hard time seeing why such a scene is necessary.

    So since it is basically impossible to please people like you (once you realize that such a scene is never justified by plot vis-a-vis using a less-violent mission), people go and assume that the only reason they put it in there was for shock value. BS! What probably happened is that someone did the EXACT same thing as Kurt Vonnegut in SlaughterHouse-Five or Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers–they thought they would put in a scene that would different and cool and with style. Makarov's simple phrase, “Remember, no Russian”, his whole demeanor, the Matrix-style abundance of hardware and outmatched victims: they are all there to put the player in awe, not necessarily shock. Now because this medium is a video game, which includes particular biased views, many assume that the developers must have put it in there just to shock people. This assumption is COMPLETELY unfounded. I mean, once you think about it, you have no evidence for it whatsoever. It may have shocked you, but it is completely consistent to assume that the developers wanted to put something cool in the game. Maybe they even wanted to put a thought-provoking scene in the game. But the distance third is that some of the developers were twisting their mustaches and saying, “I know, let's put something in there that's really F-ed up–let's just shock the hell out of people!”

    If it came off as shocking to you, just realize how difficult it would be to make a scene like this even if the developers had no intention to shock people. Then, upon reflection, your impression should seem completely unfounded.

  12. So your argument seems kind of strange and lost in the mix of accusations you throw out. I've read your first paragraph roughly five times and still have a hard time understanding what you're getting at. There are an abundance of missions in Modern Warfare 2 that are justifiably included in the game for either plot relation or just pure fun that the game goes out of its way to set up. The airport level comes out of nowhere, certainly isn't there for “fun,” and therefore we have to assume it's there to be engaging or thought-provoking. It provokes thought, yes, but mostly about its relevance in the greater game and whether or not its design and execution was in good taste.

    “they thought they would put in a scene that would different and cool and with style”

    What? How is anything about “No Russian” cool or stylish? It's about going “undercover” and proving your worth to Makarov by needlessly massacring civilians. Even by the low standards of a show like 24, that's a weak thread to go on. Given that the mission greatly reduces the capabilities of the player (very slow walk speed, no jumping, etc), we have to assume that, again, Infinity-Ward didn't want this mission to be “fun” so much as “powerful.” And maybe that's not a bad impetus, but the specific design and execution of this mission was so absurd, so over-the-top, and in such a place (an airport) as to blatantly work off of post-9/11 fears that I fail to see how anything makes for a “cool” or “stylish” thing to put into the game. And, yes, when you put the player in a role to kill civilians in an airport, taking the position that “No Russian” isn't intended to shock people is an almost non-defensible one to take.

    And how does “No Russian” in any way compare to anything from The Matrix, again?

  13. Great article, but a frustrating read, due to the lack of proper punctuation in a lot of spots. Please close your quotations! If this article is following some sort of nouveau grammatical style, of which I'm not aware, I remain frustrated; however, I apologize.

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