[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.
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.