If there's one game that doesn't get the respect it deserves, it's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Made in a short 18 months by developers who were really trying to make the sci-fi game they'd been wanting to make for years (and finally have, in the form of Titanfall), released without dedicated servers or modding support for the PC versions, and featuring the infamous "No Russian" sequence, you might think that Infinity Ward had gone off the reservation. After all, these guys had released not one, not two, but three of the best video games ever made, with Call of Duty, Call of Duty 2, and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
It's an intriguing game, because it does a lot of cool things, particularly the addition of the spec-ops mode. Additionally, everyone ignores the fact that it's got at least three sections that are basically just The Rock, which, despite being a silly festival of Bayhem, is just so fun that I can't help but love it. Those showers in the Gulag? The Rock. The underwater scooters? The Rock. Waving green flares like mad while screaming like Nic Cage? Okay, only I did that, but the green flares bit, again, is in The Rock.
But these aren't really reasons to call it a great game. And, let's get one thing clear, I'm not going to call it a great game. People, even those I greatly respect, treat Modern Warfare 2 like it's an insipid thing. "No Russian," they say, is supposed to serve no purpose to the game's narrative other than shock value. I differ from these people in that I think "No Russian" not only served a purpose, but could have helped elevate the game.
So instead of writing a piece on why Modern Warfare 2 is bad, I'm going to talk about why being a "game" and trying to live up to what that means prevented Modern Warfare 2 from attaining excellence. In other words, I'm going to talk about Modern Warfare 2's redeeming points...
...like "No Russian."
Earlier, I talked about the idea that what makes games unique is that they're tools for self-reflection. Video games, by virtue of being interactive, allow us to act. As such, we can think about these actions. We act within a controlled environment, a sort of vacuum, that we can divorce ourselves from, that no one can judge us for. Essentially, we can be put in situations we'd never be put in and test ourselves, see what we'd do in various situations.
That, right there, is what makes games a unique art form. Interaction and reflection. Every other art form is essentially a kind of presentation and reflection: "you read, you watched, you heard characters do this and that and what did you learn from that?" Games say "you did, and what does that mean?"
So No Russian comes along and has you kill a bunch of people but you can totally avoid it so there's no room for self-reflection, right? It's a hollow, trumped-up experience.
If you play along with the game, putting yourself in the mind of the character, you're trying to infiltrate a bunch of Russian criminals, then things go way too far, and innocent people die. You are a person doing what you believe is right, and as a result, people die. Then the game flips everything on its head and puts you in the shoes of the people being punished for this act of terrorism.
A lot of people focus on the minutae, often selectively. They point out that the world isn't really like that, never mind that Russian soldiers are super future-equipped in this game, that the opening monologue explicitly states that this Russia is run by Zakhaev extremists who turned his death in the previous game into martyrdom, etc etc. The thing is, Modern Warfare 2 expresses that this is not our world, and as such, it's not going to work the way our world does.
And that's not really the point.
The point is that a terrorist committed an act of terrorism and then a big country invaded that terrorist's homeland and so the player has to defend their homeland, while the rest of the world sits idly by and is kinda like "hey, that might not be a great idea, man, but we're not stopping you unless nukes get involved."
Does that sound familiar?
Because it should.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is asking Americans whether they should really have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq because of the actions of a few terrorists. And it does so by putting the players in the shoes of both the terrorists and the people who suffer the wrath of an injured nation.
It's unrealistic for the sake of making that point.
But it doesn't do so particularly well. Right off the bat, the game goes a bit conspiracy theorist nuthouse on it. Much of what people have mentioned as plot holes, the game explains... as if Russia was complicit in the terrorist attack featured in "No Russian." I'm not really sure why they missed it, but I'll chalk it up to skipping the level monologues and not piecing together some obvious plot bits (The Russians took down the IFF satellite before No Russian, which we know was used to fly into US Airspace, and the Russian government were a bunch of Zakhaev followers, of which Makarov was very high-ranking).
Maybe it's because someone writing Modern Warfare 2 was a Truther, or maybe it's because Infinity Ward didn't want you to feel like Russia was totally blameless in this. Whatever the case, the game ultimately suggests that Russia allowed this terrorist attack to happen, and just about every single 'plot hole' noted in regards to Modern Warfare 2 is actually just people not paying attention to the game's political climate.
That, right there, can sabotage the narrative somewhat, robbing the player of reflection by distracting with paranoia, but I think there's a different issue at play here: the idea that 'games' should be fun.
On Monday, we took a look at what gameplay is and touched on the idea that people are often very rigid in the way they think about the medium. "It says 'game' right there on the tin, so it has to be a game!" they say, and what often follows that is the idea that games 'should be fun.' We exist in a culture where people say things like "do you think this is just a game?" People "play" games. The word 'game' is burdened with the idea that games aren't serious. They're frivolous. They're fun. I'm starving for serious conversations about games because people either tell me I don't need to be so serious or only want to talk about the social injustice flavor of the month.
And, I mean, I think this discussion stuff is fun. Most don't, however. Those people who do talk about design tend to do so within their own little circles, primarily just developers and a few journalists. I can talk about serious film stuff with people until the cows come home, but that doesn't generally hold true for games.
So we're sitting here with a medium that could be serious, could be innovative and interesting, could do all sorts of really cool things, and while many people are attempting this stuff, the prevailing mode of thought is basically that games shouldn't be this way. Look at the low review scores that Spec-Ops: The Line got. Most reviewers said that the game "wasn't fun." Plenty of players said as much as well, especially the kind of people who think that the act of play is the only important part of a video game experience.
But... Spec-Ops: The Line isn't supposed to be fun. It's a game about how horrible combat is, about how anyone who could enjoy bringing so much suffering upon others is a horrible person, about how murder and war is crazy. It's not fun because it wants you to question shooters, and that final, horrible slog through the game is a very, very deliberate design choice. If Spec-Ops: The Line had been fun, then a statement like "killing is bad, guys," would ring hollow, because, well, clearly, killing is fun.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a fun game. It's a bit of an absurd romp, and no, it's not well-written. It has a neat idea, tries to really use the medium to its full potential, and botches the implementation. I enjoy playing it, and I'm certainly not going to tell you it's some great work of societal enlightenment.
But it did try to do something with the medium, and found it sabotaged, among other things, by the need to be a really fun blockbuster experience.
It's not a nonsensical game, it's a flawed but interesting one.
By now, you've probably guessed I've got an unusual perspective on things. Last week, I talked about how horror games can benefit from giving players weapons, and how a first-person shooter's going to be the most important video game of all time. On Monday, I said that gameplay isn't the be-all, end-all of video games, Tuesday I spoke about why Bioshock did more harm to thinking about games than good, and today, I've suggested that Modern Warfare 2 has redeeming values, and I've said that games don't have to be fun.
I get that, to some people, this can be seen as contrarian. And maybe I am. Maybe I just really, really, really like going against what's popular. That may very well be the case—I am, after all, the guy who doesn't think Half-Life 2 and Mass Effect 2 are particularly great. But that's not what I feel like I'm doing; what I'm trying to do is rethink everything. I like looking at people and seeing what makes them tick, and I believe that gaming's really grown in a direction that's based more on preconceptions based on words and ideas rather than an intimate understanding of the why and how human beings react to things the way they do.
I get that some of you aren't particularly wild about what I do, or the opinions I have, so you'll probably be happy to know that I won't be able to post as much. It's job stuff. I'm really, really in need of a better job, but for right now, this is all I've got, and rent and groceries? Well, they're important. I've got a car battery that needs replacing, and I can't afford to do even that.
I'll be around, don't get me wrong. I still plan on posting one, maybe two posts a week. If I can get a better job, or maybe someone pays me to write somewhere, then cool, I'll start posting a lot more frequently. Maybe I can even write more than one draft, who knows? For now, though, you can, as always, follow me on my Tumblr and Twitter feeds.