SLSA Q&A, part 2: Inevitable Death

This post responds to the second part of the question I received after my talk on Sympathy for NPCs in Modern Warfare 2 at SLSA. In the first part, I explained that I thought the level should not be skippable because of its significance to the larger argument of the game. The second component of my question is related, but not obviously so. My questioner asked what do you think about the fact that Makarov kills the playable character, Private Allen, at the end.

makarov-shoots-allen

Simply put, Makarov has to kill Allen. It is the only way the level can end for several reasons.

First, for the game’s narrative, Allen’s body on the scene is the key to the rest of the plot. Makarov sets up the terrorist attack on the fake Moscow airport, opening fire on his own people, in order to frame the US and instigate a war. That is why the level begins with him reminding his horde not to speak Russian during the attack. As they make their escape, Makarov shoots Allen and leaves him on the scene. When the Russian authorities come, they find the body of one of the terrorists (Allen), identify him as CIA, and thus determine that they have been attacked by the US. Russia then launches a full-scale assault on the US, which makes the final two acts of the game, continuing on to Modern Warfare 3.

Leaving that aside, killing Allen at the end is the only way to accommodate the range of potential responses players might have toward the No Russian level. The level is skippable so the story still has to work if the player decides not to play it. Eliminating Allen during the level cleans this up nicely. Same goes for if the player decides not to participate in the shooting. Players can go through the level without killing a single civilian, just by ambling through the mayhem and letting Makarov’s crew do the dirty work (In fact, in Japan and Germany the game was alters so that players would receive a “game over” for shooting civilians). Of course, if Makarov’s crew didn’t know already, they would have figured out Allen was not one of them if he didn’t shoot anyone. He could not continue on as an undercover agent in their group and so has to be killed at some point during the level.

If the player did fully participate, either in order to keep Allen’s cover or, I guess, just because, execution by Makarov is the final expression of the level’s critique of few-for-many logics. No matter how the player goes through the level, Allen comes out as the goat. Before this level begins, Colonel Shepherd explains to Allen (during the load screens) that whatever he has to do to get close to Makarov, such as participate in a terrorist attack, “will cost nothing compared to everything you’ll save.” This logic is invalidated by the conclusion of the level, however, because Allen’s participation allows Makarov to frame the US and instigate World War 3. Thus, even if the horror of walking through the piles of dead civilians were not enough to prompt critical reflection on Shepherd’s logic, Makarov’s shooting of Allen leaves player to wonder what was the point of all that.

Because the level ends by invalidating whatever Allen does during the level, many players were disappointed that they went through No Russian and got nothing for it. But that was part of the point. I think I referred to to that as the final “stomach punch” of the level. Allen’s efforts were a disastrous failure. It completely undermines the supreme power fantasy that pervades most FPS — even the majority of the Modern Warfare series. Players go through the level killing defenseless NPCs to become in the end, not a hero, but a pawn. Another sacrifice to the larger conflict. It’s a compromising position to be in, especially following the moral drama of the level. You cannot “do the right thing” in this level; you just have to take it.

As a set piece, No Russian is more reflective than interactive. While the ending is convenient to facilitate the larger plot, the game, and the No Russian level in particular, is trying to question power and the morality of war. For the level to remain a question, it cannot be “solved” by the player. You can’t “win” No Russian, but you can think about what happened. The terrorist attack has to come off as as a senseless, pointless, and gratuitous waste of life. It is in its gratuitousness that the level is poignant, some might say paradoxically given the content.  Any other conclusion, in which Allen would survive, presumably, I think that opportunity would be lost.

SLSA Q&A, part 1: Skippable

Thanks to the understanding people of SLSA, I was able to give my presentation, “Sympathy for the NPC: Re-sensitizing Violence in Modern Warfare 2,” via Skype. While the presentation part went over pretty well, I am afraid the feedback during the question session muddled my response to the excellent and apt question I received. So, after taking some more time to think about it, I wanted to post a more coherent answer on the clear-channel of my blog.

The two-part question asked what did I think of the fact that the “No Russian” level of Modern Warfare 2 is optional and that it concludes with playable character Private Allen being shot by Makarov. I’ll answer the first part in this post and the second part tomorrow.

As I attempted to say during the conference, the option to skip No Russian was included as a concession to the controversy of playing “as” a terrorist. Because the controversy around the leaked footage started less than a month before release, it is unlikely that the option to skip the level was a reaction to the public response. I don’t know for sure, but I expect they knew it would be a big deal and prepared for the backlash by making it skippable. Personally, I find this a disconcerting and cynical trend in the gaming industry.

Infinity-Ward-Didnt-Provide-Enough-Warning-To-Players-Before-No-Russian

The level is, in my reading, supremely important to argument and core experience of the game. Not only is what happens in the airport pivotal to the plot, the questions it raises about the acceptable cost of war are central to the conversation the game is trying to have. The shock of the level makes it the most salient and intense moment that discussion. Allowing users to skip it, even if they might find playing it reprehensible, indicates the developer’s lack of confidence in the medium as a platform to make serious statements and deal with difficult topics.

In fact, the entire point of the level is to find it distrubing. The suddenness of opening fire, the low drone of the soundtrack, the injured victims dragging their legs, the pace slowed by having to walk through the level, this isn’t a free-for-all shooting gallery. It has weight and gravitas, it feels weird and uncomfortable.  Even if it is somewhat overwrote, the apparent goal at least is to prompt concern and disgust with what is happening. Furthermore, Allen’s participation in the attack is justified by Colonel Shepherd as sacrificing the few (the Russian civilians at the airport) for the many (American citizens threaten by Makarov’s gang). The feeling of reprehension at the No Russian level is, therefore, supposed to call into question that kind of reasoning, which incidentally had been voiced on more than one occasion by America’s political leadership justifying actions in the current war(s) on terror. Even if the level is somewhat awkward in its expression, it is definitely trying to have a conversation and a conversation worth having.

NoRussian

If the developers can’t stand behind such an attempt, then it is hard not to see them as trying to profit on sensationalism.  I can’t really say if that is the case with Infinity Ward; maybe they are very serious about their craft. By making the level optional, however, they agree with their critics. No, this isn’t something games should be dealing with.  I would much rather have seen them keep the level without an option to skip and when the controversy comes explain cogently what they are trying to do and make claims for the importance of gaming moments that generate a spectrum of emotions. Maybe that is a lot to ask from a corporation, but the medium needs it.