For years now, there’s been a growing discussion about the importance of Story, specifically as it applies to videogames. The people having that discussion also may bring up the concept of Art, as in: “Are videogames art?” As the game industry grows larger and fights for legitimacy in the public eye, this question becomes important, even if it’s not necessarily relevant.
A lot of great game franchises have been ruined by Story. The Tony Hawk franchise is a perfect example; the first few games really just focused on capturing the experience of skateboarding, and to that end they succeeded mightily. Eventually, though, as the game kept churning out sequels with marginal technical improvements and the need to innovate became stronger, the game developed a story mode. And that’s really where the franchise fell apart, for me. I didn’t care about being a little skate punk, I didn’t need to stick it to the man, etc.; all I wanted to was skate, and do the things that I couldn’t do in real life. I suppose I could’ve hung in if the story was at least told well, but it was bland and unoriginal. What was I supposed to expect? The developers had been making a skateboarding game, but now they were supposed to tell me a story? How do those particular disciplines mesh?
Then there’s games like Brutal Legend, which is so focused on its story and the design of the world you play in that the actual gameplay feels like an afterthought. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t. On the opposite side of that spectrum, a game like Borderlands has almost no story to speak of, but the gameplay is so well-designed and focused that it almost doesn’t even matter that there’s no story-driven motivation.
And then there are franchises like Metal Gear, where the story is so central to the experience that there’s almost no actual game to play; a 10 minute action sequence will be followed by a 40-minute cut scene, and then you’ll walk down a hallway and another 30-minute cut scene will ensue. I’m not going to get into MGS’s story quality, because that’s an entirely different 10,000-word blogpost, and in any event I’ve already written about it.
But story quality is important, and that’s my real bone to pick with Modern Warfare 2.
The Call of Duty franchise’s defining characteristic has been its scripted events. You’ll play as an American soldier, and then after a big “event” you’ll switch perspectives and then play as a British soldier, or a Russian soldier, etc. Call of Duty 4, which moved the franchise out of the trenches of WW2 and into modern day, kept this perspective-switching intact but also took it in intriguing and shocking new directions; the very beginning of the game features your character suddenly being executed, and the end of the game features your character dying in a nuclear holocaust. This whole idea of watching yourself die, totally powerless to save yourself, was unnerving and visceral and powerful.
The stakes for MW2, then, were set very high. How could the game’s developers manage to top the jaw-dropping moments of the first game? The answer to this question was, unfortunately, “if some is good, more is better.”
The “airport level”, as it’s been called, is genuinely controversial, and rightly so. You play an American soldier, undercover, who somehow has managed to be inserted into a Russian terrorist cell right next to “the most dangerous man in the world.” The scene begins in darkness; you hear the sound of guns being loaded. The lights fade up; you see that you are in an elevator. The most dangerous man in the world says a few words, and then the doors open, and you see that you’re in an airport, and you and your fellow terrorist are slowly walking through the airport, killing everyone you see. The creepiest thing about this sequence isn’t the killing of civilians, or the obvious parallel to 9/11 and the lingering paranoia about airport security; it’s the fact that you’re all walking so slowly, making sure you’re all taking the time to kill as many people as possible. You don’t even have to pull the trigger during this sequence; the rest of your gang members will do all the killing for you. The lingering sense of dread is almost overwhelming; it’s disturbing and uncomfortable.
So this is all shocking, and this occurs only about 1-2 hours into the game. But this isn’t where the level ends. After you get out of the airport, you’re back to shooting police and soldiers trying to stop you, and then the level ends with the Most Dangerous Man In The World suddenly revealing at the very last possible moment that he knows you were an American the whole time, and shooting you in the head.
Let’s set aside for the moment that your identity as an American sets off a chain reaction that plunges the U.S. and Russia into a global conflict that eventually sees you, among other things, staging an assault to reclaim the White House in the wake of an aborted nuclear missile attack on Washington D.C., and let us instead examine the other ways in which your player character is suddenly killed at the last possible moment in an unforeseen twist. Your character is also in a helicopter that gets shot down and when you wake up you are trapped in the wreckage, with no bullets; an enemy helicopter approaches, and the screen goes white.
Then, for no apparent reason, your perspective shifts and suddenly you’re an astronaut doing a space walk by the International Space Station, watching a nuclear missle’s arc cross the horizon. This is shocking enough – that’s probably why they put it in the commercial – but suddenly the missile is detonated and the electro-magnetic pulse generated by the missile’s explosion sends you flying out into space.
And then, the scene flashes back to you being trapped under the helicopter wreckage – it turns out that the EMP happened directly overhead, and so everything electronic in the area suddenly conks out, and the helicopter that was about to kill you crashes, and so you escape. Hooray! Except that it turns out later that, after you’ve raided the Most Dangerous Man in The World’s safehouse and retrieved valuable “intel”, you’re shot in the head by the main U.S. General in charge of the war effort, who then also sets you on fire.
And THEN, you’re in the desert, for some reason – I’m not even sure who the “you” is, at this point, since “you” have already died several times – and you’re chasing this same U.S. General, who manages to get into a helicopter from a moving speedboat, and then you manage to shoot the helicopter down, and it explodes, and then your speedboat falls over a cliff, and somehow you survive, and as it turns out the U.S. General also survived, and then he stabs you in the chest with a knife, and then eventually you regain the strength to pull the knife out of your chest and throw it (the knife) directly into the General’s eyeball. And then the credits roll, while people walk around in a museum, presumably showcasing certain famous scenes of the war, which are really quite violent for a kid-friendly museum.
This is all to say that the story is so over the top that it becomes melodramatic and nonsensical and just plain weird. And the thing that really makes it ridiculous is that, at least in my experience, you die a lot during the campaign. The game is hard; it only takes a few bullets to put you down, and there are a lot of enemies who fire a lot of bullets. The game has a relatively generous checkpoint system, as well as recharging health, but therein lies the breaking of the suspension of disbelief – I’ve already been shot a hundred thousand times in the course of this level; why shouldn’t I recover from being shot in the head at close range? Again?
The game part of the game is, of course, expertly well done. It’s graphically impressive, the weapons feel incredibly powerful, the atmosphere is charged and violent and unsettling. The rag-doll animation following a kill shot is especially unsettling; people just drop. And then of course there’s the multiplayer suite, which I dabbled in briefly last night and which better people than me can pontificate on. It’s all very well done, and it’s certainly worth a purchase, which is maybe a ridiculous thing to say given that anyone reading this probably already owns it.
But the story… wow. Here’s a suggestion for the sequel, which was inevitable even before it was set up by the game’s surprisingly clunky cliffhanger of an ending: maybe don’t kill the player character as much. It’s already been done far more than is necessary, and it ceases to mean anything since it’s not like your character even says anything, or is even clearly identifiable. There were a number of times during the campaign where someone would shout something to someone, and it took me a while to realize that they were shouting at me.
On an unrelated note, a hypothetical question: who kills more people, Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2, or your player character(s) in Modern Warfare 2? I could probably actually look this up and get real numbers, but off the top of my head it seems like the numbers would probably be pretty close.