Throughout the history of war-themed shooting video games, game designers have often thought about how they might use the tools at their disposal to explore a new dimension of commentary on their subject matter even as they also succeeded in creating best-selling entertainment. Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line is a recent example; Midway’s Blacksite: Area 51 and Free Radical Design’s Haze come to mind as earlier ones. I have sat in such meetings, too, where creative leads became excited for how they would somehow attain a deeper level of unvarnished truth than previous war-themed games were able to achieve.
For people of a certain sensitivity, it’s difficult not to come up against that desire sooner or later when they work on these kinds of games. To be an artist (or a craftsperson) and make something about today’s wars that’s corporately antiseptic and palatable, you often have to purposely leach the commentary away; you have to dance around the fact that there’s a lot of war in your game and that you have nothing at all to say about it.
Activision’s Call of Duty series is a virtuoso at this dance, and the only time the series really seemed like it might be attempting to dip its toe into the waters outside of its usual boundaries was a moment in Modern Warfare 2 called “No Russian”. In this much-discussed and criticized sequence– a small part of a larger level– the player occupies the consciousness of a double agent planted into a group of Russian terrorists as they attempt to incite a war between their country and the United States. They accomplish this by shooting civilians at an airport. The player stands next to the terrorists as they indiscriminately fire into the crowds; he or she can contribute to the fire if he or she chooses, or stand idly by. Either way, the scene is horrific and disturbing: in the mayhem, you watch as a middle-aged man in a purple shirt tries and fails to crawl away from a pool of his own blood. He was not a combatant. He could have been a bus driver or an accountant or a teacher.
Most of the critics I tend to read seem to have agreed that No Russian was not a success. They felt it was needlessly shocking, and many (including me) assumed that it was thrown in cynically to grab headlines and greater sales. The lead writer of Spec Ops: The Line (which, three years after Modern Warfare 2, featured more scenes of civilian massacre but generated far less controversy) suggested that even the optional nature of the event detracted from it:
Williams said that the team worked to avoid the clumsiness of “No Russian,” and that the easiest way around that was to make the civilian killing integral to the story they were trying to tell. “The thing that got me the most [about “No Russian”],”” Williams said, “was that you could opt out of playing it. And that struck me as saying, ‘We wanted to do something that would cause controversy, but it’s actually not necessary to the game, which is why you don’t have to play it.’”
But did the team at Infinity Ward really seek to cause controversy? Ever since it was released, nobody has actually known what the people who made No Russian were thinking, or what the authorial intent for that moment really was. This is partially because Infinity Ward (and subsequently Respawn) employees tend not to speak in public about the work they do, preferring to leave on-the-record interviews to a designated spokesperson. The story was further obscured by a lawsuit between a subset of current and former Infinity Ward employees and their parent company, Activision; anyone involved was advised to avoid talking about the game at all. Now that the suit has been settled, though, the gag on the creators of Modern Warfare 2 has been lifted.
* * *
“For that level we were trying to do three things,” says Mohammad Alavi, the game designer who was chiefly responsible for designing and implementing the sequence of events in No Russian. “Sell why Russia would attack the US, make the player have an emotional connection to the bad guy Makarov, and do that in a memorable and engaging way. In a first person shooter where you never leave the eyes of the hero, it’s really hard to build up the villain and get the player invested in why he’s ‘bad’.”
Alavi has created some of the Call of Duty series’ most memorable moments, including the taut, tightly paced ghillie suit sequence from Modern Warfare. He has since left Infinity Ward, along with many of his co-workers, to join Jason West and Vince Zampella at Respawn.
If he is a master of his domain– the high-budget first person shooter setpiece– his reasoning in this case strikes me as nothing so much as workmanlike. He makes no mention of a desire to plumb the depths of the human capacity for violence, or make a statement about the nature of violence in shooters. He expressly disavows the theory that it was a ploy to attract media attention.
Instead, Alavi saw that he had a storytelling goal, and the tools he had to reach that goal were the tools of Call of Duty: “The first iteration of the level only had the ‘massacre’ at just outside the elevator door. Beyond the first set of escalators, the combat would begin… [I]t felt cheap and gimmicky. It felt like we were touching on something raw and emotional and then shying away from it just as soon as it became uncomfortable.”
“I’ve read a few reviews that said we should have just shown the massacre in a movie or cast you in the role of a civilian running for his life,” Alavi continues. “Although I completely respect anyone’s opinion that it didn’t sit well with them, I think either one of those other options would have been a cop out… [W]atching the airport massacre wouldn’t have had the same impact as participating (or not participating) in it. Being a civilian doesn’t offer you a choice or make you feel anything other than the fear of dying in a video game, which is so normal it’s not even a feeling gamers feel anymore.”
Alavi wants to focus on the fact that there is attention and emotion, as opposed to the exact mechanism by which it was created, or even what the qualities of that emotion are. “It isn’t really relevant whether that makes you enjoy the entertainment experience even more because you’re being naughty (à la Grand Theft Auto) or it engrosses you further into the story and makes you resent your actions. What’s relevant is that the level managed to make the player feel anything at all,” he says.
“In the sea of endless bullets you fire off at countless enemies without a moment’s hesitation or afterthought, the fact that I got the player to hesitate even for a split second and actually consider his actions before he pulled that trigger– that makes me feel very accomplished.”
When he puts it that way, I feel like I understand Alavi’s reasoning up to the decision to create No Russian, whether or not I agree it was the best way to tell the story of the game. When one works in the medium of first person shooters, one must work with the forms the medium provides. Alavi simply wanted to “sell” (in his words) the story of the game and reinforce the badness of the bad guys to the best of his, and his chosen medium’s, ability. The choices that led to No Russian were choices along a series of logical steps followed to their inevitable conclusion: in a world where dozens of marionettes of human beings are constantly killed, something even worse has to happen to snap us awake.
* * *
Walt Williams of Spec Ops felt that what he terms No Russian’s “opt out” choice– referring, it seems, to a curt dialogue box just before the level that warned players about potentially disturbing content and gave them the option to bypass it– weakened No Russian. In a separate interview, Williams explained further why the massacre by the player’s character was mandatory to progress in his game:
“There’s a certain aspect to player agency that I don’t really agree with, which is the player should be able to do whatever the player wants and the world should adapt itself to the player’s desire,” he said. “That’s not the way that the world works, and with Spec Ops, since we were attempting to do something that was a bit more emotionally real for the player. […] That’s what we were looking to do, particularly in the white phosphorous scene, is give direct proof that this is not a world that you are in control of, this world is directly in opposition to you as a game and a gamer.”
There is, I think, a very deep problem with this statement. Note that in the design of Spec Ops, the philosophy of removing choice because “that’s not the way that the world works” leads to a massacre of innocent civilians.
I present a counter-argument: in the real world, there is always a choice. The claim that a massacre of human beings is the result of anyone– a player character in a video game or a real person– because “they had no choice” is the ultimate abdication of responsibility (and, if you believe certain philosophers, a repudiation of the very basis for a moral society). It is unclear to me how actually being presented with no choice is more “emotionally real,” because while it guarantees the player can only make the singular choice, it is also more manipulative. It is like the educational game that wears its assumptions on its sleeve in the name of “simulation”.
The protagonist soldier of Spec Ops could have stopped. He may have thought he had no choice, but only a brief consideration of the various plot parameters of that sequence is required to reveal numerous potential ways he could have escaped the situation.
To the point that the game uses this event to prove that it is in control and actively working in opposition to the player, I think that is actually a point that has already been made, perhaps by every other video game. It is simply a given that the game is in control when a player plays it; that is the very heart of a game’s own system and rules, and particularly in the scripted narrative events that most major games feature. Games can make us do things we wouldn’t have wanted to do before, and, by manipulating our senses, they often do. Spec Ops does indeed induce its audience to consider this fact– but that makes it more of a commentary on games, and quite less about “the way the world works”.
* * *
I played through No Russian multiple times because I wanted direct knowledge of the consequences of my choices. The first time through I had done what came to me naturally, which was to try to stop the event, but firing on the perpetrators ends the mission immediately. The next time I stood by and watched. It is not an easy scene to stomach, and I tried to distance myself emotionally from what was going on.
The third time, I decided that I would participate. I could have chosen not to; I could have simply moved on then, or even shut off the system and never played again. But a certain curiosity won out– that kind of cold-blooded curiosity that craves the new and the forbidden. I pulled the trigger and fired.