Tuesday, November 17, 2009

One More Russian



There's been a lot of virtual ink spilled about Modern Warfare 2's now infamous "No Russian" level. In an attempt to not till the same wee patch of soil, there's just one specific issue I'm going to call out. I actually wasn't intending to write about this at all, but a friend brought up an interesting issue when we were talking about this last night. (And obviously, there are massive spoilers ahead.)

There are a lot of problem with the "No Russian" scene, most of which have been discussed in the links above. It comes out of nowhere, fitting poorly into the game's plot. Even if it's meant as a critique of Jack Bauer's "ends justify the means" hawkishness, it still makes little sense. It's also severely incongruous with the rest of the tenor of the game (which just minutes before had you rocketing down a snowy mountain on a snowmachine, doing totally sweet, crazy jumps and all but swilling Mountain Dew).

But the biggest failing of "No Russian" is that it unnecessarily betrays both the player and the uniqueness of interactive systems to create something "shocking."

"No Russian" falls down because if you don't play this scene exactly how Infinity Ward wanted, they rub your face it in and say, "You'll do it again, just like I said this time." Any attempt to deviate from the intended sequence of events, including getting killed too early, means failure and having to try again.

There's absolutely no reason for this kind of strict control. The outcome of the mission is your character being killed and framed by Makarov.

The scene would have been vastly more effective if firing upon the terrorists, being killed by the Russian SWAT response and making it to the end of the level all had the same outcome. In the case of the former two, a fade to black after being shot and then briefly back into consciousness where Makarov reveals his intentions. It doesn't even need a separate failure state, beyond making the presentation a little dynamic.

In short, you should play "No Russian" just once. Succeed (get to the end) or fail (take too many hits, fire on your "allies"), the outcome should be the same. But this would allow the player to express themselves if they felt as Anthony Burch did, and simply couldn't watch the atrocity anymore. It would set it apart as something different, asking you to sit up and pay attention.

Unlike other media, games are a conversation, their systems the lingua franca. But in the case of "No Russian," there is only the lecturing schoolmarm, wrapping the player's knuckles when they dare speak up. This isn't even about emergent vs. authorial or anything like that. It's about recognizing that games are interactive systems and they are far, far more powerful when they exploit this.

Beyond the other problems with "No Russian" (and they are myriad), this scene is a squandered opportunity to demonstrate to the likely tens of millions of players what more interactive meaning looks like. Instead, it's just another level where you shoot some dudes to get to the end and at the beginning, there's a horrific cutscene. I won't make hyperbolic claims about it being the worst thing I've ever seen. But given the reach Infinity Ward has with Modern Warfare 2, it's a shame they opted for a shocking but shallow moment instead of utilizing the unique strengths of interactive systems and creating something truly memorable.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Jorge Albor said...

I must admit, I'm beginning to think I'm going crazy. Similar to the nuclear blast scene from the first MW, I felt the scene did recognize the interactive nature of the medium and took away your options specifically to exploit our expectations that guns can save the day. That isn't to forgive IW of their plot wholes though.

November 17, 2009 at 11:09 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Jorge Heh, glad you said something. I couldn't bring myself to blatantly self-promote by linking this in a comment on your site ;)

FWIW, I didn't really find the nuke scene in MW1 that affecting either. It was definitely interesting, but both of these scene hinge on player maintaining a massive cognitive dissonance about what death means. You can (and likely will) die dozens in times in MW1 before you get to die "for real" from radiation.

I realize games ask is to conflate death with failure state, but it's bizarre (and to me, completely incongruous) to say every time you die, it's just a mechanical thing, except this one special time, when it has deeper meaning as well.

"No Russian" is *far* worse about this. It's not that it takes away interactivity, it's that it forces the player to behave a very specific way and not die, until they reach a certain point, at which they're forced to die. Guns absolutely save the day, until the end of the level when the designers at Infinity Ward decided they don't anymore.

I definitely like what they (I hope) were attempting to do, don't get me wrong. And the claims that some have made against it are fallacious, and your addressed them well in your post, I think.

But the level of conflicting statements, both internally in "No Russian" and with respect to the rest of the game, torpedoes the whole thing for me.

November 17, 2009 at 7:47 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

My thoughts exactly on the goal of the level and the portrayal of death therein, both for the civilians and the player-character. The invasion of the US had more impact upon me just because the concept was much more foreign. It may sound awful, because the avatars are civilians, but, to me, they were only just some more avatars in just another game. Perhaps they could have tried to create more emotional attachment with the civilians, to make them seem more "human"?

As a side note, I refused to fire my gun at all until the Russian SWAT teams showed up. I would have thought they might have taken that case into consideration, but apparently was incorrect.

November 20, 2009 at 12:07 PM  
Blogger Ben Abraham said...

No wonder you and I both got into the permadeath thing. It's pretty much the only way to make "for real" death have any meaning in a game like this.

November 20, 2009 at 8:51 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Tom Without any kind of lead-up, "No Russian" really feels abrupt. It's still shocking, but shallowly so. That's another area where things could have been improved, IMHO.

@Ben Heh, I think something like permadeath is the only way to make death meaningful where the failure state is death ;)

November 21, 2009 at 7:29 PM  
Blogger Alan Jack said...

I've been staying out of these debates for a multitude of reasons - most commonly that I just don't know where I stand on a lot of issues right now.

I would, however, like to take a moment to play devil's advocate and see what reaction this sparks:

Video Games are a standalone commercial unit. They aren't really games in the strict sense of the word. At least, that's not what people expect them to be. They are a law unto themselves, where we expect some degree of interactivity, but not as much as we could have.

While I agree that the scene could easily have covered multiple player scenarios, in the end this is a linear video game with a linear story. If you're making that complaint about that scene, you might as well complain about every scene in the game. I, personally, did not understand the whole Price/nuke/satellite issue until after the game was finished and someone explained it to me. As such, I was a bit miffed that I HAD to follow Price after he'd fired a missile and killed an astronaut. Yet, I accepted this because MW2 wasn't my story. Yes, since games are interactive, it probably technically *should* be my story, but I (and millions of middle-of-the-road fans) have simply come to expect that video games provide only a slight element of interaction, and now they occupy a space in my life based on that expectation.

To add more interaction to a game - to realise a game's true potential to allow YOU to tell YOUR story - is a wonderful, fascinating thing, but ultimately you end up creating something so far apart from the cultural phenomenon of video games that it deserves to be called something else, and not to be associated with what people currently know as video games.*

The permadeath thing seals this argument for me. I think I'd enjoy a permadeath experience as a singular interactive experience that I approached in a very particular and individual way, and that I approached with different predilections, and in a different mood to the way in which I would approach a video game. I might, for example, enjoy it as some kind of interactive art exhibit. If there were a home version available, it would have to find a space in my life that was not the space filled by video games.

All in all, Call of Duty set out to be a silly, stupid, fun video game that would make a lot of people a bit richer, and it succeeded. Was it a work of beautiful interactive fiction? No. Was it a shining example of the most cerebral understanding of interactivity in a digital virtual environment? No. Does any of that matter? No.

I hope and pray that some day I'll see a market for story-rich
interactive digital environments that make true use of what we know about gameplay and interaction, I really do. I'm also aware that, if they grow out of any market, it'll be the video games market. But video games as we know them are linear, dull, barely interactive, and not going anywhere any time soon.

I say leave them alone, and look to the future as something else entirely.

*I'd say "interactive fiction", but that's already taken. Like so many areas of gameplay and interaction study, we actually need proper new words. Interfable? Yustory?

November 22, 2009 at 3:03 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alan You probably expected this, but I don't buy that. One of the most popular video games of all times, The Sims, is entirely about telling your own story. Saying all games are linear, dull and barely interactive is cherry picking, at best.

All games, even of the Call of Duty milieu are intensely, fundamentally interactive. But they're about making decisions on a microlevel (do I shoot or take cover? Rifle or shotgun?) toward a clear goal. "No Russian" made the goal unclear (should I shoot the civilians? The terrorists?) which is good, but then it refused to let the players make any meaningful decision about it. This is why I found it so problematic.

I can't be so down on games. Things are certainly getting better and there's lots interesting going on. There's a lot of spaces too, for games that are purely competitive, to ones that are linear (e.g. Uncharted 2) and ones that are more reactive. But we have to keep asking why and demanding more. Then again, I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy too.

November 22, 2009 at 8:03 PM  

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