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Poking the Hornet’s Nest

Sean Sands | 14 Nov 2009 10:00
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Fair warning - spoilers to follow.

As Modern Warfare 2 breaks retail records, the focus inevitably turns toward the predictable controversy of a game in which you are briefly tasked with a mission of unspeakable atrocity. It is a conceit that begs for controversy; that literally gets in line at Fox News studios to stand under the glare of the inquisition.

It also deserves some more reasonable contemplation that it is destined to receive in such echo chambers. There could be a real question here of pushing the boundaries of what interactive fiction can do, the emotions it can stir and the commentaries it can make on a modern world.

Rather, there could have been, had the subject not been handled with such a sophomoric and ham-fisted sensibilities.

We have been trained by decades of shooters to avoid hitting the civilians. Even when our lesser demons hold sway, we know that reckless destruction of innocents is not in the official playbook. But, this is murder on an unprecedented level, even for this medium. There are hundreds of bodies on the floor within moments.

You are trapped in the scene, whether you choose to pull the trigger or not, walking slowly, methodically. It should be like a nightmare. It should evoke the sense that you are in the presence of evil. And, maybe for some, the simple, totally unsupported context will be enough to be evocative.

For me, I was making pixels of color on a screen move around.

For as much as I wanted to be affected, to feel like the developers were driving me to look at the medium through a new lens, what I actually felt was a little bored and a little disappointed. I had no possession of the moment, no narrative, moral or logical context for what is happening. I'm a robot with an empty task.

Here are the things the story tells me up to this point: I know that I am an undercover CIA operative and that I've been put next to an evil Russian name, Makarov, who likes to blow people up. The game explains that he has no ideology or loyalties, which is shorthand for "we're just going to create a generic bad guy and make him interesting by showing you how really bad he is." Though not uncommon, these are historically the most boring villains possible.

Makarov has no context for his controversial evilness. I have no context for being next to him, and most importantly, I have no reason to believe that he is valuable enough in the scheme of things to get American intelligence involved in the most heinous terrorist act possible.

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