So Modern Warfare 2 was released today with the attendant fanfare usually reserved for only the heaviest of hitters in the gaming universe like Halo or Grand Theft Auto. Stores opened their doors at midnight for eager gamers; some even broke the street date (earning the ire of Activision, the game's publisher, in the process).
By all accounts this game will be a hit both critically and commercially. And why not? The last Modern Warfare, which doubled as Call of Duty 4 (yes, it's confusing), was pretty sweet. People loved the multi-player. I mean loved it. And unlike some first-person shooters with a focus on multi-player possibilities, MW's single-player campaign actually had an intense, thoughtful storyline. Big winner all around.
That said, MW was not without its share of controversy. Whereas previous Call of Duties (Calls of Duty?) took place in World War II, MW was set partly in the present day, dropping players into a military skirmish in a Middle Eastern country that appeared to be harboring terrorists. Though the country was unnamed, that did not stop many people from finding the similarity between the war portrayed in the game and our ongoing situation in Iraq - how does one reconcile, exactly, their opposition to the war with playing out a similar war in virtual form? It was the grounds for what could have been a interesting debate that the gaming community, in characteristic fashion, ignored; most of the comments on the story when reported on various video-game blogs ran from "Hello-o, check your facts, the game does not take place in Iraq!" to "Who cares, it's just a video game!"
But Modern Warfare 2 has taken things to a new level with a scene that seems much more difficult to hand-wave away. The scene - and I guess if you don't want to know anything about this game, you may want to stop reading around now - involves your character being required to fire at civilians in an airport terminal in order to establish cover with the terrorist cell he is trying to infiltrate. The scene is skippable, but if you choose to proceed, the game makes you do this - it doesn't shift perspectives or switch to automated controls or anything like that. You don't have to actually shoot anybody if you don't want to, but the other characters will ensure that the scene goes according to plan regardless. What you cannot do is turn away, meaning you have no choice but to participate on some level.
Software developers Infinity Ward have made an interesting choice here, one that could potentially work really effectively, or one that could backfire in a bad way. It could turn out to be a fascinating commentary on the idea of gaming and "taking orders" in a game, the next step in the conversation started by (though not entirely seen through by) BioShock. It could come across as an effective commentary on war itself and the idea of (to put it in reductive terms) the ends justifying the means. Or, it could simply be one more blood spatter along the highway of the game's single-player mode, destined to melt into the slush of headshots.
I have no idea: I have not played the game, so I am not going to judge whether or not they accomplished whatever goal they set out for (and if they are saying something, whether or not that message will be accurately interpreted by the corpse-humping meatheads and bigoted twelve-year-olds inhabiting the game's servers is another question entirely). British blogger Simon Parkin has, though, and anyone wanting a candid look at how something like this might play out in the mind of a gamer should read his review. Without revealing too much, I will simply point out that Parkin concludes that Infinity Ward pulls off some very interesting things with that scene and the ones that follow. He sees it as a commentary on some of the darker fears and paranoia lurking in the hearts of Americans, like Red Dawn or 24. Of course, the alternate view comes from IGN, one of the top gaming enthusiast sites on the Web, who complain about the storytelling and don't even bother mentioning the airport scene in their review.
Ultimately, reaction will play out over the next few days, as people tear into their copies of the game. And quite a few of them won't even play the single-player campaign until they find themselves home and bored on a night when all of their friends are unavailable to play. And even then, most of them won't really have much of a reaction to the scene. But at some point, some people out there will see this, and want to have a serious conversation about it. And maybe if that happens, the folks at Infinity Ward will have accomplished what they wanted to.
But then again, this company also green-lit a viral video encouraging people to "Fight Against Grenade Spam." Do the acronym math yourself.
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