Sunday, November 15, 2009

Modern Warfare in Dick Cheney's World

*Spoiler Warning: I really hate spoiler warnings. The very concept of internet "SPOILARS!" is a hideous one to me. If you are juvenile enough to live life only for the plot twists and not the plot itself you're no good to anyone. You're officially part of the problem.

Guess what? At the end of Titanic the boat sinks. In the Third Season of Mad Men JFK gets shot. In this blog I'll be discussing plot elements of Modern Warfare 2. Deal with it.

The voice of Ron Perlman frequently cautioned us that War... War Never Changes. While the ubiquitous intro to the Fallout series was never intended as a commentary on the state of War in games it might as well have been. In video games the depiction of war never changes.

War as depicted in the Medal of Honor series, then in Call of Duty series, and then in all the knock-offs of the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series was a remarkably clean and noble activity. The only thing that you killed were history's perfect villain -- the Nazi; a creature that for all appearances was human but we know wasn't human. The towns and villages those Nazis occupied were always an "Us or Them" affair. Lob a grenade through any window in Carentan and the only thing that came out were the rag doll remains of (you guessed it) more Nazis. You never had to concern yourself with accidentally fragging a French family by mistake. World War 2 in video games had hung out the sign: Ambiguity Not Welcome Here.

When Infinity Ward transitioned Call of Duty into the Modern Era of War they scratched out the "Not" in that sign and scribbled in with Sharpie above it, "Kinda". Whatever character you played was still earmarked as, Good Guy, and whatever characters you shot at where still The Bad Guys ("Terrorists" palate swapped for Nazis). The ambiguity came in small drips: a vision of war turned into a video game from a C-130 Gunship camera, death in the shadow of a nuclear detonation, the use of torture to obtain information from a captive.

Call of Duty 4 came out in 2007 towards the tail end of the Bush Administration. I wouldn't argue that Call of Duty 4 was an endorsement of the foreign policy pursued Bush Administration, the game certainly was a reflection of the time and the moment that we all lived in. A morally gray world where Dick Cheney told us all to be afraid and the Department of Homeland Security monkeyed with color codes weekly.

Modern Warfare 2 (the direct sequel to Call of Duty 4) appears to be a meditation on Dick Cheney's World. This time however the moral grays have been swapped for moral blacks. There is no valor here. There is no nobility here. There is precious little heroism here. What Modern Warfare 2 does contain is heavy doses deceit and senseless violence either aided or perpetrated not by terrorists but by forces inside the United States military.

There's been a certain amount of head scratching among parts of the Video Game Enthusiast Press, declaring, "Modern Warfare 2 is Awesome! But I -- I don't understand the story." Well, for those of you who've been locked in a Anime Bunker the last eight years let me explain the story real simply: It's About a General who uses terrorism to manipulate the United States into a war. A war he wants for his own good and no one else's. Clearer still for all those NeoGaf members: General Sherpard = Dick Cheney, Dick Cheney = Bad.

See, was that hard to understand?

I do not wish to engage in fanboy over-praise for the story "Modern Warfare 2" because, both being honest and a fan of this game, parts of Modern Warfare 2's story are stone stupid. But to declare the entire story stone stupid tosses the baby out with the bathwater. Despite being built out of action movie tropes there is something noteworthy going on with Modern Warfare 2. Something more than just action movie tropes.

Take the much criticized "No Russian" mission (yeah, this is the one where you participate in a terrorist act in Moscow Airport and kill hundreds of innocent civilians). Tom Chick declared it unearned. Jeff Green declared it gratuitous on Twitter. And this is the part of this blog where I have to say that I love both those guys otherwise I'll get called out as a Tom Chick / Jeff Green hater. But I also have to disagree with both their interpretations of "No Russian".

I saw "No Russian" through a different set of eyes. I saw the mission through the eyes of a young, strong and naive Army Ranger Private who gets recruited to serve his country by an authority figure he'd instantly respect and trust, General Shepard, and told in classic Dick Cheney fashion, Son this is a dangerous world and sometimes you got to get your hands dirty.

Of course, that Army Ranger Private would buddy up to a Russian Terrorist and, yes, if ordered to by General Shepard, he would participate in mass murder for the good of his country. Just leave it there. Don't even speculate further on a connection between General Shepard and Modern Warfare 2's shadow antagonist, Makarov.

Ordered to commit mass murder for the good of his country.

For a video game that is dark statement and a bold departure from the traditions of war as this glorious, valorous act with endless spawn points. War in the world of Modern Warfare isn't Black Hats against White Hats, instead war is a machine run by the Black Hats with a bunch of pawns dying in the middle.

Unfortunately, how Modern Warfare 2 might change the story of war in games has been lost in the rush by the Enthusiast Press to report the controversy and ignored by Video Game Critics in their never-ending search for compelling gameplay. Hell, I'm under no delusion. Ninety percent of the people that buy this game won't even think about what they're playing beyond the fact its "teh awesome".

Perhaps Modern Warfare 2 will just be an aberration. A game guaranteed to be a hit made by a developer with a blank check. Perhaps, though, Modern Warfare 2 is another step towards video games being more than just games.

And then, again, maybe Infinity Ward's "Modern Warfare 3" will feature giant walking Mecha and Evil Enemies with top hats that invalidate whatever point I had.