Modern Warfare 2: the simple and cynical and deliberate and lucid commercial success

On Twitter I said that the RPS review of Modern Warfare 2 is one of the best reviews I’ve ever read. Precise, insightful and to the point. Instead I disagree with the sort of rant that Kieron Gillen wrote today about the particular level. So here is what I think about it:

Modern Warfare 2 never intended nor was expected to be a realistic simulator. It’s not Arma 2 or Operation Flashpoint. It’s instead a bombastic, gratuitous and exploitative Hollywood experience. It wants to be cool without being smart. So, as with everything, the point is to criticize it for what it wants to be. What this game wants is to sell copies and be hugely profitable, shatter records. And it seems that it is doing just that. What it is interesting is to understand why it happens and why this game sells so much and is so much successful.

It’s successful because it arrogantly boasts how rich it is. In your face. That level is no exception compared to the others. It’s lush. The shock value is secondary to the visual, and even in that level the gameplay is gold. Many people this week go to see that awful movie that is 2012. In a very vaguely similar way Stephen King wrote a book where he traps a small town within a dome. To observe people get pushed to the limit and see how they react. That level in the game doesn’t need to be realistic. The RPS article says: “As others have noted, the most disturbing part of No Russian is its context. A few seconds previously you’re involved in a high-speed James Bond chase involving snowmobiles. A few seconds later, you’re mowing down civilians. That tonal shift isn’t brutal. It’s laughable.” There’s no brutal transition instead. The whole game is like that. In the same way the snowmobiles chase was so utterly unrealistic and bombastic, so is what follows. The game wants to resemble reality, pretend to be recognizable and familiar enough to be fun. So what they do in that level is putting a lot of work in the animations and scripting to the extremes and polish and detail. Make an airport and make it good to watch and play in. Make it lavish. Tons of stuff goes on and everything is very nicely done and resembling reality enough to feel somewhat unsettling. What works here is not the moral dilemma, it’s just that kind of open massacre that, justified or plausible or not, stays in the mind of the people. In the same way you could have set it in a school or some other densely populated place (a church, a mall, whatever). It works.

They could do it, so why not? It’s cool in a stupid way. The plot doesn’t make sense but it never wanted to. It’s a joke, an excuse to be spectacular. I suspect that even the purple prose about war is just there as a parody and the fake pretense to make it “serious”. Bombastic drama. But not serious in the sense that it has (or wants to have) an actual depth, it only needs to give an excuse to explore the possibilities that are “cool” to see and play, and that are vaguely connected with a common idea of “modern” warfare. A massacre in an airport is cool to see and play. The russian invasion is cool to see and play, so is the snowmobile chase. These are all silly excuses to “enable” and pack together the most disparate experiences I’ve seen in a shooter. If you strip that level of its story elements you get a very fun shooting sequence. You can replay it various times and always find something new you didn’t notice. The first part starts in black, hearing just sounds, then a terse dialogue that builds the tension, then the opening that is rather spectacular and sudden. From that point onward the experience is mostly visual and well crafted. The music is right, the extremely slow speed mimics in a way how you are trapped in a role, forced into a role. This slowness also makes everything kind of detached, yet deliberate and unavoidable. It doesn’t want to really make sense, it just sets a mood. Then there’s the sequence where you fight the cops. Again wonderfully executed. You can blow up the airplane engines, you can shoot at the helicopters and make them explode, lots of stuff going on and a rather fun shooting sequence with lush graphic everywhere. No other shooter out there is so well realized and filled with details. Beautiful to watch, fun to play.

This controversial level in the end won’t produce any important debate, or make people think. It doesn’t want. It wants to be cool and spectacular. In the end that level sells copies, and it probably sells more copies than if it wasn’t there. People talk about the game, it draws the attention even from those that wouldn’t look at it otherwise. In the end people don’t buy it because the plot gave them deep thoughts, but because the game is lush, rich, fun to play, varied, spectacular.

The story stays stupid enough to not get in the way of the shooting. This sells copies. There is no over exposition or dense stuff that would turn people off. It’s what Entertainment wants to be. Accessible and straightforward and without any other pretense than selling copies without scruples. It’s the simple and cynical and deliberate and lucid commercial success, done the way it has to be done. The writers that worked on Modern Warfare knew what their role was and didn’t pretend to act as protagonists. They knew very well the story is very secondary, only “enabling” the shooting to happen and weakly link together the most disparate and edgy shooting scenes.

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