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.

How things go

Via Twitter.

Mythic Entertainment, responsible for Warhammer Online, just laid off 80 people, about 40% of its employees.


Don’t know anything about numbers, but literally everyone I know who was still at Mythic outside of upper management is looking for work this morning.

Blame the economy, but not just.

Steven Erikson, I’ve got a question for you.

Wrote to submit it for Pat’s Q&A with him:

There has been quite an heated, ungenerous debate on forums about a presumed lack of editing and care for consistency on your part. We already know your stance, as a writer caught in the process of writing, about the push to drive the story forward to its ultimate destination while fighting and struggling against the tangle of details threatening to take you down. But once the thing will be wrapped up and finished it would make sense, maybe, to step out and take it as a whole to straighten those missteps and inconsistencies that have slipped through and that were kind of unavoidable with such an impossibly broad scope and ambitious series. For example the latest HC 10 Anniversary Edition of GotM has the 1st version of the text with even the simplest errors and inconsistencies still there (example: Dujek being called High Mage instead of High Fist pag.50, or the wrong warren name used by Quick Ben pag.98), but there are also more complicated matters, intricacies and various aspects that could be improved in GotM and other books. Most of these little mistakes, timeline problems and whatnot are concerns of overly dedicated fans who love to track the details and explore the text in every direction, so I’d like to ask if you have ever considered and are vaguely interested in ever doing this kind of laundry/polishing work that obviously couldn’t be done in the first pass without succumbing to the text, but that opens now as a viable opportunity (at least from your own position as a writer, not considering the publisher’s demand) to thoroughly content Everyone, really.

Gardens of the Moon – 10th Anniversary Edition

Got my copy of this hardcover UK edition of GotM from

– It follows more or less the format of other hardcovers.
– Exceptions: two less lines each page and they decided to move the image on the side of the book on top, so it mismatches with the others (where the image is at the bottom).
– It has a new 2-page foreword.
– It has still the very 1st version of the text, with all the mistakes and errors on the text (like Dujek being called High Mage instead of High Fist or the warren of Meanas being called Rashan).
– Same for the map, still error-ridden 1st version.

I took some time to type here what’s written in this new foreword.

To be honest, there is something slightly numbing about the realization that ten years have passed since the first publication of Gardens of the Moon. At that time the remaining novels in the series existed as ephemeral notions solely in my head. They belonged to the realm of dreams and wishes. The journey ahead, of words on a screen and then paper, still awaited me in the idyllic state that was the future. Yet the publication of Gardens of the Moon was, for me, a momentous event; for it permitted me to sharpen my focus, as I slowly, almost disbelievingly, comprehended that what was now coming to pass was indeed possible. These things could be reached. The import of that statement cannot be overemphasized. They can be reached.
I am now on the cusp of the tenth and final novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Almost ten thousand pages span the gulf from Gardens to The Crippled God, a detail even more numbing than the decade it took to compose them. I am often asked; how do you sustain it? A difficult question to answer. How do I not? I have a tale to tell and until it is done an inexorable momentum drives me, an impatience against which I still struggle, knowing I need to do it right, and that haste is my deadliest enemy. Especially now.
So, I have been straining at the bit for a long time now. Ten years. Even longer if I include the seven or eight years it took for this first novel to find a publisher. And it is from this stance of long, familiar experience that I offer the following words to you, the reader, as you contemplate embarking on this series. If you are to share the journey that begins with Gardens of the Moon, hold tight against impatience. The story needs time, even as it seeks to urge you forward. There is something diabolical at work here and I have no idea what it is. It was never deliberate, even though, not counting the prologue, the first words of Gardens of the Moon are, uncannily,‘Prod and pull…’
I cannot claim any prescience with that opening; perhaps, indeed, I was aware on some subconscious level that I was fighting the very thing that confounds many readers with this series. For me, it was the push to advance the story versus the pull to keep it under control, to hold tight on the reins no matter how wild the bucking beast. For the reader, the whole thing reverses: the story pulls, the details prod, claw and tug.
Prod and pull, ‘this the way of the gods …
Well, they certainly jerked my chain.
I am always dubious when I read what writers have to say about their work years after the fact (and I do not exclude myself). My scepticism only deepens when those writers then advise others on how things should be done, based solely on what they did. How easy is that? The truth is that most advice sucks, simply because now one knows where it’s been, and experience is not something one can readily pass on anyway, as anyone with a teenaged child can tell you. So, when earlier on I offered some words on how to read my work, before I reached the final full stop I already felt jaded about the sentiment, no matter how well intentioned it happened to be. The novel will do what it does, and it is out of my control and maybe out of yours, too. With luck, one day you will be cracking the spine on the tenth and final novel in the series, and you will look back, slightly benumbed, to that creased and battered copy of Gardens of the Moon, there on your bookshelf, and you might think: That’s where this all started. What did I think when I read that book? Did I guess where it would take me, eleven thousand pages later? How do I feel now?
When you have an answer to that last question, let me know. We can share notes.

With thanks and best wishes,

Steven Erikson
August, 2009