I don’t mean that it’s a bad game mechanically. Everything seems to work together. The visuals are great. There’s a high level of detail and creativity. The buttons do what they’re supposed to do. No, it’s the worst game I’ve ever played because it’s the game that made me feel worse than any other game I’ve played.
Once, when I was a teenager, I was playing Sid Meier’s Gettyburg when my younger sister walked in and asked what I was doing. I told her it was a Civil War game, and she asked which side I was. I told her I was the Confederacy, and she exclaimed “You’re playing as the South?!?!?” It’s just a game, I thought. I’m not actually defending slavery. The South has a much more interesting set of scenarios in the battle, after all, and just playing as one side would get boring….
I’ve also played as Nazis in Panzer General, razed cities of hundreds of thousands of people in Civilization, and destroyed entire kingdoms in Warcraft III. That doesn’t even include first-person shooters, killing soldier after soldier in Half-Life, loving the relentless amorality of Far Cry 2. I am no stranger to violence or horrible decisions in gaming. That’s not what bothers me.
Modern Warfare 2 immediately creates a feeling of cinematic heroism. The credits roll over a picture of the globe, with lines indicating borders, interconnectedness, and danger. The music that plays is that of a tense thriller, one where the world could end if the heroes—and there are heroes—don’t succeed.
After the tutorial, an intense narration begins. “We are the most powerful military force in the history of man. Every fight is our fight. Because what happens over here matters over there. We don’t get to sit one out. Learning to use the tools of modern warfare is the difference between the prosperity of your people, and utter destruction.” The prime tool, of course, is the gun.
This game fucking loves its guns.
I’ve heard first-person shooters described as “you-are-the-gun games,” which is often literally accurate, and which also indicates the limitations of the genre. Yet Modern Warfare 2 embraces that concept. The level of detail in its guns is immediately impressive: they’ve got variety, looks, animation, usefulness. Your characters' hands curl around the triggers lovingly, and pull clips in and out, in and out when reloading. It’s gun porn, just like that opening narration suggests.
I'd never played Call Of Duty before this. It wasn’t a deliberate choice. Finances kept me away from most modern games in the late 2000s, when COD built its empire, and I didn’t seek it out after because the military shooter genre doesn’t hold much appeal to me. For someone to be “literate” in modern video games, they probably have to have some knowledge of Call Of Duty. It’s simply too dominant to ignore, and who knows, maybe I’d like it!
The Modern Warfare 2 game is chronologically set five years after the events of the first Modern Warfare, making it a near-future game. The first mission is set in Afghanistan, at an American base where US troops are training the locals. They’re then immediately called into action in a town where militia is attacking the American troops and supply routes.
It’s taken for granted that the Americans will still be in Afghanistan. It’s taken for granted that it’ll be a hot war. No explanations are given. You are simply immersed into that conflict. This is a problem.
In the superb cultural analysis Understanding Comics, author Scott McCloud describes the phenomenon of “closure” as a way that we comprehend stories. When we’re given portions of a story that don’t line up in an understandable fashion, our brain makes them line up. If we see one event portrayed after another event, such as in a set of comic panels, then we’ll put together the story. A picture of a raised axe followed by a picture of split wood makes us think that the axe split the wood. And if the actions are portrayed one after another, we assume that that’s the order that they happened in the story, too, unless we have reason to believe that they’re out of order. The bigger the difference between the two events, the harder we have to work to understand them.
You’re engaging in closure now. I’ve put these lines between different sections of this article, right? That’s a writer’s trick. It makes you think there’s a connection, so you’ll develop one. Breaking the article up like this makes me look smarter as a writer, and you feel smarter as a reader because you can link the concepts yourself. Cool trick, huh? But it’s just a trick—this paragraph doesn’t need to be divided from the last one. It’s a continuation of the same thought!
Modern Warfare 2 relies on closure for its storytelling. The title and credits indicate that this is a war epic. Tossing your character into Afghanistan, at US base, indicates that the game is built around the logic of the American “War On Terror.” Showing the Americans training the Afghani recruits, and then engaging in combat with a fairly powerful enemy, also demonstrates that MW2 totally agrees with that logic. There are bad people in the world, and the American military needs to take them out—with its awesome guns.
One of the most important pieces of video game writing in the past decade is Clint Hocking’s piece “Ludonarrative Dissonance In BioShock.” “Ludonarrative dissonance” means that what the game tells you doing is contrary to what it’s actually doing. BioShock’s big twist makes it sound like it’s going to open up its world, but the game after it is roughly as linear as it was before.
Modern Warfare 2 seems to be the opposite. It’s “ludonarratively consonant.” The line about America wielding its power and using its tools fits exactly with your character’s placement in the world and how he uses his tools. He’s even simply better than his opponents—a veritable superman, absorbing more bullets and using cover and high-tech gadgets to slaughter hundreds of unnamed foreigners. I’ve never played a game that utilized each and every component to create such a singular experience. It is, in many ways, as perfect a video game structure as we can achieve.
In Afghanistan, as your convoy progresses through the town, there’s a clear sense of danger. Down the end of a long street, three suspicious-looking men watch. Radio chatter suggests that the convey knows these are members of the opposing militia. But the orders are to not fire unless fired upon, even as the game does everything within its power to show that such disciplined honor leads directly to an ambush. The situation is clear-cut: the Americans start dying because they’re not allowed to act on what they know to be true. War would be easier if the politicians would just let the soldiers do their job.
That quote from the start of the game about “the tools of modern warfare”? Ironically, it’s from the general who turns out to be the villain of the piece. Perhaps the creators of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 believed that with this plot twist, they could subvert the rampant jingoism of the game. Perhaps readers may believe this to be the case as well.
Yet the idea that an American nationalist would end up being the villain simply creates an entirely new dissonance. The game is still about awesome American soldiers saving the world awesomely through their sexy sexy high-tech American guns and in support of truth, justice, and the American Way. That the villain in your midst agrees with this in a bad way does little to mitigate the game's core concept.
Playing Modern Warfare 2 feels like watching Dick Cheney jerk off into an American flag. It’s a neoconservative’s fantasy. It’s the War On Terror as presented by its most cynical and violent supporters in the media and government. There are Very Bad Guys out in the world who would do anything to drag America and the world into a violent hell, and only the successful application of violence will stop them.
After the mission in the Afghan town, the player suddenly transported to Kazakhstan, as a special operations team infiltrates a base…of some kind. Explanations aren’t given. You’re just there to recover a satellite. Dozens of troops are defending it, and they’re killed for no reason.
This is that “closure” thing again. What is the best explanation? What information do we have?
In the previous mission, you were an American soldier in Afghanistan, continuing that just war/rebuilding effort. The “militia” you fight isn’t named, but they fulfill the role of the Taliban, who are conflated with the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Thus they are clearly terrorists. The enemies in Kazakhstan are the rough equivalent of those Afghan enemies in gameplay terms. Therefore it’s okay to slaughter them by the bucketload?
Perhaps there’s an explanation given for this later in the mission. But for now, the only way I can possibly push my brain to comprehend how this mission and the first Afghan mission fit together is to fully adopt the mentality of a War On Terror cheerleader. I cannot force myself to do this.
I quit, disgusted, later in this mission. It takes me an hour to wind down enough to go to bed afterward.
The United States has been using unmanned drones to assassinate its enemies (and anyone near them) over the past few years. They claim it’s a success. The people of those nations tend to disagree. After an initial surge of hope for improvement after President Obama took office, approval of American policies has plummeted, particularly in Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations.
Meanwhile, the president has a secret kill list of targets for drone attacks. It includes the names of American citizens, who are declared traitor and killed without due process or trial. The most common defense for this: “We have to do it to get the bad guys!”
Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is “We Have To Do This To Get The Bad Guys: The Video Game.”
In the first scene of the game itself, on the army base, a group of soldiers are relaxing by playing basketball in the background. It’s mesmerizing; a fascinating piece of detail. Everything in the game had that level of detail, of intentionality. Sound, music, level layout, dialogue and radio chatter, controls, artificial intelligence, all intentional. All technically at the pinnacle of what blockbuster game design can do.
This is one of the biggest-budget game series on the planet. As sales tell it, Call of Duty is also the most popular. It is a year-round event of hype, release, response, and expansions. And it’s pure propaganda for an endless war. It is the worst and most self-destructive components of American foreign policy and self-perception, distilled into a commercial video game.
Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the best that the video game industry has to offer. After playing it for the first time, I felt dirty. I hated that it had tried to force me into a mindset I oppose. And for the first time, I agreed with the criticisms of games overall, that they were too ugly, too violent, too jingoistic. For gleefully representing the worst aspects of modern American politics, for wasting all that talent, for managing to create such a perfect propaganda tool, I hated Modern Warfare 2. For the first time in my life, I hated video games.