Tuesday, August 18, 2009

MODERN WARFARE 2’s Post-modern Story

Even before the likes of BioShock 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction were pushed back to early ’10, Activision’s Modern Warfare 2 was poised to dominate this holiday season like few other games have before or will hence. With an extremely robust online multiplayer component (Call of Duty 4 is still, two years after its release, one of the top-ranking Xbox Live games) and an engaging single-player campaign filled with over-the-top – but not superfluous – action set pieces, it’s easy to see why there is so much anticipation for the sequel.

But there’s another reason, one much more fundamental to the evolving requirements and sensibilities of game design:
its story. As videogames continue to mature, their stories likewise grow more sophisticated; and while most titles still hew to the more insipid, tried-and-true formulae of the damsel-in-distress or the best-friend-who-(surprise!)-is-revealed-to-be-the-antagonist, multi-layered, thematically resonant narrative experiences are slowly, precariously being erected across the interactive landscape. COD4’s edifice is one of the tallest and, certainly, one of the grandest – no small feat, considering the narrative heavyweights it had to contend against: BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, Halo 3, and, of course, Portal.

The building blocks that Infinity Ward, the title’s developer, employed are not, interestingly (and, perhaps, tellingly) enough, the standard components that, say, an author would utilize in composing a novel; the game’s premise is standard enough – ultra-national terrorists dominate their home countries and, united, conspire to bring down the global American juggernaut – and its characters are crack military commandos, as ubiquitous to videogames as the crate and the tutorial. (This is not, of course, to say that its plot is bad or otherwise subpar; particularly for a special forces-centric first-person shooter, the developers managed substance and panache enough.) Much like Modern Warfare’s level design, it’s the presentation that makes its narrative stand out.

Cutscenes, the keystone of the vast majority of games’ storytelling structure, are also used here, but in a rather unique – and far more emotionally powerful – fashion: rather than stick with the traditional cutscene that is taken right out of the language of film, pulling the camera from its perspective in the protagonist’s head and making it a detached, objective observer, Infinity Ward kept everything first-person. Seeing a former premier, as such, disposed, detained, and ultimately executed loses its passive, disconnected quality; by viewing the events from his perspective, the player becomes the former national leader. It’s no longer a guard kicking a character in the mouth – it’s now a boot slamming down in our face, or a gun being pointed right against our temple. When the trigger is pulled, it is we who die. There is a potency here that no other medium can afford.

If such cutscenes can immerse the player so deeply and so effectively in a one-off character’s demise, the magnitude of such an impact is intensely amplified when one of the game’s two protagonists is killed in a subsequent scene. The resultant player involvement cannot be overstated: by killing off the character – and the American character, no less – that he has played as for several hours, and by doing so in such a direct, immediate, and visceral way, the task of taking out the evil terrorists and stopping them from killing any more innocents is no longer a purely abstract exercise; now it’s a vendetta, a personal crusade, ensuring that the player will stop at nothing to extract his revenge. Simple story or not, its emotional draw is terrific, and the developers utilize it for the maximum leverage.

These so-called interactive cutscenes, as such, propel both the emotion and the narrative drive forward, but they only account for an infinitesimally small fraction of the game’s actual story. The nuts and bolts of the plot’s mechanics are found in the levels themselves, in radio chatter or other forms of in-game dialogue; much like the first-person scenes and the short pre-level briefings, Infinity Ward decided not to shatter the first-person barrier by having a third-person camera and, thus, lose the momentum of intimacy. And consistent with the current trend in story-driven games, small, staged “vignettes” play out both in front of and around the player; as Captain Price, for example, is talking with Nikolai, his Russian informant, players can choose which angle to frame the tableau in – or to ignore it completely by running around like a chicken with its head chopped off.

Multiplicity is actually Call of Duty 4’s thematic motif, and it resounds in other, non-narrative aspects, as well. Sprinkled lightly throughout the game’s 18 missions are a few that present a completely different tack on level structure or the gameplay itself; the title’s first act contains a level that has players (once again jumping to a one-off character) pilot an AC-130 gunship as their SAS squad attempts to fight its way through to an extraction point in hostile territory. The subsequent act features a two-mission flashback that is told from yet another character’s perspective and consists of, alternately, the title’s sole stealth and its most intense, all-out action sequences. Much more than providing welcome breaks from the run-and-gun gameplay, these alternate sections help round out the breadth and depth of the military, showing all of the means at its disposal to fulfill its function(s) in a modern society. They also highlight videogames’ ultimate storytelling imperative: in a medium where story and player action intertwine, different perspectives on the gameplay create different narrative experiences – they are one and the same.

And this is the angle that Infinity Ward will more than likely push the hardest in its soon-to-be-released follow-up. While there may be a quantitative expansion in terms of a thicker script, containing more interactive cutscenes or lines of in-game dialogue, it is undoubtedly the qualitative increases that the developer will be most lured to: instead of featuring four first-person cutscenes that let players experience moments of great calamity or import, it may still be only two – but these two will be of an emotional quality several orders of magnitude more than watching a nuclear bomb go off in a Middle Eastern city and experiencing the last fretful minutes of a poor Marine’s life in the post-apocalyptic aftermath, as hard as that may be to imagine. This would be a lateral extension rather than a straight, linear one, a development which makes sense given both COD4’s relationship to Infinity’s two previous Call of Duty entries and the fact that Modern Warfare 2 is, technically, the first out and out sequel in the eight-game-strong franchise.

Increasing personal, as opposed to player, identification is a major breakthrough in the videogame industry, and it heralds a shift in game development, generally. If early gaming featured stories only as afterthoughts – inserted in the instruction manual exclusively, as happened in many an NES title – due to technical limitations, and if the modern period, starting with the 32-/64-bit generation, started to expand and then shift games’ narrative components down to the very foundation of gameplay (as witnessed in the Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid series, among many others), then the duo of Modern Warfares are among the first wave of post-modern titles: games that not only feature robust – even solid – narratives, but also ones that make players feel as well as think, that touch their hearts as well as their trigger fingers.

This will be the post-modern warfare of development studios in the years – and generations – to come.

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