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by G. Christopher Williams

18 Nov 2009

This discussion of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 contains spoilers for this game as well as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Bioshock.

The most compelling thing about the use of the first person perspective in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was how it victimized the player.  From the opening scene in which the player was forced to take on the role of the victim of an execution to the sequence in which the player tried but failed to escape a nuclear blast, the game victimized the player by immersion. Taking full advantage of the illusion of the personal that the first person evokes in video games (you do after all seem to see right out of the eyes of the character that you are inhabiting), the immersive quality of being able to control your perspective in the first sequence but being left unable to escape the consequence of a fatal shot leaves the player sharing and experiencing the helplessness of the doomed character.  Likewise, the ability to crawl from the wreckage of a helicopter downed by the eddies of a nuclear explosion but being unable to get much further before dying in the ruined landscape is a suggestion that despite seemingly having “control” over a character (something the gamer is accustomed to having) that control of a final destiny is tenuous at best.  The character’s helplessness is the player’s helplessness, reflecting the game in the experience of it.  For gamers used to the sense of invulnerability and immortality that gaming experiences provide through multiple lives and continue options, this experience produces an unaccustomed impotence.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 significantly ups the ante of exploring ways of reflecting the experience of playing a character with the players own experience of gaming, but it additionally begins to explore how that relationship coincides with questions of rules and authority.

At the beginning of the third chapter of the game, an Army Ranger,  Pfc. Joseph Allen, is briefed on his mission to go undercover with a Russian named Makarov who has no territorial or political affiliations.  Makarov is genocidal and traffics in human beings.  As the briefing reveals, “Makarov’s fighting his own war, and he has no rules and no boundaries.”  Rules and boundaries become the chief interest of this sequence and subtley also everything that the player has done thus far and usually does in an FPS or any video game for that matter.  Playing at soldier is what a player does in any game in the Call of Duty series and always within the same sorts of boundaries that a soldier has.  You are given mission objectives and meant to fulfill them.  Gamers are most often followers of rules.

Indeed, in the previous mission while playing as Sgt. “Roach” Sanderson, the player is given an onscreen prompt to “Follow MacTavish” as Sgt. “Soap” MacTavish leads a mission to infilitrate an enemy compound.  The instruction is almost needless as any player of games is accustomed to following other characters’ leads in missions.  The player is unlikely to give any second thoughts to following the instructions of MacTavish.  Falling into the role of a soldier is about the equivalent to falling into the role of the player of a game.  Follow the rules and don’t step outside of the boundaries.  Conforming to rules leads to solution, the solving of the game.

The Makarov mission, however, begins to challenge rules and boundaries with its content and much of that challenge lies in the mission briefings description of the events surrounding the mission.  It explains that in the current global political situation “Uniforms are relics.  The war rages everywhere, and there will be casualties.”  This reference to uniforms certainly informs about Makarov’s nature as an apolitical animal that is not affiliated with, not marked by the uniform of a citizen loyal to a particular national interest, but it also alludes to the situation that the player is about to experience, one that violates the “rules” and “boundaries” of a typical military FPS.

The mission begins with the player riding an elevator alongside four heavily armed men that are dressed as civilians (one of which is Makarov).  That familiar and almost invisible prompt “Follow Makarov” is one of only two instructions that the player receives in terms of his objectives for this mission.  The second is one of his colleagues turning and simply stating “No Russian.”  As the elevator opens and the player moves forward (“following Makarov”), the reason for the second instruction becomes clear.  A group of civilians easily noted by their lack of uniforms (indeed “uniforms are relics” and the “rules” and “boundaries” of the game of war have seemingly been altered in modern warfare) waits in line at airport security. 

As a player that was “following Makarov” and drawing conclusions about the lines that I had just heard about uniforms now being irrelevant in warfare and that I was to follow Makarov’s lead to complete my objective, I felt one thing at this moment, despair.  My character had lifted his machine gun, and I felt a sick feeling in my stomach.  Makarov and his men opened fire.  I did not.

What I did wonder as I watched Makarov and his men gun down three or four dozen people in front of me is: how many players would open fire on the crowd?  After all, like every other mission in the game and most missions in video games, instructions were clearly given on what to do: follow.

My choice not to do so seemed cued by the lack of uniforms in front of me.  Enemies in video games generally are marked visually in some way to represent them as targets.  Such markings include ugliness, monstrosity, and, of course, the uniform of a foreign government.  My choice to not open fire may have been as “rule driven” as the choice to open fire.  Players opening fire may do so because they are trained to follow onscreen prompts.  Players who do not may not do so because they are trained to recognize the “otherness” of enemies through simple and clear signs like uniforms. 

In any case, I stood and watched.  As Makarov and his men advanced, I quickly fell into the role of “following” as I was supposed to.  I followed Makarov up an escalator as he and his men killed civilians in droves.  At one point, I even stepped to the edge of a balcony to watch the man that was now beside me kill everyone below.  I fell into my role as undercover agent.  Unwilling to participate, I also was participating in not blowing my cover.  I realized that I had become complicit in the actions of Makarov and his thugs by merely observing. 

My second feeling of despair hit as we were about to descend to the floor below, and it occurred to me that I was armed and standing behind Makarov.  While uniforms were obviously not relics to me, why hadn’t I tried to intervene on the behalf of the victims of those who violated such rules?  I am ashamed to say that I hesitated for a moment wondering if shooting Makarov would cause me to fail my mission (again, rules intervened in my considertaion of how to appropriately participate in this sequence).  However, I determined to see what the outcome of shooting Makarov would be.

Indeed, killing Makarov branded me a traitor and ended the mission.  Thus, as the game loaded me once again to the checkpoint, I found myself fatally bound to follow Makarov whether as an active participant or not.  I continued as observer and found myself scanning the faces of crumpled bodies that we waded through as we approached the doors out to the tarmac where rules and uniforms saved me once again.

Outside we were greeted by policemen that began shooting at us.  While I waited a bit and watched Makarov and his men engage the cops, I could clearly see that they were making no headway and in any case, my life was being threatened, and I knew the rules: when you are being shot at you can shoot back.  Suddenly, my role as soldier and as a gamer had been reinstated by the uniforms of my enemies.

The ending sequence of the level does provide a kind of means of absolving the player of the guilt of either having had directly participated in this sequence or in indirectly by avoiding but still watching an atrocity.  Pfc Allen is gunned down by Makarov, removing the stain of his actions by negating the character as a future protagonist.

Currently, it is all the rage to prize games that offer players complex choices, moral and otherwise, in approaching solutions to levels or resolution of narrative.  Indeed, one of the most compelling and largely unique things about games as a medium is that the audience of the medium is given the ability to participate in and potentially alter the narrative itself.  Much maligned are games that enforce narrative elements like the often criticized sequence in Bioshock in which the player suddenly loses control of himself and is made to execute Andrew Ryan.  Despite the seeming choice that the player seems to have to not fire, though, like Bioshock, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 seems interested in interrogating the relationship between authority and free will.

Certainly, I may have “chosen” the more noble route of not participating in the murder of innocents.  Nevertheless, I still followed Makarov as instructed.  Even when I realized that I might have some alternative option to intervene in an activity that was distasteful to me, I still felt hamstrung by rules and hesitated in executing Makarov and his men because of my expectations of the rules and conventions of the game despite my own moral quandry.

Despite being a simulation about soldiers, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 calls into question our tendency to blindly follow rules in general.  In fact, as I was playing through this sequence the prompt “Follow Makarov” evoked my recollection of how I had previously been quite comfortable with the prompt “Follow MacTavish” and made me wonder why I had not felt anything about gunning down humans that were one symbolic marker away from civilians.  If uniforms are only relics now, why were uniforms something that I could acceptably assault before now with no concern for the human underneath?

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is ferocious and terrible.  It once again victimizes the player, ironically, by offering the illusion of choice to the player but then reminding him of his own dedication to rules that are followed consciously and unconsciously.  The reflection of the life of the soldier on the experience of the gamer once again becomes a way of causing the player to reflect on themselves.  In this case, though, it may be a reflection of a terrible ferocity that we share with the game.

Even if we believe that rules don’t guide our decisions and that we are free to make choices, remember that even a man with no rules and no political boundaries may find himself falling prey to deeply embedded rules: “No Russian.”

by tjmHolden

18 Nov 2009

Where I come from, I never see this:

Japan or America—even in Europe where I’ve spent considerable time—cars don’t take one another on, in this way:

 



Something I hadn’t expected from Korea: a free-for-all, whoever comes first, however they can get in that space, fit their frame in, they’re welcome to it.

Don’t fuss over turning around; just wedge yourself in, exit, key the lock, get on with your business.

 


Reminding me of one of peripatacity‘s basic rules: never carry expectations when you travel.

 


by Monte Williams

18 Nov 2009

I was listening to the Muppet Babies theme song the other day (don’t judge me!), and I made a point of studying its lyrics. (Surely you’ll concede that somebody has to intently critique the lyrics to songs from Saturday morning cartoons that aired 25 years ago.)

Point being, I noticed something terrible. Note what each of the Babies says in the opening theme:

Kermit: I like adventure.
Piggy: I like romance.
Fozzie: I love great jokes.
Animal: Animal dance!
Scooter: I’ve got my computer.
Skeeter: I swing through the air.
Rowlf: I play the piano.
Gonzo: And I’ve got blue hair.

Now, I admit that Gonzo’s “I’ve got blue hair” is hardly characterization at its deepest and most stirring, but whereas Kermit’s an adventurer and Fozzie’s a comedian and Rowlf’s a musician, Scooter’s only claim to fame is, “I’ve got my computer.”

by Bill Gibron

17 Nov 2009

Who would have thought it? Marla Singer is the sanest, most honest person in the entire piece. Even through all her hypochondria and emotional rollercoasterism, she puts the cracked combination of Tyler Durden and “Cornelius/Rupert/Everyman” in its place. Revisiting David Fincher’s fascinating post-modern masterwork Fight Club on Blu-ray for its 10th anniversary reveals a wealth of these kinds of previously undiscovered gems. What about Chloe, the dying woman so desperate for a last act roll in the hay that she advertises her various pleasure devices during her support group? There’s Raymond K. Hessel, the freaked out liquor store clerk who becomes Tyler’s first (of supposedly many) “human sacrifices” and, Lou, the faux Mafioso who gets a ‘mouthful’ of Fight Club’s foul purpose. And of course, there’s Robert Paulson, the big softy with “bitch tits” who ends up representing the most powerful of Project Mayhem’s many ubiquitous symbols.

Far beyond Edward Norton and Brad Pitt, who play the rebel yell yin yang of a split personality with revolutionary leanings better than any single actor ever could, and a director so in tune with the material that it seems to be flowing directly out of his own Id, it’s great to see this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s perturbing novel get the afterthought critical respect it so richly deserved (and yet missed) the first time. Yes, Messageboard Nation loves to rewrite the history books on all their favorite films, and to read their various rants on the subject, you’d swear this was 1999’s most heavily praised and commercially successful film. In truth, the controversial nature of Fight Club‘s material - which many saw as a celebration of mindless violence and individual brutality - saw it as one of the decade’s most divisive efforts. Only in hindsight did it become the black-eyed Mona Lisa.

Indeed, a few short years later, it is now viewed as a milestone, a benchmark in the careers of everyone involved. For Fincher, the story of a young man discovering the beauty - and the inherent danger - in embracing your inner maleness become a commentary on an entire sub-generation of dejected men. Thanks to Palahnuik’s brilliant deconstruction of the bottomed-out baby boom, complete with IKEA “nesting” instincts and designer mustard mandates spoke volumes back when Clinton was canvassing the White House, and now, two regime changes later, it seems even more prescient. Fight Club has always been about taking back your life from the corporate schism, about beating the system up before it beats you down. Now, in a world where bad decisions, not bombs, caused many of the most prestigious lending houses to crash and burn, Tyler Durden’s chemically-induced chaos doesn’t seem so outlandish. In fact, it seems downright reasonable.

The main story remains as strong as ever - a young liabilities analyst (Norton) for a major auto manufacturer has trouble sleeping. Seeking solace from local self-help groups, he realizes that getting lost in other people’s problems helps him cope better with his own. Then another treatment “tourist” named Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) shows up, and throws our hero off his game. He tries to negotiate with her, but she’s more desperate than he is. During a lengthy business trip, our lead meets up with designer soap maker Tyler Durden (Pitt). They strike up an awkward friendship that finds the duo eventually living together in a run down house on the edge of town. From there, they begin something called ‘Fight Club’ - a weekly meeting where men can get together and blow off their frustrations and fears in a flurry of fists to the faces and solar plexus. 

Before long, Tyler decides to take the recreational release to new levels. He recruits an army of sorts, and soon, the newly named “Project Mayhem” is tackling corporate greed, franchised phoniness, and the continued dehumanization of the entire race via less than legal means. When our unnamed player complains, Tyler grows more distant. After a particular tense exchange, they part company. But Project Mayhem is now going international. It is up to our guide to discover Tyler’s motives, his true identity, and how an aggressive type of non-erotic male bonding turned into a terrorist organization.

Fight Club is still today a definitive film, a statement as strong as any rock anthem and twice as packed with power chords. It reels from flights of vivid imagination and keens with art so impressive that few can fathom its brilliance at one sitting. To hear Fincher tell it (his commentary is one of several spellbinding additions to the Blu-ray release, along with a fabulous 1080p transfer and audio update), the movie was a compact experience - scripted, storyboarded, cast, and presented without any major studio input or interference. Even when they balked at some of Palahnuik’s more maverick ideas, Fincher fought for the essence, if not the actual scene or line of dialogue. Sometimes, the reinvention made things much, much darker (Marla’s classic “grade school/abortion” lines). At other instances, the film version of Fight Club fleshed out the author’s ideas, giving realism and authenticity to what could be viewed as the fictional version of The Anarchist’s Cookbook.

But as the wealth of bonus features argue, Fight Club endures because its about the shared experience - between cast and crew, characters and audience, philosophy and individual ethos. It’s about emasculation and the inability to overcome same. Fincher surprises us when he explains how uncomfortable the MPAA got with any questions of sex (especially Tyler’s “rubber glove” bit with Marla) but then passed on most of the violence. Instead, Britain made him trim material from the infamous Angel Face (Jared Leto) beat down, arguing it was too horrific (we see both versions, and other deleted scenes here as well). As the actors share anecdotes and discuss motivation, we begin to understand how forward-thinking this movie really was. While Fight Club argued for a dethroned patriarchy to rise up and reestablish their place on the social food chain, it also illustrated the indirect rise in geek empowerment. Of course, the men in the movie pounded each other into submission using physical force and stamina. The nerds beat them to prominence with a motherboard and a highway full of information.

Indeed, in today’s gloomy, Palin obsessed media-cracy, a planet where information overload takes the place of rationality or true thought, Fight Club is more of a distant voice that a shouting street preacher. It still resonates in ways Palahnuik and Fincher can only imagine and truly helped redefine a demo in peril. But now, even in a fully fleshed out home video primer, it remains a lesson to be studied and learned, a series of lunatic lectures you either buy into, or berate as being out of touch and troubling. At its core, it can seem like sinew and sweat, testosterone and ‘roid rage rebellion. But inside of each one of these little boys lost is someone who has seen the systematic re-sensitizing of the father figure turn the powerful into the pathetic. As Tyler Durden says during one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, “If our father is our basis for God, and our fathers abandoned us, then what does that tell you about God?” In Fincher’s effective masterpiece, the answer is on every single frame. It’s up to you to find it.

by Rachel Balik

17 Nov 2009

As a professional writer and English major, I had always wanted to believe that Woe Is I was a book miles below my reading level. I am not, after all, a grammarphobe. I like words. I always answer “I’m well,” instead of “I’m good.” I know the difference between you’re and your. And best of all, I almost always have a professional editor on call to catch whatever mistakes I might make. But when I learned that Patricia O’Connor had produced a third edition of the famous book, I got an intuitive feeling that it was time for me to finally read it. In my heart of hearts, I know my grammar isn’t perfect. Furthermore, editors don’t always catch mistakes. I recalled a piece I’d written in which my editor and I both missed my wildly incorrect usage of the word, “incidences” instead of “incidents.” Although it had slipped by us, it was caught by a reader who was angry enough to find my personal blog and write a comment calling me a “dunce.’

If I had read O’Connor’s book before that day, I would have known better. I also would have been able to make a case for the modern meaning of decimate (it no longer means killing off ten percent, but it definitely doesn’t mean “wipe out completely”). I would have been able to inform my editor that it is permissible to have “myriad” or “a myriad” questions about grammar. I would have spent less time agonizing about hyphens and never would have complained that was I was “chomping at the bit.” (Apparently it’s “champing at the bit.”)

In truth, the book is as suitable for lovers of language as it is for those who fear commas. O’Connor inadvertently teaches a great deal about how to write elegant, economical, and clear sentences. Reading the book felt like sharpening a knife; I thought I knew how to write, when in fact my brain was a bit dull in many areas. It occured to me that this book is even more important for writers than it is for average people. Underneath O’Connor’s cutesy, down-to-earth explanations, clarifications, and references to movies is a tribute to the art of the the English language. Much of what O’Connor knows is so specific that we could get away without doing it correctly, but the real revelation is how truly effective language can be when we stick to the rules. (Or break them. O’Connor also tells when we should ignore convention in favor of coherency.)

Her book is testament to the living, breathing nature of language. Not only does she relay important information about how words should be used, she reports on how language is used. It is an important reference for any writer to at least have on file, if not to read from cover-to-cover. It is the sort of book that can be read one chapter at a time for inspiration and insight. But for those who are seeking a comprehensive grammar education, the book is easily digestible and littered with pop culture examples that will appeal to real grammarphobes. Apparently, Paris Hilton is as ubiquitous as pronoun misuse.

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