Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Text:AAA
Friday, Dec 4, 2009
Assassin’s Creed is largely a mystery game, but we'll only find answers to its complex conspiracy if we divert from the path that the game sets for us.

Assassin’s Creed is largely a mystery game. It puts you in the shoes of two men who are defined by their ignorance and who spend the game in search of answers: Desmond is a bartender who has been abducted by a giant company for reasons unknown, and Altaïr is a once master assassin, now demoted and forced to relearn what it truly means to be a part of this brotherhood. There is no dramatic irony here, in which the player knows more than the characters. When we begin the game we too are ignorant of everything. We can play the game and let it lead us through its story, and by the end, we’ll have a general understanding of the events that take place. But if we divert from the path that the game sets for us, there’s a wealth of details that help flesh out this fictional world and the complex conspiracy that connects these two men.


Desmond is introduced to us a bartender, recently kidnapped by the giant company Abstergo, and forced to relive the genetic memories of his ancestor, Altaïr. He interacts with only two other characters: Warren Vidic, the scientist in charge of this genetic memory experiment and his assistant Lucy. Desmond is only told that Vidic is looking for something and that Desmond’s ancestor’s memories may provide a clue as to where this “thing” can be found. With so little explained, the player is nonetheless thrust into the past, taking control of Altaïr and Desmond’s story is put on hold.


When Desmond comes out of the Animas, the machine that lets him relive Altaïr’s life, Lucy drags Vidic into a nearby conference room to talk. This is the first moment in the game when it puts control of the mystery into the player’s hands. You can either wait for them to finish their conversation, or you can go into a bathroom and listen to them through the vents. What’s interesting is that the game gives no indication at all that you can do this. The information that you learn from eavesdropping isn’t relevant on its own, and if you miss this opportunity to spy, you won’t be at a disadvantage later on. Our reward is the feeling that we’re learning something secret. The game wants us to get into the habit of exploring our environment as Desmond even when we’re not directly encouraged to do so because such exploration will reveal story details later on. Whereas other games constantly direct the player towards its secrets, Assassin’s Creed does not.


But in case players missed their chance to eavesdrop, the game gives us a more obvious push towards such exploration later. If we look around our room at this point in the game our closet door is closed, but after being locked in our room, the closet is now open. If we get near it, Desmond finds a keycard that allows him to sneak out and hack into computers throughout the lab. Since the closet door was initially closed, leaving it open draws the player’s attention towards it. This is the only time that the game directs us so blatantly towards a secret, and that’s because the rest of our sleuthing involves those computers outside. Everything else is contingent on that keycard, so the game hands it to us.


At first, we only have access to Lucy’s computer. The most intriguing thing here is an email exchange about a woman named Leila who apparently killed herself. The emails show Lucy’s attempt to find out more, and how her search is blocked by the higher-ups in Abstergo. This exchange has little to do with why Desmond was kidnapped, but by introducing this very minor sub-plot it adds to the air of mystery surrounding the company. Since Assassin’s Creed is all about mystery, it’s important for the game to keep us in such an atmosphere.


Another email exchange refers to Vidic’s “access-key pen,” and certain words are capitalized: ACCESS-KEY, and LETTING IT HANG. These are subtle hints meant to make us focus on his pen because later we can pickpocket Vidic, which in turn gives us access to his computer. But these few words are the only clue we’re given that it’s even possible to pickpocket him. When the actual opportunity arrives, Desmond is told to get into the Animas and Vidic turns to stare out a window. If the player does as he is told, the opportunity is lost. The onus to disobey is on us, and we’re rewarded for doing so. In this way we’re encouraged not to listen to Vidic, and whenever he tells Desmond to do something, our first instinct is to do the opposite. This is important when he starts spouting philosophy: “The human race calls out for direction. They want to know why they’re here, what they’re meant to do. Well, we’re going to tell them.” His words are ominous by themselves, but our now immediate distrust of him makes them sound sinister as well.


Once we’ve gotten into Vidic’s computer, we get vague answers to some of our questions, but these answers come in pieces. We find off-hand comments about a delayed satellite launch, and the sender tells Vidic “just make sure you get what you need in time to meet the new launch window.” There are more emails, but this information about the satellite is the most pertinent and provides the player with the most immediate answers once all the pieces are connected.


Throughout the game, Vidic and Lucy talk about how Templars want to control people, but we’re never told how. The closest we come to getting an answer is when she says it involves the “Templar treasure,” the artifact that’s supposed to be buried in Desmond’s memories. At the end of the game we finally find the artifact and see its power. We see that it creates illusions and can controls minds, and the pieces finally start to come together. We learn that Abstergo once had that artifact, but it was destroyed in an accident. Hidden in Altaïr’s memories is a map that will lead them to similar artifacts. Since the discovery of this map (i.e. the discovery of more mind control devices) is supposed to coincide with the satellite launch, it’s not a leap to imagine that the artifact is meant to go up with the satellite and will then be used on a global scale. So finally we have a picture of Abstergo’s grand plans. We know why Desmond was kidnapped, why he was forced to relive these particular memoirs, what the artifact does, but not what it is. As with any good mystery, there’s always more.


One of most interesting things about Assassin’s Creed is Ubisoft’s commitment to the mystery. The game ends on a dramatic cliffhanger, leaving us with only more questions. In most cases this kind of ending is frustrating, but Assassin’s Creed pulls it off because of the way it handles its slow reveal up to this point. By putting much of that reveal on the player’s shoulders, solving the mystery ourselves becomes a part of the gameplay: we control how much of the story we see. So when the answers aren’t handed to us in the end, we’re fine with that because they haven’t been handed to us before. We don’t actually want direct answers because we’ve had such satisfaction piecing everything together ourselves. By ending on a cliffhanger Assassin’s Creed leaves the mystery open, it gives us more time to think about it and more time to enjoy it. Because the best part of any mystery is not the solution, but the process of solving it.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 2, 2009
Boa and heavy rouge complete the burlesque effect.

While it parodies the very thing that we do here at PopMatters.com, I kind of love Mark and Ari’s Ms. Pac-Man: Feminist Hero video:


The video pokes fun at “serious” readings of popular culture, and I can respect that.  We cultural critics do have a tendency to occasionally go overboard in assigning significance to our readings of seemingly superficial signs in media.  The parody here very cleverly sends up those moments. 


At the same time, I also kind of love the video because it really does contain interesting observations about Ms. Pac-Man’s relationship to feminist ideals.  The video makes me laugh, but it is also insightful at times.


If we are to treat Mark and Ari’s “thesis” in a semi-serious way, though, I must observe that what Mark and Ari may be observing in the presentation of Ms. Pac-Man is less the representation of feminist heroism as it may be a representation of the complexities of acknowledging gender in a Post feminist culture. 


In “Post feminism and Popular Culture,” Angela McRobbie discusses such complexities when she defines the concept of a “double entanglement” present in a Post feminist culture.  She describes such an entanglement as “the co-existence of neo-conservative values in relation to gender, sexuality and family life . . . with processes of liberalisation in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual and kinship relations.”  In essence, McRobbie suggests that competing ideologies surrounding gender (traditional senses of what women should be as wives, mothers, and generally in relation to men alongside liberal values of female empowerment regarding freely making choices about marriage and sexuality) have become entangled with one another despite the seemingly contradictory values that traditionalists and progressives hold concerning the roles and behaviors of women.


McRobbie exemplifies this idea by describing a late 90s television spot for Citreon cars, in which Claudia Schiffer disrobes as she leaves the house to go for a drive in her car.  McRobbie reads this moment as an example of such an entanglement, saying, “This advert appears to suggest that yes, this is a self-consciously ‘sexist ad,’ feminist critiques of it are deliberately evoked. Feminism is ‘taken into account,’ but only to be shown to be no longer necessary. Why? Because there is no exploitation here, there is nothing remotely naıve about this striptease. She seems to be doing it out of choice, and for her own enjoyment.”  While the ad is suggestive of the idea that women are still reducible to something to be looked at for their sexual appeal (a more traditionalist position), nevertheless, this role is adopted as an example of the freedom and empowerment of choosing to be so (the progressive position).  McRobbie suggests that such power is clearly communicated in the ad because of the audience’s knowledge of Schiffer’s success, “the advert works on the basis of its audience knowing Claudia to be one of the world’s most famous and highly paid supermodels.”  Schiffer can afford to be an object because she is powerful enough to reduce herself in this way, to choose how to exploit herself.


Such a curious “double entanglement” of ideology similarly exists in the representation of Ms. Pac-Man.  While Ms. Pac-Man could be considered a feminist icon as a figure able to take on the world (or in this case the maze) all on her own, a maze rightly pointed out by Mark and Ari as being a more difficult puzzle to solve than her male counterpart’s slower maze with its stable fruits (Ms. Pac-Man has to work that much harder for her bonuses), nevertheless, these emblems of Ms. Pac-Man’s greater drive and need to prove herself are entangled by the imagery surrounding her.


Ms. Pac-Man’s bow, of course, marks her gender and is a simple enough way of distinguishing her from her male counterpart as female.  However, the Marilyn Monroe inspired beauty mark and lip gloss both suggest that Ms. Pac-Man is interested in maintaining an appearance that makes her more desirable as an object for others.  The dominant function of make-up is to enhance elements of appearance that are perceived to make women more attractive and the mole is an image evocative of a woman whose success stemmed from her ability to manipulate her status as object into a commodity.


Frankly, the image of Ms. Pac-Man on the side and front of the arcade machine is even more provocative of Ms. Pac-Man’s status as object as she resembles something akin to a pin-up.  Her leggy pose is reminiscent of that form.  That Ms. Pac-Man is “curvy” (quite literally, she is one big curve after all) is reminiscent of the pin-up period’s tendency to prefer a fleshier body type.  The boa and heavy rouge complete this more burlesque effect.


In an article that I read a number of years ago on female gamers, one psychologist suggested that one of the major reasons for Ms. Pac-Man’s appeal was that one of the reasons that female gamers were not attracted to video games is that they often need to be given “permission” to play with the boys.  By feminizing Pac-Man with a bow and a feminine identity (the “Ms.” marker), she further suggested that a female identity to inhabit while playing Pac-Man gives such “permission” (one might wonder about this same phenomena in comic books in which feminized versions of Batman and Superman are assumedly intended to capture the attention of female readers that otherwise might feel excluded from stories that are seemingly intended for boys). 


Various representations inspired by Ms. Pac-Man might suggest a more specific embrace of stereotypically female identity, though.  These representations also emphasize that female empowerment might not be suggested by Ms. Pac-Man’s imagery or what appeals to female gamers, but instead, the elements of Ms. Pac-Man that are emblems of sexual objectification.  These elements of her identity continue to represent the “double entanglement” of the Ms. Pac-Man image as the images throughout this essay suggest.  From retro shoes to lingerie inspired by Ms. Pac-Man to even a possibly suggestive “tramp stamp” featuring the consumption of a cherry, these images suggest an embrace of Ms. Pac-Man by the game’s audience as one doubly entangled by objectification and empowerment at the same time.


While the title “Ms.” is evocative of the feminist movement of the 1970s, Ms. Pac-Man’s pin-up inspired representations seem in some way more a product of a pre-feminist culture than they are evocative of the politics of Gloria Steinem.  Like Suicide Girls and Pussycat Dolls, Ms. Pac-Man’s image seems one predicated on recoginizing objectification as a viable choice assuming that the ability to pursue pursue power (in this case, perhaps, power pellets) by any means chosen by women has already been won.  Game over.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Dec 1, 2009
Crackdown is a pure example of a gaming space designed with a sense of the "traditional" male gaming demographic in mind.

As a part of the now blossoming sandbox genre, Crackdown was a game that chose to all but abandon narrative. Combining an RPG stat upgrading system with an impressive degree of physical mobility and strength, the game just plopped you down in a giant city and let you run amuck. Three gangs, each living in their own isolated section of the city, must be eliminated. Kill the main leader and the gang will fall, but if you want to curb the strength of his men, you can take out the lieutenants scattered around the area. Kill the arms dealer, and the gang’s guns become subpar. Kill their recruiter and there will be less thugs on the street. Anecdotal cutscenes will introduce these boss figures and explain the effects of their demise, but otherwise, there is no character interaction with them or that interacts as a traditional character might at all—no protagonist who speaks, no real response to your actions besides weakening the gang’s basic infrastructure. It is a pure example of a gaming space intended for the classic male gaming demographic.


This sentiment is somewhat mirrored in a postmortem detailing the problems that the game experienced during development. When recalling the four year development process, the lead designer mostly focuses on the difficulty of creating an engine and graphics that could support the game. Artistically, it is still gorgeous today, using darkly outlined edges with bright colors to create a vibrant and engaging aesthetic. The real joy of the game is just running around smashing stuff. Doing this improves stats (like incremental increases in jump distance), weapons proficiency, better car handling along with all the activities littered throughout the game. Weapons depots must be unlocked, every weapon in the game can be collected and safely stored. Car races and experience orbs all give the player something to conquer. These genre tropes are still prevalent in sandbox games today, but what is remarkable about Crackdown is that it does this without any real plot motivating the player. It’s just the urge to move around the environment that drives the player’s actions.


I cannot claim credit for recognizing that Crackdown represents a prime example of a masculine virtual space, a student blog post from Celia Pearce’s Game Design as Cultural Practice at Georgia Tech pointed out this idea out to me.


The idea of a gender-themed game design goes back to an essay by Henry Jenkins. Writing years ago when developers all but ignored female gamers, he attempted to argue that video games allow for important psychological development in growing teenagers. He is not outlining games that should specifically be played by either gender but rather using that theme to propose a new awareness that game design is about allowing kids to escape to an empowering world. By explaining the basic themes of a teenage male’s empowerment fantasy, the essay proposes alternatives that might be more broadly appealing. He writes, “To facilitate such immersive play, to achieve an appropriate level of “holding power” that enables children to transcend their immediate environments, video game spaces require concreteness and vividness.” A player must have a large space to explore freely, activities to discover, and a means of interaction that lets their imagination engage with the game. Jenkins points out that in his own family, telling his son to go play outside isn’t really an option in their city apartment. The observation led him to doing some digging about what precisely playing outside usually provides for a young boy. He explains, “Our physical surroundings are ‘relatively simple and relatively stable’ compared to the ‘overwhelmingly complex and ever shifting’ relations between people, and thus, they form core resources for identity formation. The unstructured spaces, the playforts and treehouses that children create for themselves in the cracks, gullies, back alleys, and vacant lots of the adult world constitute what Robin C. Moore (1986) calls ‘childhood’s domain’ or William Van Vliet (1983) has labeled as a “fourth environment” outside the adult-structured spaces of home, school, and playground.”


The freer and more open the area, the better the child can escape and modify their physical environment. Jenkins draws heavily on a study by E. Anthony Rotundo on play habits of boys in the 19th century or what is called “boy culture.” Jenkins points out that the fantasies and behavior of kids back then was just as remarkably violent as games are now. Jenkins further comments, “Nineteenth century ‘boy culture’ was sometimes brutally violent and physically aggressive; children hurt each other or got hurt trying to prove their mastery and daring. Twentieth century video game culture displaces this physical violence into a symbolic realm. Rather than beating each other up behind the school, boys combat imaginary characters, finding a potentially safer outlet for their aggressive feelings. We forget how violent previous boy culture was.” To back these claims, Rotundo examines prime examples of popular penny novels and stories from this era. Fighting Indians, raging sea battles, blood, guts, and violence are the things that have always interested young males growing up. These books worked through, “persistent images of blood-and-guts combat and cliff-hanging risks that compelled boys to keep reading, making their blood race with promises of thrills and more thrills. This rapid pace allowed little room for moral and emotional introspection. In turn, such stories provided fantasies which boys could enact upon their own environments.”


This is precisely the space that Crackdown elegantly creates. In any section of the city, the player is never completely safe until the gang has been defeated. Random drive-bys will always occur and each gang has their own strengths that make them dangerous in unique ways. The Volk use grenade launchers while the Shai-Gen keep a corporate army of snipers hammering you from the rooftops. Jenkins explains, “The space of the boy book is the space of adventure, risk-taking and danger, of a wild and untamed nature that must be mastered if one is to survive. The space of the boy book offers ‘no place to seek cover,’ and thus encourages fight-or-flight responses.” Crackdown always dangles the possibility of tackling the head gang leader once you find their hideout. Each time that you take down a lieutenant you are informed of your statistical chances of surviving an attack on the final boss. Once you hit 50%, the narrator will encourage you to take the odds or “flip a coin.” Exploration and risks are also encouraged because of the wide-open nature of the game’s setting. Although all of the bosses are basically the same as the thugs except they have far more health, their locations on the map are often distant and difficult to access. A boss hiding at an island fortress can be approached by well-guarded floating bridges or you can swim through a minefield to approach from the rear. Combat and even death are both very forgiving; you regenerate health and death by respawning at the armory of your choice. This is a game that encourages you to be daring inside its space.


The game is not without its flaws nor was its release not problematic. For Example, the ability to lock on to distant targets makes the rocket launcher the weapon of choice. The Halo 3 beta key could only be claimed by buying the game, fueling a lot of indignation and then mild support once the demo hit. One of the tenants of a “boy space” that Jenkins overlooks is the need for a driving purpose or goal, an achievement for the player to pursue. Crackdown’s lack of narrative means that once you max out the stats, there isn’t much driving the player to actually complete the game. User TheGum at gamefaqs sums up a much younger perspective than my views of Crackdown: “The first few hours are great, as you discover the layout of the city, build core stats, and hunt down the many orbs. But after you have the strength and agility maxed out, the game really crashes; hence, the crack loses its potency.” Where Crackdown succeeds is both providing an exotic world to explore and a slow expansion of the player’s ability to access, control, and destroy that environment.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 24, 2009
When virtual economies collide with real world values, funny things happen.

As numerous facebook games and MMO’s begin to introduce microtransactions, a system where you buy items in-game with real world money, the remarkable strength of economies based on things that are not real deserves a closer look. Since all the goods in an MMO are non-essentials, you are pandering to a person’s need to feel successful at something. An article by Kris Graft at Gamasutra on the psychology of collecting in-game items explains, “Achievements are unique and difficult enough that most players will choose a small handful and distinguish themselves that way. This is the same sort of process that happens in deciding who want to be as we grow.” The article acknowledges that working with friends, enjoying the game, etc. are also factors but the thing that makes someone absolutely need to have that rare piece of armor, to earn that one achievement, is the desire to stand out. This is a resource that you have to manage extremely carefully. Anthony Burch jokes in a Rev Rant on collectibles that the emotional satisfaction of collecting items in a game like Shadow Complex or Super Metroid is like eating a package of Oreos. The first one is delicious, the second still good, third wears down, until after about a dozen you start to feel sick. It’s the same reason a more expensive chocolate or candy bar comes in a smaller quantity, you risk the person disliking the product when they overindulge.


From http://www.blogcdn.com

From http://www.blogcdn.com


Maintaining this resource of psychological satisfaction is extremely difficult because there is no finite quantity in an MMO. An article by Kim-Mai Cutler explains that in MMO games the rules of the system are very simplified. There are only ‘sources’ and ‘sinks’, things like taxes do not exist to free up or restrict resources. You have absolute information about all transactions and absolute control over what is being purchased. All of this control does little to mitigate the fact that when you tinker with even a simplified system, you can cause what Tateru Nino calls an economic earthquake with numerous consequences. For example, in the game Ultima Online they imposed a restriction on the amount of iron players could harvest to forge weapons. People just mined all the ore, the player weapon economy stopped producing, prices rose, and everyone demanded they just create more iron.


Matthew Skala goes into detail about the point Cutler makes on MMO’s suffering from singular costs. A game like World of Warcraft is problematic because there is only one drain on a player’s resources: buying stuff. It’s just collect money (from an infinite supply), purchase goods (from an infinite market), and eventually burn out as they hit the max achievement state. Or as Burch put it above, they end up eating the whole bag of Oreos. One commenter makes a very good point though, the game does have a tax system in the form of repair, skills, and extremely expensive commodities. Advanced skills are purchased, not automatically received, but it’s called ‘training’ instead of a leveling tax. Mounts are extremely costly, but are also highly sought-after in the community. The time required and cost of these goods should not be underestimated; one user points out that they have friends who have been playing the game for three years that still can’t afford the most expensive skills. Protecting the time duration for consuming goods, the spacing between each Oreo, is thus tantamount to maintaining the player’s enjoyment of the MMO economy.


Blizzard’s legal team, who are some of toughest in the business, actively prosecute any botting or cheating programs that circumvent grinding. The company also does not allow anyone to sell in-game items for cash if they can catch them at it. An article at T=machine cites the trial notes from MDY v. Blizzard, “Blizzard’s design intent is for the resources to command a certain high value, so that average players, who might get one or two of the resources in an average amount of play time, may obtain a decent amount of gold from selling them. But because characters controlled by bots flood the market with those resources, the market value of these resources is far less than Blizzard intended, and the average player realizes only a fraction of the intended value from the resources s/he finds.” That value is founded both psychologically and by maintaining scarcity in-game to create perceived value.


So the basic issue for an MMO economy is always going to be that on a long enough timeline all players will have the best gear and maxed out skills. You’re trying to figure out a way to keep them running on the tread mill by finding ways to appeal to that need to stand out. If there are too many Death Knights with the same kick ass set of armor and weapons, it becomes common and players lose interest. The solution in WoW’s case is two-fold: expansion packs and patches. An expansion pack for a game like Diablo 2 or World of Warcraft introduces a new continent to explore, monsters to fight, new skills, and new loot. All of these things are more expensive and more powerful than the previous version of the game. The result is something similar to what Karen Blumenthal at the Wall Street Journal refers to as a tech bubble. A bubble forms when there is a rapid technological or social innovation, as opposed to one that is slowly developed and adjusted to society. The innovation and the bubble are not always intrinsically related, the radio and car became prevalent in the 1920’s over a very short period of time just before the Great Depression. One person starts making a lot of money really fast, others get on board with their own schemes, and the urge to get rich slowly erodes common sense. The article cites two examples of superficial product booms during the internet’s arrival: beanie babies and handbags in the early 2000’s. Their perceived value directly related to a sense of temporary scarcity. The bubble burst because teddy bears and purses aren’t exactly hard to make, it was only a matter of time before the market flooded. In an MMO the same thing is true: people who want the best gear are going to get it eventually. As more do, value depreciates, and new ways to stand out must be developed.


You can see this in the real world value for items on websites that sell World of Warcraft gear. The expansion pack is the tech boom, the loot’s value rockets up and then bottoms out as everyone gets a hold of it. Finding consistent figures on this is really hard because technically these goods shouldn’t even be sold for money, so take this with a grain of salt. At Bank of WoW the value of gold money is generally stable at about $ 6.45 per thousand. The gear, however, plummets in value. At a gear website the top tier armor and gear will run you $ 1086.99 followed by a smaller set at $ 786.99. All other items and gear are $ .01. The latest expansion pack has been out since November 13, 2008, so this value depreciation only took a year to create. Player engagement is maintained by a steady process of patching the game, which constantly changes the benefits of gear and skills so the most powerful one will become weak and different ones will increase in value. Exchange and achievement are always pursuable options as the peak achievement state is modified.


Ultimately, it’s still difficult to find a stable economic system in a game because you can never be sure when it’s easier for the player to just grind for the item in-game. It’s essentially a massive exercise in asking the player what they think an item is worth: hours of their time or actual money? All the games have to do is make sure there is always something to buy and that players can’t do it all the time.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Nov 20, 2009
Modern Warfare 2 isn’t just a game about war, it’s about modern war, and all the uncomfortable ugliness that comes with it.

The Call of Duty franchise has always seemed to want to honor veterans and soldiers. The intensity of the first few games made for a fun experience, but since those moments were based on real events, they also had an air of gravity to them. This trend began to fade with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which had a central character die in a rather inglorious way and didn’t shy away from showing the darker consequences of war on individual soldiers. With Modern Warfare 2 Infinity Ward has abandoned its old formula and embraced everything that its subtitle-turned-title represents.


The story of Modern Warfare 2 is filled with plot holes, and characters act out in extreme ways with little apparent motivation. The criticisms of this story are valid, but in the grand scheme of things, the plot is not as important as the mood the game sets. Ben Kuchera, who reviewed the game for Ars Technica, put it best when he described the game as “a tone poem about warfare” (A description made even more interesting when you take into consideration L.B. Jeffries’ comparison of games and poetry earlier this week). The game takes its moniker “modern warfare” seriously, and in doing so, goes to some very dark, morally ambiguous, and morally wrong places. It’s filled with moments of fist-pumping action, but all are contrasted with moments of death and destruction that come to define the tone of the game. By the end, we’re left with the realization that modern warfare is ugly in almost every way.


The rest of this post contains major spoilers for Modern Warfare 2.


Others have written about the infamous “No Russian” level, in which you take part in a terrorist attack on a Russian airport. Regardless of this level’s appropriateness or importance to plot, I find it to be just one of many examples of how this game takes its title seriously. Previous Call of Duty games were based on World War 2, where the battle lines were clearly drawn: the Allies were good, the Axis bad. But in the years since then, terrorism has played an increasing role in global politics, so much so that now a terrorist attack on any country is considered more realistic than an all out war. With this in mind, the “No Russian” level is an apt portrayal of the current state of the world, in which civilians are just as likely targets as soldiers. The battle lines are no longer obvious.


World War 2 was also the last “moral war” that the United Sates was involved in. All the wars since then have been morally ambiguous in one way or another, and Modern Warfare 2 captures this ambiguity by giving almost every character a dark side. There are no true heroes in Modern Warfare 2. The minute-to-minute gameplay is so intense it forces us to focus on the moment, but in retrospect we have to questions to morality of our actions. Most characters have a noble goal, but they go about it in the most violent way possible.


Joseph Allen is recruited to go undercover in a Russian terrorist cell in order to get close to one Vladimir Makarov. He takes part in the attack on an airport, kills dozens of civilians, but his cover is blown and he ends up being killed by Makarov. His body is then used as an excuse for Russia to invade the United States. His intentions to expose an even bigger villain than Makarov were noble, but his violent methods resulted in more harm than good.


There are two ways one can interpret the actions of General Shepherd. Some see him as a grand conspirator who purposefully blew Allen’s cover so that the terrorist attack would be blamed on the U.S. and a war would start, which would spur military enlistment and give him more power. Others see him as an opportunist, as someone who didn’t plan for war, but decides to take advantage of it by hiding the truth about the terrorist attack in order to spur military enlistment and give him more power. Either way, he is not the hero is rank implies.


The closest thing Modern Warfare 2 has to good guys are Soap and Price. But Price unapologetically launches a nuke at Washington DC. It may explode above the atmosphere, sparing the destruction of the city, but the International Space Station is destroyed and the resulting EMP blast causes just as much disruption to the Americans as it does the Russians. Both men then spend the last couple levels hunting down Shepherd, going so far as to make a deal with Makarov to find the General. At this point they’re no different than Joseph Allen: Making a deal with the devil in hopes of achieving some greater good. Their goal of exposing the truth about the terrorist attack is noble, but their willingness to team with terrorists to do so is frightening. After all, when Price tells Makarov “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Makarov then warns him “that cuts both ways,” implying our two protagonists might have to help him one day. Also, while they may kill Shepherd in the end, he’s the leader of the American military at that point, so they’ve only added to the political chaos in the world. Everything they do resolves one conflict while starting another.


By the end of the game nothing is resolved. Soap and Prince are considered terrorists, Makarov is still at large, and the United States is still at war with Russia. Ending the game here is a very obvious set up for the sequel, but it’s also inadvertently symbolic of most political conflicts: Nothing is ever really resolved, violence that fades away eventually flares up again years later.


Modern Warfare 2 is a game with a very dark take on war. It embraces the major differences between modern war and the wars of old in order to emphasize them. The actual story, the excuse for going to war, may be flimsy and unrealistic, but the tone the game sets is hard to shake off, and will stay with you long after finishing it. This isn’t just a game about war, it’s about modern war, and all the uncomfortable ugliness that comes with it.


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