Gaming is starting to come of age. Works like Braid, Heavy Rain or Bioshock show a real engagement with the interactive medium and its unique creative possibilities. Soon enough reviewers will stop focusing parochially on mechanics and start talking more about artistry. But I’m not going to talk about these games today. Instead, I’m going to look at the big-budget, cinematic first-person shooter, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and break down two parts of it that I found particularly powerful. [Note: If you intend on playing the game and haven’t yet done so, please avoid reading this article until after you’ve finished it, as it will otherwise spoil the experience for you.]
For the vast majority of the game, you’re a foot soldier. You manoeuvre, you shoot, you follow orders. You’re a gun on two legs, and your tactics, aim, equipment and awareness had better be stronger than the guys you’re up against if you’re going to survive and get the job done. The game often has you undertaking special forces missions, conducting surgical strikes behind enemy lines to secure crucial objectives. Enemy helicopters whoosh overhead as you lie prone in the long grass. Crawling through a ditch to avoid enemy fire, bullets and shrapnel tearing up the air around you, this is as grounded as it gets.
One exceptional mission sees you take to the skies in an AC-130 to support troops on the ground. Far from the visceral, sensory overload of the rest of the game, there’s a haunting sense of comfortable – almost luxurious – disconnect. After the frantic, close, noisy action down on the ground, this feels quite bizzarre. The armaments at your disposal are outrageously potent – there’s a massive imbalance in power between you and those on the ground. This peaceful sense of distance, combined with the massive power at your disposal, is quite harrowing. You struggle to make out the flashing trackers on friendly troops, terrified of the friendly fire you can so easily inflict. It is clear that the ground and air forces need to work together – the firepower in the sky protecting the fragile, agile troops on the ground. As the troops exited safely at the end of the mission, I was relieved to leave the responsibility of the gunner’s seat behind and continue the rest of the campaign on the ground.
The game’s story is told from a few different perspectives, following American and British troops. Mid-way through the game, the American campaign sees Sergeant Jackson caught in a nuclear explosion, his helicopter downed as it fails to escape the blast. This is a fantastic disruption of the narrative we expect to experience. In gaming, it’s all too easy to assume that failure can be avoided. Gamers believe that our skills will ultimately triumph if they are sharp enough, whatever the challenge. Reload from the checkpoint and have another go – you’ll get it right the second time. Or the third. Of course, real life is not like that – a moment’s misfortune or mistake is all it takes. But this mission is even worse, because there was never any chance of survival. Gamers assume that setbacks can be overcome with enough skill, or a change of tactics. But nothing could be done.
You force your eyes open, blearily, and struggle out of the downed helicopter. Movement is uncomfortable and slow. The game’s light, responsive controls that have given you so much power before have morphed into a mockery of this, and are sluggish and burdensome. Even looking around is an effort. You are no longer the powerful first-person shooter gamer you have been for the rest of the campaign. You’re something broken, but you still carry on. Your vision blurs as you crawl out of the helicopter. You go forward – as a gamer, as a soldier, this is what you are trained to do. There must be a challenge, a way of interacting; a way out. Some trick for salvation. But all around you is destruction. Your instincts rage – there is nowhere to aim; no way out; no test of skill to allow you to continue. You did nothing wrong. You did all the game asked of you, and still you are dead. It was about time that a game made this point. Interactivity is a powerful medium for conveying powerlessness.
At half-way through the game, we don’t expect this. We’re getting settled in to the American campaign, and are already anticipating what the later battles will be like. Jackson’s death shakes our sense of narrative and pacing. The game carries on without him, picking up other threads of the story. The overall sense of narrative and progression continues, and the story ends victoriously. But perhaps it shouldn’t. Perhaps a random, arbitrary and capricious ending is the strongest. It’s unsatisfying, unfair, and enragingly incomplete. The individual narrative is cut short, and his contribution rendered pathetic rather than triumphant or heroic.
Perhaps there’s space for a cultural work – a book, a film, a play – to stop before it’s supposed to. How would it feel for a 600-page book to finish 300 pages in? How would you deal with that sense of grief, of lost opportunity? If this was done right, could such an experience challenge you to change yourself such that your personal narrative carried on more powerfully, where the work’s narrative stopped dead?
This might seem counterintuitive. People aren’t seeking nihilism in their art; they are seeking meaning. They want to be transformed by the experience, and to inhabit a changed place, as changed people, not to be stopped in their tracks. But perhaps an unsatisfactory ending, delivered correctly, would do just that. Go out and create a powerful, meaningful experience for yourself. Find out what’s left when your certainties crumble away, when your sense of what’s important and what must happen is smashed to pieces.