Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" mission has really gotten people talking about how a game can be sensational, thought-provoking, reactionary, and engaging. And while I'm happy for what the mission has done in terms of people thinking about what games can be, or do, I think the "No Russian" mission ultimately did not succeed on as powerful and player-affecting level as it could have. This is a little puzzling to me, as the same game, in the South American missions, did all of the above.
For those that don't know, the "No Russian" mission involved playing the role of a spy infiltrated into a Russian terrorist organization. This infiltrator was to progress with the terrorists as they kill civilians in an airport, making sure to not blow his cover in order to find up what the head terrorist, Makarov, was really planning for later.
It was too scripted. Cinematically, I think it was effective...until I respawned.The second I realized that shooting a terrorist caused the slow moving task through the airport to start all over again, the emotional power the game had over me disappeared. I could walk, I could walk backwards, I could shoot the civilians, I could not shoot, and the level would continue. I really had no agency as a player that actually mattered. And games, to truly take advantage of what a game can do, must provide impactful and consequential choice. The only choices I really had were to skip the level before it started (no impact) or to shoot or not shoot the civilians (no consequence).
"No Russian" could have done a lot better. If one of the major points of the level was to get the player to understand that sometimes bad things must be done for the greater good...show them. Let's say that I could kill all the terrorists in that airport without it being automatic Game Over. Then I could hose Makarov and all his buddies, and I'm the savior of the civilians. I cheer with the Russian people, get a nice medal for my actions...and watch Makarov's plan B -- a bio weapon -- go off without a hitch, killing thousands.
Now how impactful was my decision? Suddenly I'm thrown into turmoil -- I thought I was doing the right thing, but I didn't listen to my superiors (who instruct you not to blow your cover), and now thousands more are dead. This is the place to throw in the scripted section that gives me no agency. Perhaps a cutscene, showing a hospital trying to save the wounded? Or later I have to pick through the bodies, or walk past piles of them in an evacuation zone? The scripted event now comes off as a consequence to my choice, not as just a strong scene put in the game to affect me. My choice was impactful (I just caused thousands to die) and consequential (I had to sit through a cutscene...I had to spend game-time picking through the dead).
This is why player choice is so key for me, and why it always kills me that designers come so close only to drop the ball right at the end. This especially bothers me with MW2, because it actually had scenes where civilian killings did affected me.
There were a series of missions in a South American country where you fight from one shackled hut to another as you move through gang territory. In these levels, people were virtually shooting you from all over: rooftops, basements, and coming from behind you. These were the most harrowing, tense encounters (for me) in this game. As this hut-to-hut fighting occurred, civilians would run out of their huts for safety. And because I'm so tense and trigger-happy to take out another AK wielding gangsta, I would hose the civilian before I knew what he/she was. It impacted me in its simplicity. My God, I thought, that was too easy. The game kept continued. Life went on. No Game Over.
This was much more emotionally impactful for me. It still could have been better: As with "No Russian" killing or not killing civilians doesn't affect the completion of the level in any way. There were no game consequences for my actions. But it was much more impactful.
In this case, killing the civilians was something I didn't want to do but did anyway because of the way I played the game. In "No Russian" I could kill civilians if I chose, or if I chose not to kill, I simply didn't and watched the scene unfold. This is not impactful because either way, I'm doing what I want. Granted it is impactful in a cinematic sense, if I don't like seeing that happening, but that is not what games should limit themselves to. My only consequential choice in this mission is to kill the terrorists or not, and the game tells me I must not kill them.
There is no clash between my gameplay decisions and my internal, moral compass. It is in this clash between gameplay decisions and moral ones that I think games can really affect the people who play them. More on all that later.