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Land of Confusion

If some games are to be considered works of art, should developers consider whether or not the various components of the game, i.e. campaign/multiplayer, heavily contradict each other thematically like they do in Modern Warfare 2?
[Written by Aaron Leach.] 
 
Since the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, you have no doubt heard many voices in the game community refer to it as a work of art. We here at Pixelosophy have also proclaimed it as one of the greatest and artistically relevant single-player experiences we’ve ever encountered.
 
However, notice that we continue to qualify the statement with “single-player.” I’d like to look at the idea that when looked at as an entire package, both single and multi-player modes, Infinity Ward has delivered us a thematically confused package in Modern Warfare 2. A package that juxtaposes itself so distinctly that it has the potential to make a fairly strong case for games not being art. Let’s have a look.
 
I realize that this article will be based on a number of assumptions that are all up for debate. The biggest of these assumptions being that games aspire to be recognized as an art form, therefore, developers strive to be recognized as artists and, in doing so, try to operate within some of the same parameters and strive to have similar characteristics as other artists of other mediums.
 
The main characteristic I’m talking about here is that when creating any piece of art, it has a purpose or some sort of intent.  It could be to evoke a certain emotion, tell a story, to get a point across. I realize that some art exists to have the point of simply not having a point, which could be considered a purpose in and of itself, but that’s a whole other argument and probably a whole other website.
 
Anyway, for the purposes of this article, we are going with the assumption that Infinity Ward had some ideas about the purpose and themes of their game, some of which we have already tried to identify in past articles. We assume that the themes exist, and that they are there for us to examine. So, back to the point then.
 
As I have stated before, one of the major themes of Modern Warfare 2’s campaign is the morally ambiguous choices that one makes in the name of doing what they believe is right. It’s a campaign that, due to the various perspectives and motives the player sees, really has the power to make the player think about why they are pulling the trigger. It often puts the player in a situation in which they simply do not want to pull the trigger.
 
Most obviously would be the No Russian level, but another level that does this would be the level at the air yard. In this level, the lines between good guys and bad guys get especially blurred. The simplest way I can explain it is to say that it is the shooter that often takes the “fun” out of shooting. It’s the anti-Halo. It isn’t just fighting your way to a clear victory because no side is clearly right, and in that regard, this campaign is extremely provocative.
 
However, looking at the multiplayer and spec-ops section, we see that Infinity Ward falls back on the same multiplayer conventions that gamers have grown accustomed to, and by doing so, seemingly forgets about the themes they established in the campaign. These modes exist in the world of shooting for reward. It’s a fast-paced, arcade style experience that requires no thought about the repercussions of the players’ actions. The player shoots to get XP or stars. These modes quantify a life taken for a specific amount of points or stars. You kill people; you earn rewards. Do you see the mixed message we’ve been handed here?
 
The campaign carries themes that show the player just how not cool it is to actually be in a war. The multiplayer throws all that out the window and encourages players to just pick up a weapon and go at it. The campaign insists that the player consider the motives and tactics of all sides of a conflict. The multiplayer promotes faceless, nameless simulated-killing for fun. The campaign asks, "What is the value of human life?" The multiplayer glibly responds, "100 points. Unless you shoot them in the head, then it's 200."
 
Now, before you get all upset and say that I’m insulting a phenomenal multiplayer experience, let me just clarify that I do think the Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer experience is great and a lot of fun. I’m not saying there is anything technically wrong with it, simply that it doesn’t go, thematically, with the campaign.
 
That is the question I’d like to pose. If games are to be examined as art, is it ok that they have such contradictory elements to them? Is it creatively responsible for Infinity Ward to preach two extremely different messages with their product? I’d like to think that given the talent of Infinity Ward, they could have somehow come up with a multiplayer experience that maintains the excellence we expect while keeping in step with the established themes of the campaign.
 
The other option is to separate the two components. It would certainly be easiest to classify the narrative portion as the “art” portion and the game portion as simply a game in the most basic of senses, which we would then not consider to be art any more than you would consider a game of Checkers to be art. However, would doing this let developers off the hook a bit as artists? Is it telling them that it’s ok for them to not attempt to produce a fully cohesive product?
 
Again, I’d like to think that developers would aspire to create the “total package” when it comes to their games. I’d like to see a completely unified play experience from campaign to co-op to multiplayer. The more I see these thematic contradictions of intent from developers, the more I believe that games still have greater ties to their financial priorities than their artistic integrity. This is a thought that is quite disturbing when looking at gaming’s potential as an art form.
 
However, the scarier thought is that Modern Warfare 2 exists exactly as Infinity Ward intended (which is quite likely), and they aren’t even aware of or didn’t consider the jumbled message they’ve sent or the impact that it can have.
 
[Reprinted from www.fourplayercoop.com/pixelosophy.] 

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