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Postmodern Warfare

This article focuses on Infinity Ward's choice of limiting the amount of time spent with each playable character in Modern Warfare 2 in an attempt to manipulate the player's level of immersion in both the characters and the situation/narrative themes.

Aaron & Alex Leach, Blogger

December 22, 2009

7 Min Read

[Written by Aaron Leach.] 


Immersion has been an industry buzzword for some time now. How can developers achieve the greatest amount of immersion? Is it better to be immersed in the character or the world? How close can we come to putting the player inside the virtual experience? No matter what the angle of immersion is, it seems that the majority of developers are most often interested in letting the player walk a mile in the main character’s shoes. It seems like the immersion pedal is floored the whole way with little to no thought in actually manipulating the perceived and unperceived distance between player and character. Why would developers want to hold back the immersion in certain aspects of a game? Because controlling just how much the player identifies with a character can alter a narrative and open up new possibilities for story variety. With Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward shows that they seem to understand this better than any other developer working today.


[Spoiler Warning: If you have not completed the Modern Warfare 2 campaign, you may want to do so before reading this article.]


In Modern Warfare 2, Infinity Ward shows a clear understanding of the idea that immersion doesn’t exist in only one particular aspect of gaming. A player can become immersed in the environment through stunning visual and auditory cues. A player can be immersed in the character/avatar through choices in perspective, back-story, and in-game decision-making. Understanding that all of these tools can be manipulated should aid a developer in telling the story they envision and in, almost invisibly, guiding the player through the experience that they want them to have. 


I assert that Infinity Ward’s decision to scale back on the level of immersion the player felt from a character perspective aided them in creating more immersion from an overall thematic and situational perspective. Furthermore, this same dialing back of character immersion is what allowed them to tell the story they set out to tell. Let’s look at how this was accomplished.


To understand the reasoning behind this argument, one must understand one of the main themes of Modern Warfare 2, or at least what I perceived it to be. That theme, simply put, is that war is extremely messy. All sides will go to morally questionable lengths to get the job done, and more importantly, they all feel justified in carrying out those actions because they believe they are doing the right thing.  Private Allen feels justified in the killing of civilians under the guise of a Russian terrorist. Captain Price feels justified in going a bit rogue and setting off a nuclear missile. General Shepherd feels justified in his betrayal of Task Force 141. The Russian Utranationalists feel justified in declaring Zakhaev a national hero and martyr. Each feels they are doing the right thing for their country and their country’s place in history. The line between good guys and bad guys has never been blurrier in a game’s narrative before. 


While some critics have faulted the game’s seemingly attention-deficient style of jumping-between-characters storytelling method as a negative, I say that it is the key ingredient in conveying this theme we are discussing. Not allowing the player to stick with one character for too long keeps them at an emotional distance with each of the characters they inhabit. Keeping this separation between the player’s mindset and the characters’ is what allows the above-stated theme to exist. It allows the player to get wrapped up in the situation as a whole while at the same time retaining their own personal thoughts as the key perspective for analyzing the events.


For example, in most games, say Gears of War, a player inhabits the life of a single character for hours at a time; in this case it’s Marcus Fenix. The narrative directs the player to identify with Marcus and indulge the hyper-masculine hero fantasy that the game delivers. Marcus and the humans are clearly the protagonists while the Locust are clearly the antagonists. It’s black and white, good vs. evil stuff. We’re never given the chance to inhabit a Locust soldier’s shoes or given a taste of their side of the story, making it impossible to identify with them. The player is never given a moment to think about whether or not the humans are fallible in this conflict.  The player is connected the whole way with Marcus and therefore connected to Marcus’ mission as well.


Had this formula been applied to Modern Warfare 2, the narrative impact would have been reduced to the same tired tropes of good guy, bad guy war stories that developers have given us for years. If a player only lives through these events behind the eyes of just an Army Ranger or a 141 member then they would likely only identify with the cause of that side because they haven’t been given the true scope of the situation. They would never be given the chance to understand the motivations of different factions and therefore never question the actions they have to complete to get to some sort of “victory.”


Now, it certainly can be argued that once the betrayal by General Shepherd happens, the player is then fully identified with the 141 and seeks revenge on Shepherd. I could see this being valid if they had clearly given the player Shepherd’s motives for his actions, but they are left fairly unclear until later in the game. At the time of the betrayal, it is apparent that Price and Soap certainly want revenge on Shepherd, but as the player, we just sort of go along with the revenge in the hopes of finding out Shepherd’s true motivation. We can certainly identify with Price’s desire to go after Shepherd and understand why it’s important, but because we’ve spent so much time fighting as American soldiers also, we keep telling ourselves that there has to be a reason. This ambiguity of action is furthered in the final scenes of the game when the player, as Soap, has been stabbed by Shepherd, and Shepherd not only explains his actions but, more importantly, is sure that Soap understands. It’s in that moment that the player understands that everyone is fighting for their version of “good,” and that they are willing to do what it takes to achieve it. This moment is followed by a fist-fight between Shepherd and Price, and all the player can do is watch. This fight seems to go on for just a bit too long, as though Infinity Ward wants the player to pause and question which one of these two warriors is the one they should be rooting for. 


That’s a question that can only arise from keeping that distance from Soap or any of the playable characters and a theme of true moral ambiguity that players have yet to really feel. If we were committed to the Americans (Note: I am disregarding the nationality of the player for these purposes and focusing on the themes the game universally conveys. The influence of personal ethnicity is a whole other entry.) we could root for Shepherd. If we were committed to the 141, it’s Price. Instead, Infinity Ward allows the player to make their own conclusions about who is right, if either of them is right at all. 


Obviously Infinity Ward is using extreme situations to convey these ideas, but my charge to creators is that these techniques can be applied to a wide array of narrative genres. Modern Warfare 2 proves that morally ambiguous choices can be conveyed in a game simply by showing all sides of a conflict. The execution here makes all the implementations of the “here is a good choice and here is a bad choice” path mechanics seem corny and laughable. Giving players the deepest understanding of the events they are participating in will yield greater immersion in the game as whole than some silly night/day choice system ever will. I can’t wait to see what lessons we all learn from Infinity Ward’s work here.


[Reprinted from www.fourplayercoop.com/pixelosophy.] 

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