Thursday, November 19, 2009

Brief classical thoughts on "No Russian"

This blog may have some readers who have managed to miss the controversy surrounding the single-player campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (MW2). To orient you, my VGHVI colleague Erik Hanson brought together some of the most important responses to the controversy on the VGHVI Context Clues blog.

There's really no need to divulge the nature of the atrocity here; if you're interested you can follow-up through the link to Context Clues. What you need to know is that there's a chapter of the game in which the player-character is forced (if he or she chose to be forced, at the start of the game, since the game asks you if you want to play the disturbing sequence or skip it) to aid in the commission of a terrible atrocity. What's important for the purposes of the classical comparison is that 1) it's something that no rational person could view as anything other than an atrocity; and 2) the player (if he or she has chosen to play the sequence) is forced to aid in committing it.

The game critics whom I consider worth reading are near-universally agreed that the chapter does not deliver the profound meaning it seems pretty clearly to be attempting to deliver. There are a host of reasons for this impression that arise in the execution of the chapter, ranging from its context in the larger story of the game to the odd and jarring way its interactivity is managed. With regard to this failure of execution, it's perhaps worth noting from my classical point of view that there are several tragedies of Euripides that are marred (if we wish to put it that way, though scholars disagree) by a similar failure to integrate horrific acts into their plots in a meaningful way. I would hesitate to credit Infinity Ward, the developer of MW2 with this level of depth, but it's just possible that 100 years from now what looks now like the inappropriateness of the sequence will be hailed by scholars hoping to get published as a brilliantly dicomfiting coup de jeu.

There is, however, another point about "No Russian" that appears more strongly from a classical perspective than perhaps any other. It seems to me an undeniable fact that Infinity Ward, who put analogously atrocious action in MW2's predecessor, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, is maintaining a commitment to bringing the players of its games face-to-face with the ethical ambiguity of war. That fact by itself shows a development of game culture that mirrors the development that we can see in the homeric tradition when we look at that tradition diachronically, and pick apart its strata: in the Iliad, for example, the ethical simplicity of tales of glory becomes, over time, the ambiguous story of an Achilles who drags Hector around Troy, in front of his grieving parents, and then kills Trojan youths on Patroclus' funeral pyre. Indeed, this development leads in ancient Athens to tragedy, the ne plus ultra of literary ethical thought, where atrocities are used over and over to expose the fragility of our ethical claims and to strengthen our understanding of why we must make those claims nonetheless.

MW2 reaches in an old, old direction. Its failure to lay hold of the profundity it seems to seek is sad, but the reach itself means much more than I think many have acknowledged.