Makarov – “Remember, No Russian”
That phrase conjures up different memories for different gamers. Some will remember it as the start of another corridor shooter level in Modern Warfare 2, others will remember it as a harrowing scene that hit a little close to home, finally others will not have played it but may remember the poop storm that surrounded the games release.
Released in November 2009 Modern Warfare became one of the fastest and best selling games of all time (this has since been topped every other week it would seem). There are various reasons the game did so well, firstly the original Modern Warfare game broke the trend of all the World War II shooters we were experiencing and changed how multiplayer was presented, secondly the press had hyped the game to unprecedented levels, but not in a positive way. Early on before launch, when gaming magazines and sites started getting their previews word got out about a level called No Russian. For those that haven’t played the game the level saw you playing as Joseph who is an American soldier undercover with a terrorist cell run by Makarov, who is obviously a bit of a douche.
Inside a Russian airport you are just given the objective of ‘Follow Makarov’s Lead’, as you begin in an elevator and wander through the international airport Makarov and your comrades start opening fire on the civilians. You as the player are given two options, you can either open fire or you can just watch as they’re mown down. The whole level can be completed without firing a bullet if you so wish.
The game caused people to lose their minds because, simply put, September 11th happened. I know it’s easy to blame 9/11 for most of the stuff these days, but I genuinely believe that certain parts of the western world weren’t aware of terrorism until that point. As such, even after an 8 year gap, having anything to do with terrorists in an airport is slightly going to rub people the wrong way, especially if it’s already in a digital medium that a certain aspect of society doesn’t understand.
In Germany and Japan the player got ‘Game Over’ if they shot a civilian, in Russia the level was flat out removed. In most over territories the start of the game had a notice saying there was a controversial level in the game and the player could skip it if they wanted. In the UK the monumentally naive politician Keith Vaz, who routinely attacks computers games for violent content, tried to get the game banned by parliament, this was until another Labour politician metaphorically bitch slapped Vaz by replying “[No Russian was] no worse than many films and books” and then continuing his verbal attack on Vaz with “[Vaz is] collaborating with the Daily Mail to create moral panic over the use of video games”, what a burn.
So the game came out and many people played it, some people have told me how uncomfortable the game made them feel, for me, I felt nothing, I have always had a logical viewpoint on life and to me I know where that line is between reality and games, I can point out the million differences so it had little to no effect on me as, simply put, it wasn’t real.
But what effect did the level have on the games industry? well to me the most recent example is in Grand Theft Auto V, in one of the early missions Trevor is tasked with getting information out of a man. The player takes control of Trevor during this torture scene having to endure the spectacle of the abuse but also some pretty horrific mini-game elements. The player chooses which ‘tool’ to use on the victim and then you go to town, be it using water-boarding, a car battery, teeth pulling or ol’ faithful, a wrench to the knee. The scene is supposed to be satirical about the nature of torture to get information by the US Government, but really it just feels clunky and a real out-of-place scene in a game that is more silly than its previous incarnation. I wondered after whether Rockstar were worried about their ‘controversial’ status, back in 1997 when GTA 1 was released the game caused such an outcry people questioned whether Rockstar paid Max Clifford, the PR guru, to stir up the controversy to build sales and hype. Since then Grand Theft Auto hasn’t really pushed the boundaries much, yeah you can run over prostitutes and kill homeless guys, but that’s old news now. Was the torture scene put in just to make Rockstar feel naughty again?
Other recent examples come from games like Saints Row IV and the anal probing side mission, which was cut in Australia. The upcoming Hotline Miami 2 which features a simulated rape scene. Medal of Honour [the reboot] caused many headlines when it was revealed that the multiplayer allowed you to play as The Taliban. All of these examples and others could just be seen as a lack of sensitivity or judgement from the developers, the more cynical side of me thinks that the developers know what they’re doing and just put this stuff in to cause trouble. It’s hard to say how much of these decisions of inclusion are caused by No Russian, I like to think No Russian was done from a story point of view and not the manipulation of the media for press attention. It felt relevent and despite me not being the worlds biggest Call of Duty fan I admire what the game did to push the envelope and move the medium of games into a more realistic field.
So what is the legacy of No Russian? Is it the idea that games should push the boundaries of not only game design but also the concept of what is right? Is it that these superficial options we’re given in many games should actually hold some weight, be it story or emotional? or is it that developers can abuse a story element to garner press and or stimulate controversy? At the end of the day Modern Warfare 2 managed to pull all of these elements together, all had been used in video game media before but none had been pulled together in such a way that so many different parties got offended and outraged.