So I just played "that part" of Modern Warfare 2
You probably already know the part I'm talking about. Yes, THAT one. Officially it's called "No Russian." Unofficially it's called "that controversial airport scene." Those who don't want MAJOR SPOILERS should stop reading now. Those who want to know my initial, gut check reactions to what's sure to become one of the most talked about scenes in all of gaming, read on.
As a game journalist, I certainly knew what I was getting in to when Modern Warfare 2 sent me on an undercover mission with a group of Russian terrorists. While I'd avoided detailed spoilers as best I could, I knew I was going into a scene where those terrorists would shoot unarmed civilians en masse in an airport, and that I would be expected (but not required) to help them.
Going in, I was relatively sure that the whole controversy was being blown out of proportion. I figured that the brewing anger over the scene was being driven by misleading, uninformed, out of touch or just plain inaccurate reports of the content, much as it had been with recent sex "scandals" surrounding Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
I was wrong.
The incongruity of the scene is evident from the start, as my character and a group of four Russians walk casually out of an elevator, into a busy airport waiting area, armed with heavy automatic weapons. As the Russians arrange themselves in a semi-circle behind a ticket line, guns on their shoulders, it's easy to deny that what I know is about to happen will be so bad. It's only when we actually draw our weapons on the unsuspecting crowd that the gravity of the situation begins to sink in. This isn't the usual shoot-or-be-shot carnage of countless first-person shooters. This is going to be a massacre.
Even though the gun in my hand is my only way of interacting with the world around me, I'm not about to fire the first shot into the crowd. This ends up being a non-issue, as my four companions quickly and wordlessly open fire simultaneously, spraying an indiscriminate spread of bullets into the unsuspecting travellers. I find myself struck dumbfounded, not so much by the act, which I knew was coming, but by the incredible detail in its rendering. The squirting blood, the collapsing, slumped piles of bodies, the panicked shrieks, the survivors congealing into a confused mass of motion as they desperately try to get away -- they all combine to give the scene a raw intesity that I wasn't expecting.
And there's nothing I can do to stop it. I mean, I could turn the game off, but that's just avoiding the situation, right? So, grimly, I follow my terrorist companions as we march down the terminal, watching as they fire at disconnected groups of panicked survivors. By the escalators, I notice one man in a blue checkered shirt who somehow survived the initial assualt, crawling on his knees with one hand and clutching a wound in his side with the other. I walk up to him and aim right at his temple, considering for a long moment whether or not to put him out of his misery, but I just can't pull the trigger. An unseen terrorist ends up making the decision for me as I hear a bullet whiz by and see the man slump over, a red line shooting out of his skull as he does.
From 30 yards off, I watch as another terrorist lays down fire from a balcony to the gate area below. I hear the screams of the victims, but for some reason the game won't let me sprint or jump over obstacles to get to his side fast enough for a better view of the carnage. When I do finally catch up and look down, all I see is a chilling mass of still, crumpled bodies littering the floor.
As we walk downstairs into that pile of bodies, I'm already feeling a little numb. I thought I as prepared for this, but the sheer realism of the scene is proving to be a little too much for me. This time, when I notice a few more survivors slumped against the wall, bloody and coughing, I feel I have to do something. I end up putting myself between the terrorists and these victims, turning and pointing my gun at the attackers as if to say, "If you want to finish the job on these guys, you have to go through me."
Soon we're out on the tarmac, eagerly awaiting the inevitable and expected police response to our massacre, and the game switches from "kill unarmed civilians" mode back to its usual "kill armed guys that are in turn trying to kill you" mode. I hide silently behind a plane tire and watch as my Russian "friends" fire on the riot-shielded cops, hoping I can just wait this out and get through this awful mission without firing a single shot. After a few minutes of waiting, I realize this isn't an option, and that the game won't continue unless I break out my rocket launcher and help bust through the cops.
So I bust out the heavy weaponry and turn towards the riot police, and that's when I notice my targeting reticle turn green as I pass briefly over one of the terrorists. And that's when it hits me. That's when I realize... I could have stopped them.
I mean, I had a gun the whole time. What was stopping me from turning it on these terrorists and trying to prevent the massacre I knew they were planning? Sure, in the context of the story firing on the Russians would definitely blow my cover (and definitely go againt the spirit of the game) but such academic concerns flew out the window when I saw that first spray of bullets hit that quivering, panicking crowd. I didn't have to just watch the carnage unfold. I could have done something!
I try to make up for my tardy revelation by firing a rocket at the Russian in my sights. "Traitor!" cry my former allies, turning on the spot and gunning me down almost immediately. I'm such an idiot. I could have stopped them. I could have at least tried! When the game starts again, throwing us back slightly to the airport hangar, I immediately fire on the Russians again, only to be left a bloody heap mere seconds later. What was I thinking? I could have done something! Again and again I try to exact revenge on the terrorists that caused all this brutality, and again and again I'm gunned down. I know these efforts won't bring back the people they killed -- and on a deeper level, I know that the people they killed are just digital bits in a computer and pixels on a screen -- but I don't care. I have to do something. Why did I just stand there as they killed those people? Why didn't I try to stop them?
These questions haunt me during the dozen or so belated, failed attempts I make to take out the Russians. It's clear the game isn't going to let me be the hero here and avenge the mass murder they've pre-ordained. I eventually submit, becoming a good little undercover soldier and blasting through the riot cops, on my way to the somewhat shocking twist ending to the whole sordid scene.
I'm left a little numb by what I've witnessed. I had thought years of violent games had hardened my heart to pretty much any violence I could take part in on a video screen, that I was desnsitized enough to watch dispassionately, knowing all along that it was "just a game."
I was wrong. I don't know whether or not "No Russians" crosses some invisible line of bad taste or morality or anything like that. But I do know that it is easily the most affecting scene I've taken part in in a video game so far, and for that alone it deserves careful attention.