The word “game” denotes fun and frivolity, which is why gaming’s harshest critics get so incensed when a game features the levels of violence that you get in a Call of Duty or Grand theft Auto. Are they right?
“Modern Warfare is gaming’s summer blockbuster. If you apply general cinema logic then the child death has no real place in the game because it’s the wrong genre.”
Modern Warfare 3’s two tabloid-tickling hot topics both happen in London: the brilliant Underground fight, which ticked all the media’s outrage boxes, and a cut scene depicting the death of a child in a terrorist explosion - debate around which is bound to be discussed for weeks to come.
Books and films have dealt with tough themes like this countless times, so are games ready to join the fold? Ultimately it all comes down to context, and in the case of Modern Warfare 3, sadly there are a number of issues that file it under “no”.
Games can deliver profound emotional impact. The fact they are interactive often makes this more so than the passive experience of cinema; instead of being taken along for the ride we are ultimately in charge of saving the day.
Look at Uncharted: its storytelling and well-drawn characters mean that you care what happens to them, which richens the experience. Call of Duty is supposedly trying to do the same by showing is what happens in a terrorist situation, making you deal with it head on instead of leaving it up to inference.
This is where the debate becomes muddy.
Modern Warfare is a bombastic series of set pieces; the Michael Bay of explosions and action, and gaming’s popcorn summer blockbuster. If you apply general cinema logic to the situation then the child death has no real place in the game because it’s the wrong genre.
You watch Transformers and see cities destroyed, and obviously it stands to reason that not everyone made it out alive, and that the area wasn’t exclusively populated by adults – but it’s not something that you show. The audience understands, and it’s left unsaid. Films like The Hurt Locker or Schindler’s List can tackle their key issues because they are different types of film, and audience expectations are different.
“It is pretty clear from the outset that it is not going to end well, which destroys the emotional impact - and you have no connection to the victims.”
It is pretty clear from the outset that it is not going to end well, which destroys the emotional impact; you have no connection to the victims and see them for such a short time that there is no extra emotional weight added to the story, beyond the basic notion that “this is wrong”.
Furthermore, let’s think about the audience for a minute. There are a lot of CoD players out there, of all shapes and sizes, but let’s be honest, in every other multiplayer match you meet some obnoxious fellow whose sole aim it seems is to teabag you on the deathcam. This relates back to the genre point: Call of Duty is popcorn entertainment, a game where you abuse your mates and have a laugh, and although the single and multiplayer are separate affairs they are being played by the same people, people who want to unwind at the end of the day by fragging. It’s hardly the place to shoehorn a scene like this: it doesn’t fit and comes off as cheap shock tactics, because it’s so tonally different to the rest of the material.
Ultimately, I do believe there is a place for scenes like this in games though, but only in the right context. Titles like Heavy Rain and LA Noire have a much deeper narrative and tone, and thus scenes like graphic murder or child abduction can fit with the right emotional weight attached. It’s all down to how you handle it, and it starts with knowing what kind of game you are making. Otherwise, you’re going to have certain newspapers cry foul, and for once, actually be right about it.