On the Inability to Stay Frosty

In my important cultural role as someone who plays key video games so late as to be completely outside all the excellent in-the-moment discussion, I’ve begun playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Let’s all pretend that this somehow adds weight and depth to my observations, shall we? Alright, moving on.

Modern Warfare 2 is most famous for it’s “No Russian” sequence in which you’re involved directly in killing (or watching the killing of) innocent civilians. I played it, but I might write about that another time. What’s stuck with me from my first encounter with the game was the first real combat sequence.

The game starts, as so many contemporary blockbusters do, with a tutorial session in which you are painted out to be a Warrior Badass. Literally the first thing you’re told to do is show those lame Afghani military dudes how a Real American fires a gun. It’s hilarious because the game gives you this “you’re awesome!” rhetoric, while simultaneously informing you of how to actually do any of the stuff you’re meant to be awesome at. “Psst! Press F to pick up that gun. Press C to crouch.” Fine, fine. I always feel like Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap at those moments – a fraud trying to pass myself off as someone else in a kind of bumbling, well-meaning way.

But this is war and soon enough find yourself clambering into a Humvee to man the turret gun, and things become interesting. For one thing, the game suddenly became strikingly related to the TV mini-series Generation Kill. Over my headset people were, like the Iceman in the show, telling me to “stay frosty” and to “watch the roofs” and marines (or whoever we were) were shrieking ecstatically about a building being blown up (and then down). I can only assume the game developers were way into the show. What this did, for me, was suddenly vault me into a kind of “realism” mode, thanks to some deductive reasoning: 1) this game is channeling Generation Kill; 2) Generation Kill was a fairly accurate portrayal of modern warfare; thus 3) this game is a fairly accurate portrayal of modern warfare.

Modern Warfare 2 actually isn’t very realistic at all, but the state of mind this reasoning put me in during that early mission led to a striking experience. As I stood there at the ready on the turret I realised an important fact about myself relative to the dudes in Generation Kill and, by extension in this game and, theoretically, in reality: I had no idea of what I was supposed to be doing. I had a giant gun at my disposal, and I could point it at things. But where? I knew I wasn’t meant to shoot civilians. But which ones were they? Where was I meant to put my damn gun?

This led to an impressive state of paranoia and a growing feeling of incompetence. I pointed my big scary gun around, at people standing around in alleys, at suspicious dudes on balconies, often just randomly in some direction or other. I felt like I should be scanning the environment in some clinical, manly fashion, but I couldn’t come up with a strategy.

Then the shooting started.

The gunfire was coming from somewhere, but I was damned if I could see where. I swung the gun around wildly for a while, utterly disoriented, until I thought I found something. I opened fire and the building facade ahead exploded in dust. I continued emptying rounds into the murky brown smoke. And as I did so I had the realisation that I was firing a heavy machine gun blindly into space in a residential neighbourhood. Yes, there were people shooting at me, but I couldn’t see them for all the smoke and dust and I was still firing a machine gun. At nothing. Or possibly something. Possibly a bad guy. Possibly a good guy. Who knows? Not frosty.

To me, this was a critical moment in the game, and actually one of the more strikingly affective moments I’ve experienced in a game for a while. Although the game later relinquishes its grasp on “reality”, this sequence with the mounted machine gun made me go through an amazing feeling of disorientation and, most importantly, the chance to feel chastened and irresponsible in a world that ostensibly doesn’t really “matter”.

Frankly, it blew “No Russian” away.

20 August 2010
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