Narrative Texture and Modern Warfare

There goes the neighborhood.

I know we all hate Call of Duty (or are we too busy hating Mass Effect now?) and that it’s going to ruin games for us all with its un-gameness (un-gaminess? un-gamification?) but let’s set that aside for a moment and look at something it does pretty well.  Each of the Modern Warfare titles is structured as a series of levels all around the world.  They follow two parallel series of events: a macro-plot as well as a micro-plot.  On the small scale the player will follow Soap and Captain Price on missions both personal and professional in nature and on the larger scale the player jumps from the perspective of any number of people that are caught up in the series’ fictional war.  On its face it can seem like those larger scale missions are thinly veiled excuses to blow stuff up around the world and partake in digital war tourism.   However, it’s a structure worth emulating in other titles though as it plays to the strength of the medium in a way that movies cannot.  While a movie-goer’s experience is almost inexorably tied to the character arc of the protagonist(s) and the plot, games like Modern Warfare can have the player stop and take detours to absorb the surrounding texture of the world and story.  Modern Warfare’s micro and macro plots will occasionally cross paths but Soap and Price’s objectives are clearly separated from the broader conflict by the series finale.

With a series such as Gears of War, the player is locked into the plot of Marcus and Dom in a manner that’s more consistent with film, but requiring a couple dozen hours to complete.  (As a note, I have only played through Gears 3, and have otherwise read up on and spoiled Gear 1 and 2 for myself.)  All of the broader events are filtered through their perspective and only made meaningful where they acknowledge meaning.  There’s plenty of spectacle to see in the world of Gears but by the end of the series it’s exhausting and narrow.  What Modern Warfare does is have you follow along with the protagonists for periods of time and then turns  around and tells you to “go over here and do this for a while.”  What this accomplishes is it allows the player to better absorb the context of the scenario.  Rather than relying on flashbacks to fill the player in on the protagonist’s motivations, the game exposes the player to experiences that are similar in nature to what the protagonist(s) has/have experienced.  So when the player ultimately returns to the protagonist’s perspective, what unfolds in the micro-plot becomes something that’s not only meaningful through the eyes of the protagonist but in regards to the player’s own experience as well.

Spoilers ensue: This is what made the series finale so dramatic.  After spending hours and hours in the macro-plot evaluating the battle field and gauging when to charge or hold back (or being caught off guard by an enemy that you missed) Yuri and Price don bomb suits and take on an army of Makarov’s body guards.  After the broader war has subsided the player is forced to take on one of the most intense missions of the series against an enemy whose wrath you’ve been able to witness up close (No Russian) and from far away (the invasion of the United States.)  It would not have been the same if, as a game, Modern Warfare didn’t have the liberty to send the player to participate in events unrelated to the main plot.  And games can afford to do this since the audience is a participant rather than just a consumer of the story, even if only following other character’s AI.  An audience only has so much patience to have a story told to them, but if they are occupied with game play that’s consistent between multiple plots then there is a great deal more leeway to explore the world surrounding the story and that colors the character’s personalities and motivations.  It doesn’t have involve war, guns, and explosions, it’s just a different approach to storytelling that lives well in games and that Modern Warfare executed very well.


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