Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Disempowered Play

I imagine that a soldier under fire doesn’t have the liberty of either agreeing or disagreeing with the reasons the war is being fought. Whether they are invading or defending would cease to matter beyond tactical importance. Who the enemy is, what they stand for, would cease to matter beyond the fact they want the soldier dead. The soldier joined the army/navy/air-force, and now they are here—killing in order to not die.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s story is nothing special, but once I started, I found myself committing to it as enthusiastically as the better game-stories out there. In a sense, I didn’t have a choice. I chose to play the game originally, but now I am in a warzone, and who I am fighting (and why) no longer matters. I am just a soldier; I do not make decisions; I do not question the merits of the conflict; I simply kill in order to not die.

My characters (I control about five throughout the game) rarely possess much agency over their situations. Someone else is always in charge, making the shots so I don’t have to: my squad’s sergeant barks orders; my gunship’s pilot points out targets; my kidnapper keeps an eye on me. Does this lack of agency, this disempowered play, detract from the overall experience? I think not. Personally, I felt that by removing my agency, Modern Warfare ensures my experience is meaningful. The game holds my hand through carefully staged battlefields to ensure key plot moments are experienced in a certain way. However, like any decent game, I am always in complete control of my character. It is not me, but my character who is never really in control of their situation. In this way, Modern Warfare justifies its removal of my agency: I am just a soldier; following orders is what I do.

My disempowerment begins—symbolically and literally—as the game’s opening credits role. I am pulled from my presidential palace and thrown into the back of a car—two gun-wielding goons keep an eye on me as what was my country descends into war beyond the windows. I know, somehow, that I am being driven to my own execution. This level is as powerful because of the agency I do not have, as for the agency I have left. My death is inevitable; I cannot escape, but I can still look around. As this is all I have, I savour it. I glance left and right, desperate to take in the final moments of my country’s existence.

Importantly, though, this scene is completely scripted. I still have complete control over the character—the character just has no control over his circumstances. This minimal agency, this emphasis on the fact that I cannot meaningfully effect the world I exist in, this undeniable proof that I cannot meaningfully interact the world around me, is a powerful way to tell a story, and not one I imagined to ever work in a videogame.

When the bullet finally comes, there is no fanfare, no shock, no time to accept that this is really happening. I am dead. This story can and will go on without me. This is the precedent for the rest of my time with this game: I am not in charge anymore; I will go where I am told to go and do what I am told to do. My agency as a player just got executed.

Once I learnt to cede the power one normally expects as a player, I became quite good at staying alive, at following orders, at doing exactly what I was told. Or perhaps, when it came down to it and the barrel of that pistol pressed against my head, I did not so much cede power as simply accept how little power I have ever truly had in any linear shooter.

And then I am in Chernobyl, levels later: I am the second man of a two-man sniper team, sneaking into the abandoned city of Pripyat to assassinate some terrorist leader. By this stage of the game, I am well used to following order. If the game had been holding my hand before this mission, now I am clutching it for dear life—if my grip slips for a moment, I am dead. My CO, Captain Macmillan, dictates my every step through this level. “Stop. Duck. Move. Shoot. Don’t Shoot. Follow me.” This man is a professional and it does not take long for me to build up a kind of reverent awe towards him. His every move is flawless; his every shot is perfect. His constant orders do not detract from my experience; rather, I am happy to follow this man, to perhaps prove to him I am worthy to be on his team. Certainly, I would be dead a dozen times over if I had to find my own way through the enemy patrols and radiation hotspots. I have grown comfortable with following orders and not making them, to cede power and responsibility.

Most memorable moment of this level (even if utterly unrealistic) is dashing between and under cars of a large patrol. I don’t know how Macmillan got me through it. My heart pounded the whole time. The game was holding my hand, yes, but that hand was all that protected me from a very, very sudden death.

But then I got too comfortable in my powerless, responsibility-less position as Number Two. Macmillan is crippled and now it is up to me to carry him (literally) through the level. The sudden empowering is not as intoxicating as I would expect—it is utterly paralysing. I am just a lowly lieutenant—this guy just sniped a helicopter out of the air. Who am I to lead him? I do not think I have ever been so concerned with what a fictional character thinks of me.

Thankfully, the empowerment doesn’t last. Set consistently in warzones, Modern Warfare makes good use of the technique of crippling my character to further disempower me and further control what I experience. The infamous nuke scene (which I had known was coming) was breathtaking and all the more hard-hitting because I was all alone and there was nothing I could do except limp stupidly towards the mushroom cloud.

However, it is the game’s final minutes that I found the most exhilarating, when I finally had a chance to reclaim just a pinch of my own power that was taken from me in the opening level (as opposed to near-drowning in all of Macmillan’s power that was suddenly thrust upon me in Pipyat). I finally stopped holding on to someone else, and took matters into my own hands.

I lay crippled on a Russian bridge after an attack helicopter obliterated my squad. Everyone is dead and, judging by the way I can’t move, I am fairly certain I am about to join them. I’m not sure where I am hit, but it doesn’t really matter. My vision is beginning to blur, everything sounds like my head is underwater. No one is left to tell me what to do.

Zakhaev, the terrorist that removed me from power and assassinated me at the start of the game, is standing right before me, shouting orders as his troops command the bridge. He doesn’t realise I am alive, but it hardly matters—I am alone; I have no weapon. I look to my left (or perhaps I just collapse) where another soldier is writhing in pain, out of sight behind a burning car.

“C’mon! Pass me a gun!” I actually shout at the television.

The game is using slow motion for dramatic effect, but it is unnecessary—everything slows for me as the pistol slides across the asphalt. As my character’s arm stretches and picks it up, my fingers begin to tremble on the controller. I am not taking orders; I am making this decision myself. But neither am I free to make any other choice. After all, I am a soldier—I kill in order to stay alive.

I am still unsure if Zakhaev took away my power, or merely exposed how little power I had to begin with. Either way, this final action won’t empower me, but it is the closest I will get in the entire game, and I am desperate for it. The scene is scripted, but it isn’t a cutscene—if Zakhaev is to go down, it is I who must take the shot.

I grab the pistol and turn. In a split-second of clarity I expect is my last, I fire a shot into Zakhaev’s head, dropping him. His two bodyguards are confused and I franticly empty the clip into both of them before I collapse back again.
I am aware that my agency in this scene was minimal and identical to every other player’s experience. But because my agency, my power as a player, had been stripped from me so convincingly at the start of the game, Modern Warfare enticed me through to an exhilarating endgame with breadcrumbs of empowerment scattered through the levels. For ten seconds, I didn’t care that the scene was scripted—the fate of the war was in my hands. I didn’t take the shot because I had no choice. I took the shot because I wanted my palace back.

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