Modern Warfare 2: Protagonists and Character-Building

In replaying the campaign of Modern Warfare 2, I started thinking about sidekicks. Throughout this series you play second fiddle to British soldiers, Scottish soldiers, uh, American soldiers – basically they call the shots and you do what you’re told. It’s a great way to showcase a whole bunch of neat little gimmicky missiles and so on, because your commander orders you (and only you) to go shoot up a tank with a Javelin missile, and then you have to go off and shoot it up. However, it’s also interesting in terms of allowing for character building – and that’s what we’re talking about today. 

Often video games are described as these juvenile fantasies, mad power trips designed to make players feel strong and important. The Call of Duty campaigns are often especially lambasted on this front – even by people who otherwise like games. I’m not claiming the argument is wrong, because I think there’s a lot of truth to it. However, that doesn’t mean we have to just throw the games aside as aesthetically worthless. There’s other interesting stuff going on in there.

One of those interesting things is the commander. For most of the games, you’re not the dude in charge. You’re a dude in a squad, and somebody else is in charge. As we said before, partly it’s an excuse to justify showcasing all the fancy missiles, which makes the commander at the very least an enabler for the delinquent power trip. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the player is not in charge of the squad. That creates room for interesting narrative things.

Let’s describe a moment from MW2‘s campaign. You’re fighting your way to a Russian submarine. Captain Price (the commander for the mission) jumps on board the sub, and you have to defend the area while he does submarine-related things inside. There’s some defending, some shooting, and then Price launches a nuke at the United States of America. What’s interesting here is that actually, Price is the protagonist. He’s the mover and shaker, the guy making stuff happen. You’re just along for the ride.

I don’t think we can immediately jump to the conclusion that the Modern Warfare games are hero-worship, or that they actually revolve around the commander instead of you. I think that’s just a patent exaggeration. However, it is interesting to note the extent to which you’re just doing what you’re told. You’re a grunt, and they are the protagonists.

Similarly, because you’ve got these commanders, it’s actually a really great opportunity for character building. There’s a later scene in America where helicopters start falling from the sky. The two central leaders of the unit – Sgt. Foley and Cpl. Dunn – have a moment of characterisation. Basically, Cpl. Dunn freaks the hell out, and Sgt. Foley tells him to get his shit together. As a moment, it didn’t need to exist to make the story move along. It’s an opportunity for character building, and the developers took it. Now we know that Cpl. Dunn will freak out if helicopters fall from the sky, and we know that Sgt. Foley won’t.

I mean, sure, there won’t be any awards for depth of character, but that’s not the point. The point is that these ongoing commanders are perfectly situated to have their characters built up throughout the game. They’re in a position of authority within the game, they make plot things happen – it’s a good structural position to be in if you want to start building characters.

In fact, we could even carry this structure further. Because the commander figures are already making plot decisions, why not give them a personal investment in the situation? Modern Warfare doesn’t go this far, because it’s about the military and soldiers doing their jobs, but can you see the structural possibilities here? You follow along and do what you’re told, and in return you get to watch this great and glorious commander-figure make plans and reveal psychological depth and generally be awesome – it’s hero-worship, really. Hero-worship in a video game, where instead of self-servingly playing the power fantasy, you follow the powerful figure. You get to touch greatness – and we get some decent character building for a change.

As a structure, the hero-worship idea comes across in plenty of other narrative forms. Sherlock Holmes is narrated from the perspective of Doctor Watson, for the most part – because Sherlock is very clever and there’d be no dramatics if he were the narrator. “I looked at the woman and saw a spot of ink on her neck and reasoned that she probably was teaching schoolboys, because schoolboys use ink and are more likely to flick it at their teacher than girls.” There’s no mystery, no pacing. Curiously, there was one episode where Sherlock narrated his own story – I’m talking about the original Conan Doyle stuff here – and it ended up basically looking like a Watson story anyway. It’s the thing about hero-worship – it makes most sense from an outside perspective.

If video games did take on this hero-worship approach to building, it would make for an interesting shift in the narrative as well. Often players are given reasons to do things, and those reasons are bullshit. We don’t care, because it’s just an excuse to shoot Russians, but what if the reasons belonged to somebody else? Would you really want to follow Joel in his quest to protect Ellie? Would you feel differently about his actions if you were watching them from the outside? When the reasons belong to you, they’re just an excuse. You’re given reasons as a vague justification for killing things. It’s not something that would disappear just because the reasons were given to somebody else, but it does raise a different set of questions. We’re good at analysing other people. We spend a lot of time doing it – weighing up their motivations, judging their decisions and trying to figure out whether we agree with them or not. If somebody else becomes the driving force behind the plot, I wonder whether we might not become more reflective on their motivations – and slip deeper into the story as a result

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