Call of Duty Modern Warfare has been getting very positive reviews since it launched earlier this month, but it hasn’t been without some controversy. The game already includes some extremely dark scenes, but one throwaway moment in particular has spawned controversy online, and the developer has now responded. In a now infamous cut scene, the developer made the decision to change the instigator of a famous act of aggression in the first Gulf War from the USA to Russia.
And according to narrative director Taylor Kurosaki, it’s totally OK. The explanation doesn’t start on good footing by immediately trying to say that there’s no way it could be directly attributed to the specific Highway of Death in the first Gulf War. “I think you could probably find many instances of the words ‘highway of death’ being used in a lot of cases,” Kurosaki told GamesRadar+. Problem is, the images shown in said cutscene draw direct allusions to the Gulf War instance, and that’s just the first problem with this.
“The reason why Urzikstan is a fictional country is because we are taking themes that we see played over and over and over and over again, over the last 50 years, in countries all over the world and locations all over the world, and we’re not making a simulation of one particular country or one conflict. These are themes that play out over and over again, and with a lot of the same players involved. We don’t portray any one side as good or bad,” Kurosaki said.
Here the attempt to paint equivalence between different military conflicts and war crimes is reinforced, the muddying of the waters just comes across as cowardly though, and it’s something immediately undermined in the next section. I can even forgive some of the more egregious elements of the game’s dark tone, because they don’t have to fudge the facts quite as hard as lying about a well-documented war crime, but the way their explanation is framed is insultingly dumb.
“In our game, there are American characters who betray the trust of other characters in the story. There are Middle-Easterners who resort to tactics you wouldn’t think are above-board. There’s also characters that are from the same region that you think are more morally just. Same thing for Russian characters. We have Russian antagonists and Russian heroes in this game, and again that was our goal. This is not some sort of propaganda. This is reporting on what is happening in these conflict zones … And the biggest victims of these proxy wars are the local people on the ground … And I think that this is a thing that we’re really building awareness for.”
But the real thing you should pay attention to is this line:
This is not some sort of propaganda. This is reporting on what is happening in these conflict zones … And the biggest victims of these proxy wars are the local people on the ground … And I think that this is a thing that we’re building awareness for.
The whole proceeding line highlights the core reasoning of why Infinity Ward made this narrative choice. Claiming some form of historical legitimacy and activism is completely invalidated by the idea that you have to create entirely fictional trappings to recast the reality of the situation. Changing the instigator of a war crime to another entity entirely completely changes the dynamic, and ignores any real world influences. If you have to lie about who did the killing, you certainly don’t get to claim to give a crap about the victims, you just wanted to tell a story without making one side look bad.
If you wanted to highlight the reality of conflict, you wouldn’t lie about the conflict at its darkest moments. I would even say the developer got it mostly right in some of the darker scenes, as they didn’t rely so heavily on real-world events, and instead let the moments speak for themselves, but the Highway of Death moment is different.
You might as well say you’re raising awareness about World War II by rewriting the The Diary of a Young Girl into a cheery musical. Even films that attempt to communicate the idea of horrific warfare in gritty fictional ways don’t lie about basic facts. Imagine if Saving Private Ryan had tried to say that the German soldiers were actually trying to rescue the titular character, and were actually the good guys. It’s all an insulting and blatant bit of moral equivalence that the developer tries to disclaim blame for “taking artistic liberty” with an important event.
The reality of modern media is that it has an undeniable impact on how we view the world and relate to those around us. Think about how many times we have used a product to relate an emotional state or complex idea to someone else in casual conversation. How many times has a turn of phrase like “. . .this made my feel like that one episode of Black Mirror“, been used? We relate to each other through consumption, and media is part of that. Ironically enough, that’s a core component of one of the best Black Mirror episodes, 15 Million Merits, but I digress.
There’s a reason that people are drawing tons of attention to the radicalization of extreme politics in gaming, because it’s happening due to how effective media is at influencing us. And for Infinity Ward to have to defend this choice, and then do it such a poor way, is just plain bad.