Modern Warfare 2 writer: "the airport level was a risk we had to take"
We talk to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's scriptwriter to find out what he hoped to achieve with the airport mission, how they considered putting aliens in the game, and why the game should be adapted into a movie.
Jesse Stern (Modern Warfare 2 scriptwriter)
Jesse Stern has been a writer on the hit CBS show "NCIS" since 2004. With the show currently reigning at the top of the Nielsen ratings, Stern has another hit on his hands with Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. After working with Infinity Ward on the first Modern Warfare, Stern returned to collaborate with the developer on the sequel's action-packed storyline. While the game has etched its place in entertainment history with its historic opening gross, Modern Warfare 2 has also made headlines because of its edgy story. In this exclusive interview, Stern talks about the creation of the controversial airport sequence and gives his thumbs up to a potential Hollywood adaptation of the Modern Warfare franchise for the big screen.
GP: What was it like returning to work on the new Modern Warfare after being involved in the first game?
Stern: The second time around, we really felt like we had to play off of all the things we introduced in the first game. People have an expectation now that you're going to die, which is a weird thing. Here we have a video game where at any given moment your character's storyline might end. So, it became a real challenge to play into these expectations and try and keep things surprising and emotionally charged. We all tried to make it emotional.
GP: Did any current events influence Modern Warfare 2's subplot of reopening the conflict between Russia and the U.S.?
Stern: Infinity Ward's Jason West, Steve Macuda, Todd Alderman, Mackey McCandlish and me would talk about the kinds of stories we could tell, and we didn't want to just make a straight sequel to Modern Warfare. We started kicking around anything and everything to weed out the bad ideas.
In the beginning we talked about having things in Modern Warfare 2 like outbreaks, viruses, chemical warfare, and even outlandish things such as aliens and the living dead.
We worked our way through it before we finally ended up with a more grounded version of the real world as it's depicted in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. And as we were kicking around scenarios for conflict, we kept stumbling into things that were happening in real life, which was honestly unintentional.
GP: What kinds of real things?
Stern: At the time, there was a lot of rattling going on in the former Soviet Republic and Putin was making some pretty aggressive statements and declarations. We originally had the idea of: "What if we had real tanks head into one of the republics?" Then a couple weeks later, Russian tanks actually invaded Georgia (the country).
We also talked about how terrorists operate in the modern era. We played around with situations where we had heavily armed terrorists carrying machine guns and explosives -- shortly after this, the terror attacks took place in Mumbai. That was really scary. We actually sent out e-mails saying, "All right, let's take a little break, and stop talking about these horrific things," because it felt like it was hitting a little too close to home.
We didn't intend on doing anything ripped straight from real headlines or based directly on current events. We did want to capture that feeling of unimaginable scenarios that are prevalent, but so distant from the psyche on any given day. That's the thing about making Modern Warfare 2: it's mostly fantasy, but you can put people very close to real situations that you normally wouldn't want to be involved in.
GP: What did you hope to achieve from a narrative standpoint with the airport level?
Stern: We've been catching a lot of criticism for that and a lot of praise as well. People have really strong reactions to the airport scene and it's been fascinating because we all wanted to make it something that would be upsetting, disturbing, but also something people relate to. There's something instantly identifiable about it when it happens, when you're in that situation and the level begins.
I find that interesting, that the player knows what's going on instantly. It's too familiar and at the same time it's not something that people are able to get that close to. Right now, there's a documentary with interviews of people who were actually in Mumbai when that attack took place and you've got similar accounts of Columbine. I'm sure we'll get some from Ft. Hood.
People want to know. As terrifying as it is, you want to know. And there's a part of you that wants to know what it's like to be there because this is a human experience. These are human beings who perpetrate these acts, so you don't really want to turn a blind eye to it. You want to take it apart and figure out how that happened and what, if anything, can be done to prevent it. Ultimately, our intention was to put you as close as possible to atrocity. As for the effect it has on you, that's not for us to determine. Hopefully, it does have an emotional impact and it seems to have riled up a lot of people in interesting ways. Some of them good. Some of them bad.
GP: Is there a "right" way to play that scenario?
Stern: It's interesting because that level kind of comes out of nowhere and some of the criticism in the narrative has been that there's not much of a set-up. Your character has distinguished himself in battle and was handpicked for this undercover assignment. Then you're dropped right into the middle of it before you've even really gotten the chance to get your feet wet in the game, so it's really a sideswipe. We spent a lot of time trying to set the right tone there so that people wouldn't feel confused.
There's three things you can do. Once you realize what's happening, you can open fire on the other terrorists that are with you. They'll turn around and kill you quickly, but that is an option. You can do nothing for the first half of that level too. You're not obligated to do anything other than walk and watch, which I think portrays another completely different feeling of helplessness. And the third option is [that] you can open fire.
When we tested the level, it was interesting. Steve Mancuda, who ran a lot of the testing, said people would get angry or sad or disgusted and immediately wonder what the Hell was going on here. And then after a few moments of having that experience, they would remember that they were in a video game and they would let go. Every single person in testing opened fire on the crowd, which is human nature. It feels so real but at the same time it's a video game and the response to it has been fascinating. I never really knew you could elicit such a deep feeling from a video game, but it has.
GP: Do you hope this opens up things creatively for other games moving forward?
Stern: I hope so and I hope that people don't just look at it as being this simplistic and brutal sequence. We've done our best to treat it with care and not to make it gratuitous. The effect of it is you absolutely hate this guy, and the war that takes place in the game is set in motion. Obviously, the narrative of the game is not the real world. It is a hyper-real environment set five years into a future that may not ever exist where there are conflicts raging all around the globe. There are wars that take place in Modern Warfare 2 that don't exist in real life.
I hope that game developers take the lesson that you've got to try things. You've got to go out on a limb sometimes. This is a triple-A game and the top grosser of all time with this huge budget behind it, yet we're still taking major chances wherever we can and the airport level was a risk we had to take. Sometimes you take huge risks and it really works. Sometimes it doesn't work at all. But if you don't take the chance, you're not going to make something new.
GP: Would Modern Warfare work as a movie?
Stern: It would work very well as a film. Hopefully, that's a conversation I'll have with somebody somewhere down the line. Jason West, Steve Macuda and the rest of the guys from Infinity Ward have an interest in doing it and Activision wants to do it. I'd be very curious to give that a try. You've got your source material to draw on, which is the biggest advantage in getting one of these movies off the ground.
GP: We've seen a lot of TV shows turned into games from Criminal Minds to CSI. Would NCIS or its new spin-off work as a game?
Stern: This year has been very interesting for us at NCIS, where we're finally reaching number one. We've been climbing and climbing for the last few seasons and now that we're the top-rated show on TV, a lot of these opportunities are coming along. People are having those conversations with us more realistically about doing a video game. It'd be great to have an NCIS game. The main thing that you have to capture is the tone of the show. NCIS is a character-based show. There's a lot of humor. There's a lot of banter and the procedure elements of it are secondary. So I think the biggest challenge would be to make an adaptation that brings that same kind of flavor to it. But hey, I'm open to have that conversation soon.