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Theatre of War

Written by pippinbarr 03:38 am on 12/11/2010
The Favela

I'm running, I'm running. The crowd surges after me through the streets and shanties of the favela, baying for my blood. I make it onto the rooftops and sprint on, footsteps clanging on the corrugated iron. Undaunted by the danger and the occasional crack of gunfire, I crest a rise and see, just ahead, the chopper that's going to get me out of this god forsaken place. It's hovering at the edge of the favela and Soap is shouting into my headset to get moving, to get to the chopper. I push myself into a final sprint and, in doing so, don't notice a precipitous drop. I should have headed left, but I didn't I went straight. Straight off the edge. Falling, I can see the chopper still hovering, almost within reach. Then I hit the ground and that's that. Turns out that death is darkness and a smug quotation. "You can't get ahead when you're getting even." Thanks for that.
So it went in a recent replaying of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Of course, moments after that death, the game restored to the start of the panicked run to the chopper. Because failure will not be tolerated. And yet, the experience of failure at such a highly cinematic, designed moment was really interesting, and it is in a lot of games.
Death in games, particularly shooters, tends to be a trivial affair. It's come a point where we notice when death is treated as being even a slight inconvenience (e.g. Demon's Souls). By and large we die, are swiftly reborn, and continue on our merry, destructive way. We might not like dying, we might mutter expletives under our breath, but it's not really big a deal, right?
So when, in the midst of one of the more dramatic moments of Modern Warfare 2, I topple to a pretty embarrassing and silly death, it might be tempting to be similarly dismissive. But here I must dissent, because it felt like an important moment to me. It served as a kind of commentary on the game itself, the fever pitch at which it operates, the certainty with which your course of action is laid out for you and which you naturally adhere to, and the rhetoric of American military competence the game projects. A highly trained soldier, a hero, doesn't fall off the roof during the exciting escape in this situation. So try again.
That particular fall was made even more ironic and strange by the fact that mere moments earlier the game forces you to fall off a rooftop in order to set up that very chase and heroic leap. You're running along the rooftops to the chopper, you perform a very standard jump at a roof edge, like you've done before, but this time the game makes you fall down in order to intensify the drama. It's okay to fall sometimes, if it's in the script, if it's dramatic in just the right way.
And there's that issue again, a limitation of games generally: they can't acknowledge dramatic moments outside of the generally quite constrained theatrical worlds they provide. My fall didn't make dramatic sense in the world the way that the "fake" fall did in the context of the game, and so it was not just disallowed, but "unwept, unhonoured, and unsung." 
Yet, clearly, this moment of death, running with arms outstretched toward a final salvation only to trip on some corrugated iron sheeting and fall to the thud of a cracked skull and a missed chance, clearly this moment is of great significance. It’s not uplifting in the way that the “correct” outcome is, but I can’t help but feel ever so slightly irked by the constant dismissal of significant negative events in the narrative.
I don’t necessarily know what I would expect them to have done differently, but such a blithe turning away from failure, as if it were too distasteful to even consider unless it's part of the program, bugs me. I'm annoyed for perhaps similar reasons to the people who become upset with the feeling that real soldiers’ sacrifices have been trivialised by these games. My dramatically significant experience, my real and tragic moment of failure, was taken away from me.
This isn't just a Modern Warfare 2 thing, this is common to all games with grand (pre-programmed) stories to be told. Each time, some of the most potentially dramatic moments are swept under the carpet. I've failed to save the world at the last possible moment in Fallout 3, and been told to try again. I've failed to save my wife and child in Red Dead Redemption. Try again. I've failed to stop the alien assault  in Half-Life 2: Episode 2. Reset, restart. And each time, I keep thinking...
"But it was an epic fail, damnit."
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