A plot analysis of the Modern Warfare trilogy: Part 1 – Illusions of grandeur

Heavy spoilers for all the Modern Warfare games hide beyond this. Proceed with caution!

Call of Duty games have come to represent everything ”hardcore” gamers loathe about the industry. It is the lifeblood of the biggest publishing monolith, Activision, and it has become an annual experience that doesn’t offer anything new in each iteration. Innovation is faltering in favor of shoving the same game out the door repeatedly. Repetitive multiplayer has become its biggest selling point.

My own reservations regarding the series aren’t as strong as those I’ve just outlined, though. In fact, I rather like the games, although only with regards to singleplayer. Regardless of whether you’re playing through Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare games or Treyarch’s spin-offs, you are guaranteed an action-packed ride. Even this seemingly solid and straightforward formula can turn rotten when it is overdone, though, because while the first Modern Warfare felt like an all-out action film with a dash of political thriller – an excellent combination – the following Modern Warfare games left the realm of reason and normality, and entered the realm of the ridiculous. It was as if they had to outdo the first game by throwing as much over-the-top action in as possible in the game. Oh, and adding Bond-esque villains as icing on the cake.

In Modern Warfare 2, civilians are slaughtered in a Russian airport, the U.S. Eastern Seaboard is ravaged by a Russian invasion, and The Capitol and The White House burn.  In Modern Warfare 3, the Russian president’s plane is shot down on the way to a peace conference, Europe is struck by toxic attacks and then invaded by Russia, and the Eiffel Tower is brought crashing down. Contrast this to the first Modern Warfare where the “only” real massive event was the nuke exploding in some unidentified Middle-Eastern city. It kept a constant fast pace, but it didn’t become nonsensical in the process.

In this first part of an analysis of the trilogy, I’ll focus on all the reasonable things that Modern Warfare did, because it did contain elements that could have elevated the plot beyond the entertaining but shallow waters of Bond-writing.

Modern Warfare 1 starts out relatively small. A team of SAS operatives board a cargo ship in the Bering Sea suspected of carrying nuclear weapons. None are found, but they uncover connections to a rebel movement in an unnamed Middle-Eastern country, and mentions of nuclear weapons being shipped to them. While the actions of the SAS might seem excessive at the time – a rather large number of Russian sailors lie dead after the operation – it is still within the realm of reason, as nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists is something that frightens everyone. Even though we are not told from where the suspicion stems from, though it is later revealed as another mission has you rescue the informant, it is not unthinkable that such an operation would be initiated. After all, covert ops like this one are a way to pre-emptively avoid full-scale conflict, so it’s a decision most leaders are willing to make, even if it means the death of a few Russians.

At the time the game takes place in, the aforementioned Middle-Eastern country finds itself in a state of turmoil. Shortly after the events on the cargo ship, the tensions erupt into a genuine uprising, led by a certain Khaled Al-Asad. This culminates with the president of the country being executed on live TV, resulting in American intervention. While the American action may be considered rash, it is understandable. The US must be aware that an Al-Asad-led country will be a US-hostile country, possibly even a security threat. At the very least, it would certainly be damaging to American interests in the region, and further destabilize the situation. Once Unspecifiedistan (courtesy of Yahtzee) falls to the rebels it could inspire the peoples of other, similar countries to emulate them. This kind of domino theory-like thinking might be too rooted in the Cold War, but it’s not unheard of for uprisings to spread from country to country, the Revolutions of 1848 being one example, and the Arab Spring being a more recent one.

Here, Modern Warfare 1 made another ballsy move, in that the Americans aren’t portrayed solely as the liberating heroes, but as simply protecting their interests. This view is more in line with the current state of warfare, as it has become de-romanticized since World War II, the last war where one could try to apply the terms “good” and “evil”. Games sometimes seem to exist in that world still, though, with one side having clear moral superiority. In addition, the Americans are depicted as being overly gung-ho, and their eagerness to go to war results in their downfall, a scenario that could easily be inspired by the Iraq War, where it after while became evident that plans post-war Iraq were not as solid as the invasion plans themselves.

Then, in the game, a nuclear device goes off killing thousands of American soldiers. The moment was poignant, but did not make a lot of sense in the grand scheme of things (this will be covered in part 2). The ultranationalist Imran Zakhaev is eventually hunted down, as he supplied the rebels with the weapon. In the process they corner his son, trying to acquire information of his whereabouts, who commits suicide. At that point Zakhaev is in command of a missile silo facility holding multiple ICBMs, which he fires at the United States in retaliation for his son’s death. Joint British-American forces storm the facility as the ICBMs are fired, and in a dramatic race against the clock disable them. All is not over yet, though, as Zakhaev’s forces pursue them away from the facility, killing the majority of them. Apparently, only the player survives as reinforcements arrive and take the player to safety, though not before he has planted a bullet in Zakhaev’s skull.

The moment that truly saves Modern Warfare 1 from its earlier transgression into absurdity, though, is the very ending where the player is hoisted onto a helicopter, white light filling his vision. As this is happening, a news reporter speaks in the background. She is talking about the Russian government confirming a series of nuclear test, infighting in the Ultranationalist party, and about the cargo ship in the beginning, which was sunk by Russians and how the search for it has been called off. No mention of how near the world had come to experiencing a nuclear holocaust is made. This one line gives a better picture of how wars are fought in these times than all the spectacular battles you’ve fought through. Instead of wars being fought between two massive opposing armies with fairly transparent goals, wars are fought with secrecy, the public not always getting the full story as facts are hidden behind smokescreens. And Modern Warfare 1 seemed to hold a message, namely that in the information age we currently live in we must still be critical of what we hear, rather than happily gobble it up.

Although vastly inferior to Modern Warfare 1, Modern Warfare 2 included a theme as well, namely the dangers of nationalism. One could argue that Modern Warfare 1 in some ways also contained the theme “nationalism”, seeing as the main antagonists Zakhaev and Al-Asad both highlighted the dangers of nationalism, but in the end it was overshadowed by the ending. Modern Warfare 2 was also weighed down by a confusing plot, which prevented it from unfolding completely, but the elements that it did shed light on were admirable. It tried to pit two antagonists who, despite being different sides, were very similar (that the antagonists evolved into Bond-like chariactures is a different matter, which will be the topic of part 3). Perhaps this was intentional, to show that nationalism is pointless since whatever country your defending so fiercely is a construct, and that nationalists across borders have more in common than they might initially believe. It’s also shown through the callousness of their actions that they might in fact not care that much for the nationalistic virtues they extol. It is merely a means to control the masses. The rise of nationalism certainly has relevance in these times, as nationalist parties have cropped up across Europe, and it is a motivating factor for some terrorist organizations.

Semi-political statements in mainstream video games are a rarity. I suppose having a non-political approach when making video games is a sensible choice, as you do not risk alienating or offending parts of your audience. Modern Warfare 1 attempted to do this, and not in a blatant manner like one could have feared. I’m also reminded of the loading screens, which sometimes showed a piece of military equipment next to the cost, which indicated the enormous expense, wastefulness even, of war. In a way, it also hinted at a human face behind the evil, although it – rightfully so – made sure to clarify that this did not excuse the heinous acts.
Check back on Sunday for part 2, in which we take a closer look at the many, many plot holes that littered the trilogy.