While the New Colossus posts were coming out, I emailed the editor at RockPaperShotgun to see if they’d be interested in having one of the unpublished articles as a feature. They said no – they thought the game had already had its moment, and they weren’t immediately interested in a retrospective. Fair enough – I put my article back in the queue, and published it as per normal. No worries. It got me thinking, though. I really like publishing on stuff that’s not immediately new, because you can kinda go back to it without all the hype and cultural noise. I don’t think I’d be able to deal with new games in the same way. Couldn’t be as objective. Anyway, let’s talk about Modern Warfare 3.
We’ll start off gently, today. It’s been eight years, but even after eight years I suspect it’s a game that people still have a bunch of really strong (negative) reactions to. So I’ll open with something that’s not particularly controversial. Modern Warfare 3 is a game that relies really heavily on quotation. Let me grab some examples…
At the start of the game, Soap is seriously injured. He doesn’t come around until the end of the fourth level, when Price is talking to one of the game’s new protagonists, Yuri. You just hear Soap say “Who the bloody hell’s Yuri?” as the level closes out. It’s a reference to a similar moment in Modern Warfare 2, in the gulag level, where one of the NPC soldiers asks “Who’s Soap?” during a particularly important scene. Modern Warfare 3 also features an airplane level, quoting from the bonus level at the end of Modern Warfare; a moment where the villain shoots a kneeling soldier in the head, quoting Zakhaev’s killing of Gaz in Modern Warfare; Price repeats the phrase ‘Don’t do anything stupid’ during a stealth section in Africa, just like his mentor in MW during that game’s stealth section; a helicopter comes crashing down and nearly squishes you, as in the same section again from MW; there are a number of AC-130 gunship missions, with all their repeated dialogue from MW. We should pull a couple from MW2 – uhh, there’s a putt-putt boat level as in the climactic scene of MW2, and – oh, here’s a good one. In MW3, the German revolution level has a moment where elevator doors repeatedly try to close on a dead body, which is a very specific image drawn from MW2‘s ‘Of Their Own Accord’, when the US Marines storm the Department of Commerce.
I could go on with these examples forever, seriously. I took a bunch of screencaps on my first playthrough, and I’m literally just reeling them off. At one point, you have to lie prone in a fashion store of some kind while Russian soldiers walk around you, which is drawn from the Pripyat mission in MW. At the start of the game, Wall Street has a bunch of rounded booths that are reminiscent of the TV station in MW, where you’re supposed to find al-Asad broadcasting. There’s a diving scene borrowed from MW2‘s oil rig level, and the castle level subsequently quotes from the gulag level, also set in an old-timey castle. Finally – I’ll stop here – Price has not one but two cigar smoking scenes, one of them directly visually modeled on the first proper level in Modern Warfare (‘Crew Expendable’).
And in itself, quotation isn’t a bad thing. There’s a broader conversation here around what originality is, and how artists relate to the media that’s come before – we’re generally going to avoid that conversation, because it’s very long, but it’s worth noting in passing that quotation isn’t inherently a bad thing. Major artists like T.S. Eliot use quotation in a really purposeful way, to negotiate a relationship with the past and with master writers from previous generations. It’s worth asking how and why MW3 uses quotation. In some instances, it’s probably fair to say that MW3 doesn’t fully understand or incorporate the full meaning of its quotes. For instance, the New York levels all quote heavily from imagery and ideas surrounding 9/11:
I mean, damn. The problem is that MW3 isn’t about 9/11 in any significant way. If you try to read it as a 9/11 allegory, you’ll be frustrated. MW3 doesn’t have anything to say about 9/11, and after the New York levels it never really comes up again. Similarly, in one of the later levels you’re invading Hamburg, in Germany, to save the American Vice-President (who’s just hanging out there whatever). And you’re in a helicopter, and it lands near the water, and you storm up the beach under heavy machine gun fire, and – hang on, is this a WW2 thing? Yeah, it’s totally a WW2 thing. It’s not even a beach – it’s actually just the bank of the river Elbe. But the WW2 associations are so strong that people default to calling it a beach, clearly thinking of D-Day. You see it on the wiki for this game’s level, for example: “After landing, [the Americans] advance up the beach while under fire from Russian defensive positions.” And again, MW3 doesn’t really have anything to say about the Second World War. It quotes from it, leaning heavily into the idea of a massive war engulfing all of Europe, but ultimately that quotation is just window dressing. In the final analysis, MW3 is really just about its own story. It has a story, and it tells the story, and it’s not really interested in anything beyond that. From that perspective, MW3 is arguably the most modest of the Modern Warfare games. If Modern Warfare was about the nature of military conflict in the 21st century, and MW2 about the horror of 9/11, then MW3 isn’t really about anything other than itself. It’s just telling a story.
Once you realise that, the game becomes really sweet. It’s disarmingly naive in its design, even as it fails to maintain a cohesive narrative. It is pure surface. For example, in MW2, Makarov was a hired mercenary, but in this game he’s become a crazed warmongering maniac, determined to overthrow the entire world in the name of Russian supremacy. Alternately, at the start of the India level, you’re told that Makarov is trying to kill Price and Soap – ‘cleaning up loose ends,’ they say, even though that makes literally zero sense. Makarov’s plan is to nuke Europe out of existence – he doesn’t need to tie up loose ends. Lemme just – the big secret of MW2 is that an American general set up Russia’s invasion of the USA to start a big war and get money for more soldiers. At the game’s climax, he starts killing the main soldier-characters for knowing about the cover-up, even though a) they didn’t know, and b) he gets a bunch of other soldiers to help him kill the main characters, implying that those soldiers are equally in on the conspiracy – why else would they unquestioningly murder and burn American soldiers? Either way, in that scenario, Makarov doesn’t have anything to hide. He’s not the one with secrets – and, again, even if he did, his whole plan in MW3 is to kidnap the Russian president, get the nuclear launch codes, and destroy Europe forever. The loose ends thing? Pure surface. Doesn’t make any sense beyond the immediate demands of the plot at that exact moment. That’s the modus operandi for all of MW3. Nothing beyond the moment. To bring it back to quotation, the game’s insistence on heavy quoting ultimately works against the dominant narrative mode. It pushes you to look beyond the text, even though there’s nothing really there.