Narrative 101: Modern Warfare 3

I want to do something a bit different this week. I’ve often had articles where I comment on particular scenes or mechanics and how they’ve got interesting narrative potential that’s never really carried out – for instance, here and here. This week, I sort of want to do that again, but from a different angle. I’m going to look at a specific scene in Modern Warfare 3, and talk about how you might develop it into a strong story beat. So it’s not just me complaining about the story – it’s actually a kind of Narrative 101, focusing on the processes for developing something good. Without further ado, welcome to the experiment.

So here’s the setup. We’ve got Price, the grizzled veteran, and Soap, who was previously his subordinate but who’s now all grown up and has his own unit and stuff. We’ve also got Yuri, the player-character, who’s a Russian soldier that’s just become part of this secret Special Forces rogue unit or whatever it is. They’re all in the field, and Soap’s been seriously wounded during an escape from bad guys.

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Let’s even just start with that. This guy has been seriously wounded: what are the options? Well, Price could leave him and escape, could stay and die with him, or could try and drag him to safety while avoiding the baddies. Three options. Number one is pretty cold-hearted. It suggests that Price is making a huge sacrifice for the sake of the mission. That’s interesting enough. Number two is a narrative dead end, because it kills two of the main characters, so put that aside for now. Number three is the option the game goes with: Price and Yuri try to drag Soap to safety. In the game currently, it’s this big orchestrated scene where you can’t quite look sideways, but you’re dragging Soap and Price is dashing back and forth across your field of view, throwing grenades and shooting and there’s offscreen explosions, so you know he’s kinda just being badass. That’s, uh, fine for now, I guess. So the decision is to try and save Soap. What are the risks of that decision? What are the potential rewards? The rewards are obvious enough: Price gets to save Soap, a soldier that he’s been fighting alongside for three games now. The risks are also obvious: Price could get himself killed, because Soap is slowing down the escape.

So Price makes a decision that is brave, loyal, and heroic. It’s also risky, especially compared to just ditching Soap and leaving. What we need to do now as writers is think about the different possible outcomes, and how they reflect on these traits. We need to decide what we want to say. So: pick a trait, and tell us something about it. Let’s pick bravery. What do we want to say about it? On the simplest levels, it’s really as easy as just going ‘Bravery is…’ and then picking something to end the sentence. Bravery is stupid. Okay, we could make it that Price tries to save Soap, and that decision slows him down and they both die. This is the George R.R. Martin approach, right – heroism is stupid, and taking risks makes you dead. The outcome serves as a commentary on the values.

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Let’s try another trait, and give it a more complicated message. Let’s go with loyalty. Loyalty is a weirdly tribal idea, right. You show loyalty to your people, not to every random on the street. Let’s see if we can develop that into a plot point. Say that Price and Yuri get Soap into a building, and Price orders Yuri to stay and cover their escape. He says he’ll tell Yuri to run when he’s got Soap out. Yuri obediently waits and holds off the horde of baddies, and Price just never calls. Yuri’s shouting over the radio, asking if it’s safe to go, and on the other end, Price just switches his radio off and keeps dragging Soap away. That’s a great narrative beat, because it suggests that although Price is loyal, he’s actually got a sort of hierarchy of loyalty, and he’ll fuck up his allies in order to preserve his best friends. What we’re doing there is taking the initial character trait of loyalty, and making it nuanced. Price has a very specific concept of loyalty where it’s fine to get Yuri killed in order to save Soap. That says something interesting about how loyalty works. 

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So those are a couple of fun little variations on the scene as it stands. They give us an opportunity to comment on the different attributes that are involved. The next step is, well, the next step. We have to decide what happens in the narrative as a consequence of Price’s decision. Let’s pick a decision – so, um, it’s the Price-abandons-Yuri thing. Yuri dies, and Price escapes with Soap. Okay: what happens next? What are the consequences of Price’s decision? And how do those consequences continue the commentary on the theme of loyalty? Well, okay, let’s run some options. Option 1: There are no consequences, Price totally gets away with it, Soap survives, and no-one ever finds out. It makes Price out to be the bad guy, because he does a shitty thing and is never held accountable. It’s also revealing about his relationship with Soap. If Price really loved and respected Soap, you’d think he would let Soap make his own decisions. Like Price has this idea of oh, I’m doing this thing out of loyalty to Soap – but Soap never gets to decide whether or not he’s okay with what Price is doing. It’s a really one-sided relationship, in that sense. It’s not so much Price doing things for Soap as Price deciding what Soap wants and then doing things on his behalf without telling him. That’s a weirdly domineering relationship. It’s also really ripe for a metaphor of some sort. If we cast around, we can probably find some other situation where there’s like a group who’re in charge and they make decisions on behalf of other people without really telling them what’s going on – hang on, that’s basically the premise of Modern Warfare! You’ll remember especially in the first game, there’s a whole big thing about how these soldiers go off and do stuff on behalf of the British people, who never find out what’s going on. The nuclear launches are portrayed as planned tests, and the sinking of the cargo ship in the Bering Strait is portrayed as an accident. Even – this is quite funny, actually – I’m writing this at the end of May, and the trailer for the new Modern Warfare [2019] has just come out. In that trailer, Price specifically says “We get dirty and the world stays clean. That’s the mission.” That’s fascinating. That’s exactly what we’re talking about. And when does that come out – two days from publication! How’s that for fucking topical.

So if Price gets away with this thing, with no consequences, that’s like a tiny example of how Britain operates as a nation. There’s people in charge, and they send out secret soldiers to do bad shit on behalf of the UK, but they don’t tell anyone in the UK and they just kinda do it behind everyone’s back. There’s a question in there for you as a player: how do you feel about the fact that Price behaved like he did? How does Price’s behaviour relate to the behaviour of your real government? There’s a bunch of great narrative opportunities here – and none of them force us to stop playing fun shooty bang bang games. They’re not about how violence is necessarily bad and awful. They’re not pushing some specific ideological agenda. They’re just raising questions about the way things work.

Obviously this isn’t the entire writing process in one go. It’s just a little snippet of how we start to attach significance and depth beyond just the straight up-and-down narrative events. I’ll run through a few more whenever I come across an interesting angle – I don’t want to be repeating myself though, so you probably won’t (for example) get any more posts on character decisions as commentary on a wider theme. I wouldn’t explain the same narrative device just with another game. I have a thing I want to do with Call of Duty: Black Ops though, so look out for the Narrative 101 for that sometime soon.

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