Why Modern Warfare 3 Remains an Un-Game

Republished from Rock, Paper Shotgun.

Last Wednesday Kotaku republished (with permission, of course) my review of Modern Warfare 3′s single player campaign. A review in which I described it as an "un-game with a core of nastiness". This caught the attention of Kill Screen's Brendan Keogh, who wrote a riposte to my piece on the Australian K, in which he called me, in the nicest possible way, an "un-player", and detailed why he believed my article was incorrect. He perhaps slightly misunderstood, so here is my reply:

Dear Brendan,

Indeed, I don't think we've talked, but I'm sure you're super-lovely. High five! Also, I agree that I'm endlessly awesome! But let's not get distracted. To the matter in hand. I'm not sure you really noticed what I wrote in my review, and thus have missed why I am criticising Modern Warfare 3. Let me explain again exactly what is wrong with the un-game.

The core of your response is to explain that I was wrong to demand more freedom from a game such as Call Of Duty, that I condemned linearity, refused to cooperate with it, and that I therefore played the game wrong(ly). The problem is, I didn't say any such thing at any point. In fact, the words "freedom" and "linear" don't appear in the entire two thousand words.

The nub of the core of my problems with Modern Warfare 3 have nothing to do with desiring open-world freedom nor railing (geddit) against linearity, hence my mentioning neither. They have to do with that it's barely a game. It is, as you suggest, a rollercoaster. Except I would qualify this and say it is more like one of those water rides, where you sit in the slowly drifting boat as it wends its way past a series of animated dioramas, please keep your arms and legs inside the boat at all times. No standing. Apart from when you should.

Why Modern Warfare 3 Remains an Un-Game

Where you recognise the game's successes, I do too. Repeatedly I celebrate the skill with which the sheer scale and volume are delivered. We do not seem to be in disagreement about the exceptionally high standards of the show we're sat still, watching. I happened not to enjoy the show, which I found wearyingly bombastic and hollow, all style and a void of substance. Where I contend the game falls short is in actually being a game. I'm fascinated to learn what it might have been that you actually enjoyed doing.

If spectacle is what you wanted from MW3, then clearly you would have been delighted with the result. Spectacle, as the name suggests, being something you stare at in a non-participatory way. Which, I would suggest, is the very definition of my newly coined term (that I now fully expect to see appearing in one of those end-of-year Times articles that lists the new words in the parlance), un-game.

My issue here has nothing whatsoever to do with having my freedom restricted. In fact, in a narrative FPS the very last thing I want is abundant freedom. While I express my frustration in my review of not being able to choose where next to go (and I concede the word "where" is ambiguous), I do not mean choose from passage A, B or C, nor want to tramp off over the barren countryside, but merely wish to be able to choose to walk forward. Corridor shooters have been one of gaming's greatest genres in all its lifetime, from the joy of realising it was a possibility in mazes like Wolf 3D, to the spectacular fixed-rail rollercoaster rides of the Half-Life Episodes. Not having a choice about which direction to go in is never a problem when there's only one direction you want to go in.

Why Modern Warfare 3 Remains an Un-Game

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You raise that I expect to be in a more significant position when playing a game. So it is that I make the point that MW3 not only doesn't cast you as the hero in the game, but the lowliest of grunts, who is given the minimal amount to do after the NPCs have had the real fun. It is argued by many that not every game has to make you the hero, and that following orders is not necessarily an anathema to enjoyable gaming. I agree. But if you are not allowed to live out that fantasy of being the spectacular hero in spectacular circumstances, then there should be something else in place to ensure that you're having an entertaining time. (Let me stress that "entertaining" does not mean "fun" or "happy" – it can just as easily be "heart-breaking" or "shocking".) In Modern Warfare 3 there is not. You follow those who are actually playing, and sweep up after them. It's the gaming equivalent of being a janitor, and while I'm in no doubt that an obscure German developer is currently working on Advanced Janitor Simulator, it's not exactly what I seek when wanting to play something.

And here's the thing. Here's the massively overriding, all-destroying, critique-exploding thing: Modern Warfare 3 is a game that even stops your progression through the corridor. It is an un-game in which a closed door means you must stand still. An un-game in which it is not possible to head down the only available route until the rest of your squad has been through that tunnel first. It is a series of visible and invisible walls, that you incessantly bang your nose against, because you haven't stood still and watched. I'm not arguing for the freedom to explore a procedurally generated expanse of Paris. I'm asking for the ability to walk in the straight line it's pretending to offer. In this game, even this isn't available.

Let alone that the un-game constantly contradicts itself. This is extremely serious, and I believe emblematic of the game's poor design. There is a serious lack of consistency about the rules it wants you to obey, and as such if there was any contravention of the game's rules on my part, it was only because I was trying to obey them. I made the point about "follow" because of its constant fixture on your screen. It so gallingly underlines just what a subservient role you're in – and it's not a subservience to the game's plot or characters, but to the code of the game itself. Don't play, just follow. Except for when it wants you to ignore the "follow", and take a step forward so it can trigger the next event. I can think of no better example of that than here. Apologies, Brendan, that my voice is so quiet behind the game's shouting.

(Yes, it says to follow the tanks, but it also says to stay close, and since in 90% of the game your wandering ahead means instant death, I was waiting for my team to take their usual lead. And clearly I meant Society, not Species.)

So rather than walk onto the foot-to-ball pitch with a cricket bat, I walked into an FPS expecting the basics of what the FPS offered for decades, and lamented that MW3 appears to have taken the degradation of player involvement that such games have experienced in recent years, and for majority of the game reduced it to the point where I'm not sure the word "game" is any longer appropriate. It's the Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Show. Please turn your mouse for alternative views.

Why Modern Warfare 3 Remains an Un-Game

I at no point wished for "emergent gameplay" or whatever other terms one might suggest. I never believed that I should be able to wander to the left instead of the right, unless the left was presented to me as an open route. I never asked the game to offer me more than a corridor and a role to play, and it so frequently offered me neither. And that is why Modern Warfare 3 is an un-game, and why I absolutely did not play it incorrectly. I think we can agree that I certainly did not use "freedom as a metric for a game's quality", since I never mentioned freedom, nor argued for it. Instead, I did not find buildings repeatedly falling over a large enough distraction to disguise the fact that I was barely playing. I was not refusing to cooperate with it. It was refusing to let me play it. And I believe that noise and explosions are not a substitute for player involvement. You may keep your Professor Burp's Bubbleworks games, but I would like to argue for better.

Yours sincerely,

John Walker

John Walker is a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the world's best sites for PC gaming news. John is Britain's leading adventure gaming specialist. Follow him on Twitter.
Republished with permission.