Few games give you the option to skip over a mission before you play it, but Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s controversial “No Russian” mission is one of them. Even today, the stage that made players a terrorist remains shocking.
Yes, that actually happened.
Here’s the image greeting players before the single-player campaign started:
There’s no context here whatsoever, but it suggests there’s something coming later in the game. That turned out to be the “No Russian” mission.
Pretty early into Modern Warfare 2’s campaign, players assume the role of an undercover CIA agent who’s seemingly infiltrated a group of Russian terrorists under the leadership of Vladimir Makarov. Players are not sitting around a table and sipping vodka, however. Instead, they’ve joined Makarov and several others to menace a Russian airport, where they plan to mow down innocents. The mission’s title comes from Makarov; the whole reason they’re targeting the airport—and not speaking—is to ensure Americans are blamed for the incident.
The opening scene, as depicted in the GIF above, is brutal. Bullets unload on an unsuspecting crowd, and the body count quickly begins to rise. Most players, thinking they needed to play along, probably decided to start shooting—at the time, I did. But the game never forces you do anything, and it’s entirely up to the player whether a single shot is fired from their gun. Dozens of people will die, regardless of what you decide to do, but active participation is left to the player.
This made some players feel awful, resulting in memes like this:
Modern Warfare 2 developer Infinity Ward said little about “No Russian” at the time, allowing the game to speak for itself. But years later, game designer Mohammad Alavi did speak with writer Matthew Burns about the response:
“It isn’t really relevant whether that makes you enjoy the entertainment experience even more because you’re being naughty (à la Grand Theft Auto) or it engrosses you further into the story and makes you resent your actions. What’s relevant is that the level managed to make the player feel anything at all,” he says.
“In the sea of endless bullets you fire off at countless enemies without a moment’s hesitation or afterthought, the fact that I got the player to hesitate even for a split second and actually consider his actions before he pulled that trigger– that makes me feel very accomplished.”
When the mission became public leading up to the released, it caused waves. In Japan and Germany, the game was altered to trigger a mission failed screen if players decided to shoot the civilians. In Russia, it was straight up removed.
It also caused the usual hyperbole about the impact of violence in games. Per a MCV article from 2009, it was debated on the BBC One’s The Big Questions morning show. Here’s retired Bishop of Hulme, the Reverend Stephen Lowe:
“If you are in that role, which is a terrorist in a game killing other people with massive violence coming back at you on the screen, and [you’re getting a] thrill from that, I think that’s actually sick. We need to sort that out.
“I don’t think it should be in a game, because gaming for me is not about that sort of process. When I was young, [society was] worried about horror comics – because they were going to pollute the minds of young people and make them violent. This is very different from that; this is taking on the role of a terrorist in a way that relates to the news – what we actually see on our [TV] screens. That is fundamentally different. It somehow says: ‘Maybe this is all right.’ It isn’t.”
For players who felt uncomfortable with the scene, Infinity Ward tried to sidestep problems by removing any unlockables from “No Russian.” If you skipped past it, you could still get every achievement in the game.
The point of the brutality, according to the mission’s architect, was to feel:
“I’ve read a few reviews that said we should have just shown the massacre in a movie or cast you in the role of a civilian running for his life,” Alavi continues. “Although I completely respect anyone’s opinion that it didn’t sit well with them, I think either one of those other options would have been a cop out… [W]atching the airport massacre wouldn’t have had the same impact as participating (or not participating) in it. Being a civilian doesn’t offer you a choice or make you feel anything other than the fear of dying in a video game, which is so normal it’s not even a feeling gamers feel anymore.”
The Call of Duty series has seen many games since then–Modern Warfare 3, Black Ops, Black Ops 2, Ghosts, Advanced Warfare—but nothing in those games have caused anything like the heated conversations that came out of “No Russian.”
That Actually Happened is a weekly series at Kotaku in which we highlight interesting moments in gaming history. So far, we’ve revisited when Sonic kissed a human, a live game show on Xbox 360, and Sony throwing a God of War party with a dead goat. If you have any suggestions for future entires, please let us know in the comments below!