The screen fades from black, revealing your perspective behind a hulking, semi-automatic rifle. You walk through a crowded scene, wasting every foe in your virtual field of vision by squeezing your controller's triggers.
It's easy to forget how many things I'm killing on my couch, as holiday video game hits like Borderlands, Uncharted 2, and (locally made) Left 4 Dead 2 put priority one on the archetypal hunt. Didn't strike me as peculiar, since my foes were all "monsters" (criminals, critters, and zombies, respectively). Then I saw leaked footage of this season's likely candidate for best-selling game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
That fade-from-black, that hulking rifle: There stood the archetype. And then the character killed every innocent, screaming, unarmed bystander in an airport.
For a few minutes, the game turns you into a Russian terrorist squad that shoots up a crowd. As you and your squad mates turn corners, more survivors appear, crawling to safety or pulling other victims slowly out of harm's way. The player in the leaked video picked off these stragglers with startling ease.
To clarify, the rest of Modern Warfare 2 hunts these terrorists down, and the game's creators put out a statement calling the level "optional" and saying it was "designed to evoke the atrocities of terrorism." But gaming, violent as it can get, rarely puts innocent civilians in its crosshairs. Maybe it should.
2005's Super Columbine Massacre RPG! is perhaps the most famous game to do so. It satired American media and the gaming industry in equal parts, putting players in the shoes of Harris and Klebold and making them relive their famous, final day. SCMRPG, a one-man indie gaming project, never reached store shelves, and by forcing players to be the bad guys in such a tangible setting, it probably never will. But who's to say the violence on Best Buy's games shelves is any more worthwhile?
Hours before watching that leaked Modern Warfare 2 scene, I'd started an "episode" of the Grand Theft Auto franchise revolving around a biker gang. With little plot or character development, the game immediately introduced a rival gang; told me to go kill 'em. Characters laughed and celebrated as they murdered their rivals in the streets of "Liberty City" (parody of NYC).
I don't care to demonize GTA, or any other game (or movie) (or song) with murder on its mind. But games are waking up to the two-sided coin of how they handle plot—do they force a specific path upon players, or do they open all possibilities? GTA, though touted as an open-world "sandbox," reveals its true colors with a sophomoric interest in violence.
Whereas Modern Warfare 2 forces its players, for a brief moment, to feel like villains. To watch as the foes they shoot, normally full of "artificial intelligence" for dodging and shooting, instead show only vulnerability. I can't speak yet to whether MW2 will follow that striking premise with an interest in the human condition that provoked that scene. Maybe it will open those Russian terrorists' masks, look into their eyes, and ask why they took up rifles against innocents. Or maybe the scene serves solely as sophomoric ignition of revenge for us, the American do-gooders.
But it's a start. "Real" death in video games is the next step for the form as a work of art.