Much has been said about the Airport level in Modern Warfare 2 (where a player stands alongside a small squad of terrorists committing mass-murder, with the freedom to join in). However, I haven’t heard much attempt to defend its presence in the game.
I like to ask myself why developers made their games the way they did, so - What are the positive aspects of the Airport level? It’s easy to say “they did it for the publicity!”, so in particular, what did it bring to the game itself? What are its artistic merits?
The game’s intro speaks of a desire to portray the realities of modern warfare, small caps. Undoubtedly, however awkward, terrorism is part of that reality.
Some acknowledge this, but suggest that if it has to be in the game, it should have been presented as a non-interactive cutscene. I strongly disagree with this. A cutscene is the medium of film, not of games. It does the medium a disservice to suggest there are things it should not try to portray. Our culture rightfully celebrates writers and film-makers who push their medium to tackle difficult subjects. We should extend the same respect to games, especially if, as some say, they need to “grow up”.
As a piece of art, the level has a unique contribution to make, compared to other media. The toughest challenge terrorism offers Western culture is the utterly alien frame of mind it suggests. There are two parts to such evil - the process of deciding to kill innocents, and the point at which a perpetrator stands in front of their victims, sees the whites of their eyes and pulls the trigger.
Setting the former aside, a game offers an incomparable perspective on the latter, the moment of acting. No other medium can put someone in a position to directly experience that instant of final choice, however terrible. There’s genuine artistic value in that.
Infinity Ward should also be recognised for the level’s contribution to game storytelling mechanics. Other storytelling media have well-established methods for giving their audience an early close-up of their antagonists. This is of critical importance to engaging an audience emotionally in the fiction.
Games typically struggle with such close-ups, instead dishing up their antagonists in fleeting glimpses, or behind panes of glass or monitor screens, or as ethereal voices through radios or headsets. It’s a language that’s been put to excellent use in System Shock 2, Portal, etc., but it works best as a cumulative effect, a sustained assault over a period of hours. In terms of density of impact and immediacy, it’s ultimately limited.
The Airport level is a serious attempt to move beyond that, to provide a proper close-up of an antagonist. It will creak badly if put under enough pressure, and it’s not without peers (notably the similar, less developed sequence in the prequel). However, in the main, it’s immensely successful, and its achievements relative to its ambitions are significant. And for even the most callous player, the “personal touch” at the end of the level cements players’ direct relationship with the Makarov character, with compelling speed.
A major criticism directed at the level is the contrast it makes with the closing moments of the previous level, where the player bombastically leaps a canyon on a snowmobile. The suggestion is that this destroys any artistic credibility. It’s certainly a jarring change of vibe, but it feels justified.
The first two levels aren’t casually chosen. They’re a self-conscious retread of the two gameplay and story strands of Modern Warfare 1. The effect is akin to Panic At The Disco opening their second album singing reassuringly ”You don’t have to worry, cos we’re still the same band”.
Once that familiarity is established, it’s entirely appropriate for Infinity Ward to push such a strong shift in tone. It gives contrast and context to the Airport level. It’s a valid and strong transition to the story’s second act. It clearly signals an intent to go somewhere new, somewhere different.
Finally, contrary to surface appearances, the level is intensely moral. Its message is neither immoral nor amoral, despite the lack of immediate consequences for killing civilians.
Every part of Modern Warfare 2's single-player campaign, from high-level plotting to moment-by-moment gameplay, is deeply rooted in a theme of family and companionship, and the power of acting together. The special forces missions form the backbone of that theme, with their genuinely affective father-and-son vibe.
However, it is the Airport level that provides the theme’s most important statement. When the characters act together, they are successful. Here, by contrast, when they act alone, it goes disastrously, horrifically wrong.