No filmmaker working today explores the act of watching as rigorously (and, some might say, as pedantically) as Michael Haneke, whose output largely consists of a single film, made over and over again in slightly different ways, about the viewer’s relationship to on-screen violence.
The Austrian provocateur’s cinematic lectures on how we’re all to blame for fostering a bloodthirsty entertainment culture are best summed up by “Funny Games” (and its shot-for-shot Stateside remake), which — in typical Haneke fashion — builds tension by teasing brutality while also cannily refusing to show us the actual slash-and-kill money shots. It’s a denial that serves as an audience chastisement for wanting to see, and get a kick out of, true horror. When it works, it’s its own kind of knife twist; when it doesn’t it can make Haneke seem like a tiresome schoolmarm, an artist who casts himself in the role of omnipotent, scolding father figure. Either way, he’s still technically masterful, and his works actively engage and critique our appetite for inhuman on-screen behavior.
While on-screen violence is even more essential to the video game realm, few game creators have attempted a Haneke-style postmodern analysis, and even fewer have done so within the play-it-safe confines of mainstream blockbusters. So it’s one of the year’s big surprises that its most disturbing and provocative piece of self-referential gaming comes via the holiday season’s biggest blockbuster, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.”
Like its 2007 predecessor, Activision’s first-person shooter sequel moves the venerable “Call of Duty” series out of World War II and into a fictionalized contemporary universe full of real world-ish geopolitical military scenarios, delivering high octane action, incredibly detailed graphics and bombastic sound, and a fast-moving narrative in which you take charge of multiple protagonists in various global hot spots. For the most part, the game’s just a highly polished, enjoyable piece of formula in terms of its level structure and mechanics. But in one of its early episodes, it manages to embrace a radical, morally debatable design choice that’s not only led to a lot of controversy, but also seems to suggest a possible template for a new era of meta gamemaking.
The sequence in question has you playing as an American military operative working undercover alongside a Russian terrorist, who, along with some heavily armed cohorts, is attacking a bustling airport, shooting civilians as they scream and flee for safety. It’s a scene that packs an immediate, stunning wallop, thanks not only to the obviously harrowing content, but the slow, ambulatory pace of the action (you can’t run) and the fact that, if you so choose, you too can mow down innocents with an automatic weapon as they try to escape your assault by ducking out from the cover of waiting-room seats and columns.
Whether you participate or not, the innocent die (since your comrades have no qualms about shooting), and the effect is nearly the same — a first-person POV of wholesale terrorist slaughter in which you’re culpable (passively or aggressively) for mass murder, and made to feel something approaching the burden and cruelty of real slaughter. For a game, and industry, predicated on selling shooting simulators as exciting and enjoyable, to have “Modern Warfare 2” position FPS mayhem as emotionally wrenching and ethically shameful proves something like a megaton-bomb shock to your system.
Creating a sense of repulsion over your actions isn’t exactly mainstream gaming’s usual modus operandi. That’s what makes “Modern Warfare 2″‘s centerpiece chapter so remarkable. Of course, Activision has gone out of its way to mitigate some of the backlash by making the scene optional (a choice to skip it entirely, with a warning about its extreme content, precedes the action), and then by making user participation in the crimes voluntary. For those who choose to tackle the mission, though, it exhibits the kind of button-pushing usually reserved for, well, a Haneke film.