Game Design Talk: Taking Control Out of My Hands

(SPOILER ALERT: This post will discuss major plot points in Modern Warfare 2 and Prince of Persia)

The terrorist scene in Modern Warfare 2 has been dissected from every conceivable angle by now. Odds are if you’re a fan of reading niche video game blogs like mine, you’ve probably played this sequence and have already come to your own conclusions about it.

For the record, I hate it. I hate it for a number of reasons, but for the sake of this discussion, I’m only going to get into one reason why I dislike this scene. I don’t hate it for the fact that you get to shoot innocent people. I applaud Infinity Ward for leaving that option open. However, that entire scenario is fundamentally broken because of the people you can’t shoot.

Very early on, Modern Warfare 2 establishes Makarov as the bad guy. He’s an evil person and the good guys need to take him out. Shepherd pulled some crazy strings and was able to get you undercover, working side-by-side with Makarov.

This is where you come in. You’re in an airport elevator with Makarov and his henchmen, about to cause a horrific terrorist attack. They shoot up the place, and you have the option to shoot innocent people. But if the ultimate goal of this entire story is to take out Makarov, why can’t I kill him now? Doing it now would save the world a lot of trouble. Any attempt to shoot him or the terrorists causes a fail-state, which stops the mission and restarts it from the last check point.

From a narrative perspective, it kind of makes sense to a point. The developers wanted you as a player to walk through that airport, shoot all those cops and then get killed by Makarov at the end.

From a gameplay and context perspective, the scene is completely broken. The game told me that the goal of this game is to take out Makarov. So when that airport mission starts and you have full control of your character, why can’t I kill Makarov? Why can’t I even make an attempt to kill Makarov? They have given me the tools to make that choice, but never set up real consequences should I go down the other path.

What really angers me about this is that the level ends with you dying after making your way through those cops. Why not have it so that any attempt by the player causes the terrorists to kill you and end the level right there? Story wise, it works because your body will still be in the airport for the Russians to find. Gameplay wise, it still works because the game gives you full control to shoot whoever you want already. By tearing down that fake wall that stops you from making an attack on the terrorists, this scene will make more sense without making the player feel like you’re holding their hand through an area where you’ve given them all the tools they need to make a choice.

While much less publicized, the endgame sequence from Prince of Persia (2008) is another example of a scenario where the player is artificially forced into making a decision when there is logically more than one choice available.

In order to beat the last boss and save the world, your sidekick Elika sacrifices her life. Over the course of the game, your character has built a strong connection with Elika. In a sequence where you have full control, you carry her body out of the building you fought the last boss in and lay her to rest. As this is happening, the credits are rolling, which indicates that this game is pretty much done.

However, off in the distance are four trees. The game has taught you that if you cut the trees, you will unleash the ultimate evil. However, cutting these trees will also bring Elika back to life.

Logically, this is the perfect time to put the player to the ultimate test. Will you let Elika stay dead and keep the world at peace? Or will you bring the girl of your dreams back to life and risk the apocalypse?

The impact of this endgame hit me really hard…until I realized that there was no choice to be made. In a situation where it makes total sense if the player didn’t want to chop down the trees, the game forces the player to cut those trees if they actually want to beat the game and see the ending. Once again, the developers put me in a position where it makes total sense to have a choice, but don’t allow me to make one.

Not every game has to be Mass Effect, but in both scenarios, real-life logic dictated that these scenarios could have been more open-ended, especially when I have direct control of the scenario with my character. However, both games chose to ignore that logic in order to funnel the player down a linear path. If you want to tell a linear story, that’s fine. It’s just that both scenarios did a poor job of masking that linearity.

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