Monday, 22 September 2014

How to use a gun: Metro versus Modern Warfare

In his ongoing critical Let's Play of Modern Warfare, Brendan Keogh often describes how the games demonstrate, purposefully, the West's mastery of war through technology. The scenes involving night-vision goggles, laser sights, Predator drones and Javelin missiles are designed, principally, Keogh says, to show the awesome power of modern combat tech, to present, without criticism, the intellectual and industrial might of today's superpowers and how it allows them to more effectively destroy nations.

To take that further, I think the "feel" of weapons, specifically guns, in the Modern Warfare games communicates a kind of sleekness, an ease of use. Just like a Predator missile, which can be used to murder entire squads of soldiers with the push of a button, the guns in Modern Warfare are, for the player, incredibly simple to use. There is an aim button, a fire button, a reload button and, in some cases, a button to switch to a secondary fire mode. Ammunition is always provided and you begin each level already equipped with the perfect weapon for your upcoming firefight, for example in the "All Ghillied Up" mission, where you're given a silenced sniper rifle.

The ability to kill, and kill effectively, is handed to you in Modern Warfare. Rarely will you run out of bullets. Rarely, if ever, will you find that your guns are not ideally suited to your situation. These weapons operate flawlessly with just the use of four buttons on your control pad. They feel like a natural extension of your character's arm. In fact, they feel like they are you character's arm. He rarely does anything with his hands except hold and fire a gun. Even tactile actions like planting a bomb or pushing a button are performed instantaneously, invisibly - rather than see yourself reach out and actually press something, the object is simply "activated", as if by telepathy, when you get close to it and press the action button. Guns, immaculately designed, perfectly functioning guns, are all your hands are for in Modern Warfare, and that robs the violence of a lot of its gravity.

Compare that to Metro: Last Light. In the opening level, the first thing you character does is pick up a map and a cigarette lighter from his desk, and you actually see his hands. You're then instructed, via the game's tutorial text, that to use the map you have to press select to get it out of your bag then hold R2 to bring it up to your face. If you're in a dark environment, you can simultaneously hold L2 to hold the lighter up to it, enabling you to better see the compass. Straight away you have a sense of your character's body and of how physical actions actually work. Unlike Modern Warfare, where you can instantaneously produce weapons and explosives with the push of one button, in Metro, the act of fetching something for your equipment is mapped to the controller in a way that represents how it would work in real life. Select to reach into your bag, R2 to look at the item. You don't popcorn spawn items into your hands. The weapons and equipment are exterior to your character, objects that he has to consciously decide to interact with. He is separate from these items.

You then proceed to an armory and are asked to select three different weapons to carry with you on your first mission. It's a minor detail, but structurally it's much more effective than simply handing the player his ideal equipment, Making a conscious decision on what guns to take with you passes some of the responsibility over to you - it makes you complicit in the violence, since any act committed with these guns will be committed because you decided to bring them with you. It also calcifies that sense of guns as exterior objects, as tools you have to choose and physically collect. They don't simply appear in your hands - they don't teleport around with you, wherever you go. Once again, these are external objects. The live in the armory, not on the end of your arms.

The armory selection screen is also interesting. The interface is slick and easy to navigate, but when you scroll over the next weapon, you see it physically appear in the game world - a revolving shelf on the armory counter rolls around, with a loud clank, each time you scroll to the next gun. Once again, you have the impression that these are physical, separate objects, that have to be properly housed and displayed within the environment. They don't exist merely in floating menus, only seen by the player. They are actually there, in front of you and the other, non-playable characters. Again, guns are not just a part of your body. They have properties of their own. The exist externally to you.

The aesthetic of Metro aids this idea of items and weapons as external objects. Set during the aftermath of a global nuclear war, within the Russian subway system, the eponymous metro, there's naturally a focus on resources and equipment. With no natural light available (the surface of the Earth is uninhabitable due to radiation) the citizens of the metro rely on generators and lengths of copper wiring to provide their power. Throughout the game you encounter dozens of jury-rigged human settlements, roughly connected to dwindling sources of electricity and recyclable air. One of the key stealth mechanics, in fact, is shutting down the lights in an area where there are guards, which can be done either by flipping the switches on a fuse box or unscrewing lightbulbs by hand.

You also carry a gas mask. Again, like the map, in order to use it you have to first hold the L1 button and then tap square, a kind of shorthand for getting it from your bag and strapping it to your face. More important is that is uses up air filters, which you must constantly scrounge and replace once they become empty. It can also be damaged, in which case you can see physical cracks on its visor, and dirtied. If you're walking on the surface and fall into a puddle, brown water smears will appear on the outside of the mask. You can rub these off by tapping L1, which makes your character lift his hand and physically wipe the visor.

Then you have the flashlight. Continued use will cause its power to dwindle, but you can recharge it by again going into your bag with L1 and collecting a small, handheld kinetic charger, which you have to pump by repeatedly tapping the R2 button. After a few squeezes, the beam from your flashlight will return to full strength.

These items, components and appliances have actual working mechanisms. You don't simply press an action button, or walk over a new filter, which is then added to your inventory and automatically replaces your old filter once it runs out. You have to physically operate these machines. You have to maintain and manage them. You will see your character's hands reach up and unscrew his old filter, or depress the handle on the portable charger. Once again, you have that sense of equipment being external, of your character being one entity in the game, his guns and items another. It's the opposite of Modern Warfare wherein weapons simply are, simply work. My favourite tool in Metro is the compressed air rifle, which you physically have to pump back full of air after a few shots. Your character unhooks it, holds it sideways and you have to tap R2 to pump it up. With each pump, you hear your character strain a little more, see his arms moving slower, as if, as the canister becomes full, the pumping is more difficult. It's tangible. It doesn't just give your character a more defined physical presence, it it makes the weapon seem exactly as it is - a tool, an object.

And that representation diminishes its mystique, its impressiveness. The guns and technology in Metro are not flawlessly working things which magically appear in the player's hands. They're fallible. They have circuits, pumps and gears. Although, sadly, it never actually happens, you get the impression that the gun you're holding might backfire and explode at any moment, that the clip might fall out or the bolt might catch. In turn, that makes you feel more vulnerable. It makes you feel like this fragile item, be it your lighter, your gas mask or your rifle, is all that is between you and death. When you kill it doesn't feel easy or blithe. It feels like you've had to work for it, like you've had to collect your guns and equipment, carry them around with you in this backpack, maintain them and learn to use them. It makes the act of killing much more deliberate and conscious, since you've had to do all of this work to get to here. You didn't just appear with a perfect gun and start shooting. You went through a multiple step process, of selecting your equipment, carrying your equipment, maintaining your equipment, using your equipment. The violence is committed not by this technology, but by you, using this technology.

That's the fundamental difference. Keogh is right that Modern Warfare repeatedly boasts about today's military technology, but it doesn't do that simply for the sake of spectacle. It also frees the player of responsibility - it's the technology doing the dirty work, not them. In turn, that representation exonerates the Western superpowers. They may be complicit in the killing, but since their technology is so well-oiled, it is doing most of the heavy-lifting. Like the player, who is simply a gun and an ammo meter, Modern Warfare presents today's soldiers as mere carriers for these sophisticated weapons, vectors through which assault rifles and drones operate. It strips away a sense of being there, a sense of cognition or guilt. It suggests that the technology, the supremely powerful technology, is really the perpetrator here. That makes the in-game violence superficial, the real-world violence seem somehow justifiable.

You can support Brendan Keogh's critical Let's Play of Modern Warfare here


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