Call of Duty director: "We know we're going to be extremely controversial"

Long development process can leave team desensitised to the impact of violent content, admits Arem

Call of Duty talent director Keith Arem has told that the team creating games for the billion dollar franchise know their content will cause controversy, but once they commit to levels such as the infamous No Russian scene, they have to follow it through.

Arem, who has worked on all the Modern Warfare games and the latest Black Ops, said that during the development process the team can become "desensitised" to the subject matter, and need to remind themselves of the impact it can have on those seeing it for the first time.

"Going in on those decisions everyone's going to be aware that there is going to be some sort of controversy behind that. And I think in the end what's creatively best for the project and what's going to tell the story and what's really going to give the team the satisfaction of enjoying what they're working on is really the primary focus," he said.

Some of the actors were very tearful saying the lines because it was a pretty emotionally charged scene

Keith Arem, director, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

"So when we decide to execute on an idea that's been approved both by the developer and the publisher we're pretty committed going in. So knowing that we're going to be dealing with that some times we sort of have to be very careful in announcing that. We knew that the No Russian level was going to be extremely controversial and obviously what happened in Russia and a lot of other areas was a sign of that."

The No Russian scene puts players alongside ultranationalist terrorists murdering innocent civilians, leaving them with two simple options to progress - watch the unfolding carnage or blend in with the protagonists and open fire.

The level proved divisive on release, and caused controversy in the mainstream press for its levels of violence. It was also blamed for a terrorist attack on Moscow airport in January this year. Activision had already removed the scenario from the Russian PC version of the game.

The "brutal" content is something Infinity Ward was well aware of, and Arem admits that it's important to anticipate player reaction to such violent content.

"When you see it actually come together and you hear all the voices and you see what the team bought to that, it's very brutal. It's a difficult experience for anyone to go through.

"At the same time, creatively, when those decision are unanimous between the team we try to make them as engaging as possible. Unfortunately we're pretty much committed once we make that decision because the development cycle is so far in advance of the release of the game.

"Sometimes we become desensitised to the fact that this is going to be so controversial and when it comes out we have to remind ourselves that people are seeing this for the first time and they're also taking in the complete experience for the first time as opposed to seeing it in the various stages of production."

Arem, who is currently working on THQ's latest Saint's Row game, praised the actors taking on the roles of the terrorists in Modern Warfare 2, and revealed that for some the scene caused very real human responses.

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Director Arem says he couldn't bring himself to shoot civilians the first time he played the game.

"Sometimes they bring something to the performance that is actually even more tragic or more powerful than anything that we would have actually envisioned. By them bringing that to life, it really engages the player emotionally," he said.

"It's a difficult moral question for the player and directing the actors and hearing what the actors are saying in Russian is actually almost worse than seeing the action on screen, because these families [in game] are separated, fathers telling their wives to take the children and everything will be okay, and knowing that it's not... it was a difficult thing to work with a lot of the actors.

"Some of the actors were very tearful saying the lines because it was a pretty emotionally charged scene."

And Arem confessed that once the final game was complete, he himself found the level hard to play and couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger on the innocent civilians.

"The first time I played it - when the team brought the idea to me I actually raised the point of how controversial this was going to be - and then playing through the game the first time, and actually seeing it put together, at least for me, I didn't engage any of the civilians.

"I was hanging back although I was forced through this level and to go through the experience."

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Latest comments (25)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 9 years ago
My experience of "No Russian" was that the calculated breach of good taste provided no elevated form of entertainment, but was a purely calculated move to get more media exposure. It was a boring level with no interesting gameplay. The media are fools to latch onto it, because all it serves is to generate free promotion of the game. The gamers are fools to latch onto it because all it does is forcing you to enact a crime with the goal of the player feeling more justified to commit a series of further war crimes. Shoot a few kids now, so it feels ok when you shoot 1000 people later on.

It its attention seeking it is the equivalent of a politician shouting "the Internet is filled with child rapist" to get a few more votes from a few more senior citizens whose only worry between narcoleptic fits in front of their TV is the wellbeing of their grandchildren.

The publisher then spawns a cynical decision about morality in games, while the game itself offers the player no choice whatsoever. I can't shoot the terrorists from behind, I can't make a moral choice not to partake. It is non-gaming.

So go ahead Activision, do your worst. Have a scene where the player assume the identity of a non-American to do some horrible act which then serves as the legal grounds to shoot all persons of said non-American identity. So go ahead, have a donkey rape an all American virgin. or steal a lollypop from an Afghan peasant, doesn't matte any way.
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James Battersby Senior Software Engineer, IUGO Mobile Entertainment9 years ago
I would have been fine with the No Russian scene if it gave the impression of "the means justify the ends". We are told its taken a lot to get to that position and then cut down suddenly without any gain. Had the player discovered some intel, disrupted a plot or done anything vaguely benefcial I would have felt justified. Unfortunately nothing was done and I felt it was just another scene bunged with no connection and certainly felt similar opinions to Klaus.
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Wesley Williams Quality Assurance 9 years ago
There was an opportunity with the "No Russian" level to make a serious point, to ask meaningful questions, but in the end we got nothing like that. If you're going to take chances and be bold with games and do controversial things, give them some weight, make them meaningful.
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Show all comments (25)
Jeff Wilson9 years ago
If the COD Director Keith Arem has voiced so strong a justification on the 'No Russian' scene (which I played, and didn't shoot civilians) then it may mean they intend to expand this idea in the next COD. Maybe we will be taking a more active role as a terrorist in the next game. I just wonder where the US Government would draw the line and take action to withhold controversial content. If at all.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jeff Wilson on 15th March 2011 1:50pm

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Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts9 years ago
I agree that the level isnt anything exceptional in the Gameplay front but is an integral part of the script and sets the scene for the rest of the game. Ultimately it is a video game and for over 18s, a terrorist wont become a terrorist because he played COD so for me a lot of the arguments are non starter.

I guess the one big question is where do you drop the line? and I think that is something that will always be a very personal decision and one day a company will go to far and at that point the public will hopefully close the matter by not buying the product. Ultimately we all still bought it and played it and I certainly wouldnt have done if I was truly offended by it.
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John Coburn Multimedia Artist/Flash Develoeper 9 years ago
Placing 'No Russian' in the context of the single-player campaign, I think it was unfortunate for the build-up of Makarov as the villain to occur in such a grand way that used(or abused?) the strengths of the medium only to have him be swept under the rug later in the plot of MW2. This really did supply the pointlessness of the level within the game as a whole and it began that stringing lack of gratification that the MW2 single player campaign was plagued with. For future game design reference, that's an even greater flaw than having a level be a media stunt, IMO.
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COD has linearity and scripted events engraved in the marble of the franchise, blaming it for not offering some RPG decision-making is away from the point.
As for the end-result of the mission, who said video games should be an fairytale version of reality where every effort bears fruits? I applaud their decision to go that route and hope our industry won't be plagued by panelists and imposed happy endings. "MW2: Director's cut" released 10 years after the game initial release? No thank you, we have enough censorship already.

I've played this mission and shot as many civilians as I could because it was fun and it's a video game. If that makes me a bad person then I blame it entirely on Lemmings which in my youth made me blow up some unfortunate animals to complete levels.
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Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts9 years ago
@Philippe must of read my mind I nearly put in a Lemmings related comment too.....Can't deny I saw the civilains as another target in a video game. Nothing more nothing less.....
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Taylan Kay Game Designer / Programmer / Marketer 9 years ago
I agree with Klaus. As a gamer, the whole scene felt like an unnecessarily prolonged cutscene for me rather than gameplay. And yes I did shoot civilians, out of sheer boredom.

If this was a social experiment to see whether the audience would be desensitized enough to shoot civilians or not, only then it would maybe have some value.
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Svyatoslav Torick Project manager, Q19 years ago
There was that interview with COD:MW2 scripter Jesse Stern who stated that every one of the focus testers chose to shoot. He explained it that it is a human nature so there's nothing really to worry about. Couldn't agree more.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Svyatoslav Torick on 15th March 2011 4:35pm

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Cobey Jones Studying Game development, University of Advancing Technology9 years ago
Maybe this says more about me than it does about the state of the art AAA video games, but the No Russians mission didn't bother me in the least. Moral choices in video games at the expense of virtual innocents has been a part of the medium for years now. Anyone blaming the recent attack in a Russian airport on a mission in Modern Warfare 2 has a poor grip on reality.
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Cobey Jones Studying Game development, University of Advancing Technology9 years ago
Maybe this says more about me than it does about the state of the art AAA video games, but the No Russians mission didn't bother me in the least. Moral choices in video games at the expense of virtual innocents has been a part of the medium for years now. Anyone blaming the recent attack in a Russian airport on a mission in Modern Warfare 2 has a poor grip on reality.
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John Burns Studying Game Software Development, Westwood College9 years ago
If ur gonna get offended.... don't play it. Simple as that.
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Tom Belton Composer / Producer, SharpNine Music9 years ago
Klaus you are completely right..
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Michael Hendricks II Public Relations, Square Enix9 years ago
I think the scene was more focused on emotionally charging the narrative and bringing context to the type of situation which happens on a regular basis in the government's undercover operations. It was very brutal, and the fact that your character is killed at the end with no fruit for their labor brings up an interesting question of morals.

Usually an action like that in gaming will produce a result of "the ends justify the means", and the MW2 team chose to take the more realistic approach of "you hope the ends justify the means". Whether or not you choose to shoot the civilians, you participate because it's your duty, and in your character's mind, it's "for the greater good". Unfortunately, your greater good isn't served.

If you do choose to kill civilians, at the end of your character's life you're intended to wonder why you killed so many innocent people; what was it for? The choice to include that mission was definitely important in the storytelling aspect of the game. Game play was not the focus; this part of the game was designed to evoke a response, and it did.

Maybe the media did go nuts over it, but to be fair, it was something worth going nuts over. Smaller games breach the subjects of killing innocents more often, but it's usually not in the same context. More times than not, those games are just about killing sprees in general. It was a rare and bold move for a AAA title, with as much exposure as it was bound to receive, to take the leap into questionable territory. There was no guarantee that the hype generated would be positive for the game's sales.

Take Medal of Honor, for example. They banned the game from being sold on military bases for a word contained in it; Far less than the prospect of an undercover operative killing innocent civilians. The choice to include 'No Russian' in the game did demand attention, but it was deserved for the risk they were willing to take to get their point across.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Michael Hendricks II on 15th March 2011 6:35pm

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Tony Johns9 years ago
Sometimes I think people want to be offended just so they can attract more attention to themselves blaming something on tv.

If people were like that, maybe they should be offended by the bible too.

However, in my own heart, I am not offended at all by what happens in videogames or the bible.

It is only in the way I see it in a clear and relaxed mind,

Other people who do get offended never see things in a clear and relaxed mind.

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Corey Williams Podcaster/blogger 9 years ago
There's a difference between being controversial to gain attention, and being controversial as a result of story that means something in the scope of the game. Unfortunately for "No Russian" it was the former. I fired away because I felt nothing. Those people were art and 1/0's, nothing more. For the life of me I can't recall a single moment in any Call of Duty game where I felt like the story contributed to the overall experience. There are certainly some very nice set piece moments, but nothing more.

If you're going to be controversial, put it to good use. It needs to mean something.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 9 years ago
Well I found the No Russian level powerful. The maliciously slow pace (especially in contrast to the previous level), as a massacre unfolds around you with you optionally getting involved....

I found it, a very apt use of interaction to convey a very specific emotion in a way no other medium can.
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Tom Sumer Writer / Podcaster / Blogger 9 years ago
I think the No Russian level was an attempt to capture the genuinely humbling qualities (for me, anyway) of the Death From Above mission in CoD 4: Modern Warfare. That level was the only thing in the entire game that affected me, as it showed the faceless, disconnected element of modern war. The only thing you hear is the hum of the turbine engines, the hollow-sounding blasts of the 25mm, 40mm, or 100mm rounds you are firing, and the operator in your ear giving you positive encouragement for deleting the little white blips on the nightvision screen. It was haunting, really. No Russian seemed to be a sad attempt at putting something like the aforementioned mission into Modern Warfare 2, and it just ended up being a very transparent gimmick/controversy fuel.
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Rick Cody PBnGames-Board Member 9 years ago
What disturbs me is how many people in the gaming community are comfortable with this level of violence. You sure don't cater to a new audience by making a move like that. Though, as sales indicate, you pretty much attract every core gamer by doing so.
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Hakki Sahinkaya9 years ago
I agree with @Corey in saying CoD has been bad at making me care about anything that is going on. And I am a gamer who loves to cling on to any story he can find, unfortunately for CoD, there is nothing there (Black Ops at least didn't make me fall a sleep during the cut-scenes though).

So as I had no emotional attachment to the game and story, I had no reason to care so No Russion mission felt not much different than other missions, where you continuously shoot at A.I.
Only these ones were super-noobs as they didn't shoot back :p
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Patrick Frost QA Project Monitor 9 years ago
I agree with Corey almost completely here. To build up the emotional attachment to the situation or the characters you need time to build that up. Putting it a basically the first level in the game really didn't help this as all of the information leading up to it was purely in cut scenes and animations.
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Terence Gage Freelance writer 9 years ago
I think the impact of No Russian was diminished by its press leak in the weeks before MW2's release - I mean, I think going into it unaware might have drawn a more shocked reaction, but I knew exactly what to expect because I'd read news stories covering it in the weeks before release.

What bothered me far more than the level itself was how in the game's narrative Russia were supposed to have justified going to war with America when only one of the airport murderers was American (never mind how they would have proved it), and of the five terrorists two others also died - both times I played the level only three of us made it to the van at the end, so there were two other dead bodies in that airport; presumably themselves both Russian men. But they were swept under the carpet because that did not fit in with the plot device, which I find to be very poor storytelling.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Terence Gage on 16th March 2011 11:07am

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Michael Vandendriessche Studying Computer Science, K.U. Leuven9 years ago
The mission wasn't that special to me. I just thought it was funny that it was so easy, as no one shoots back.
I started playing around with the physics, throwing grenades at a mass of people and watching them fly away. Test how they would react if i just bump into them and stuff like that. That's when I found out that the terrorists immediately shoot back if you hit them, but don't care if you're just running around and ignoring your duties. I really liked how suddenly al the flights got cancelled. It was more a chill and funny experience to me than an emotional one. Maybe i have a lack of emotion compared to most people. It was fun to blow up guys with shields on an airfield. That was actually the most memorable part for me.
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Douglas Boulter Studying BSc Electronic Games Technology, De Montfort University9 years ago
the "no russian" level in call of duty, however controversial, was a development path that the team chose to take. in most sense it is no more contorversial than picking up a hooker on GTA, waiting till she's done the dead and leaving the vehicle, and then baseball batting her round the back of the head to get your money back.
Controvesy is now an accepted part of video games, especially in the ones rated 18+, not accepted because of any moral standing, but accepted because this stuff actually happens in everyday life, terrosits bomb airports and airplanes, killing thousands, drunk drivers mow down children because they are too intoxicated to drive, and women go missing all the time, and are found dead days later.
Why not have that in a game, obviously as long as the game doesn't get too graphic with the content, because it will make an adult player stop and think for a second. this stuff is read about in newspapers daily, which have no age restrictions, and shown on the televised news, which again, has no age restricitions, whereas the games industry is heavily restricted. My point is simply when Sonic the Hedgehog 5 has scenes of gang rape and torture, and is still deemed suitable for children, will the time be to complain.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Douglas Boulter on 1st April 2011 1:00am

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