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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 GamesIndustry.biz 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.

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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Matt Martin avatar

Matt Martin

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Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.

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