Modern Warfare 2's No Russian mission asked players to choose to take an passive or active role in an airport civilian massacre. It caused quite an uproar back when it was released, but a lot of time has passed. A legal battle has been fought, a new studio has been formed, and many of the designers who worked on Modern Warfare 2 at Infinity Ward are now working for Respawn Entertainment.
Mohammad Alavi is one of them. The designer responsible for one of Call of Duty 4's most memorable levels, All Ghillied Up, also had a hand in creating Call of Duty's most controversial moment. With the legal NDAs surrounding his attachment to Infinity Ward expired, he's spoken to Matthew S. Burns on Magical Wasteland about the intent behind No Russian.
"We were trying to do three things" he explains, "sell why Russia would attack the US, make the player have an emotional connection to the bad guy Makarov, and do that in a memorable and engaging way.
"In a first person shooter where you never leave the eyes of the hero, it's really hard to build up the villain and get the player invested in why he's 'bad'."
Alavi describes early versions of the level in which the massacre takes place at the beginning of the level and quickly turns into a shoot out. He mentions that that version "felt cheap and gimmicky. It felt like we were touching on something raw and emotional and then shying away from it just as soon as it became uncomfortable.
“I've read a few reviews that said we should have just shown the massacre in a movie or cast you in the role of a civilian running for his life. Although I completely respect anyone's opinion that it didn't sit well with them, I think either one of those other options would have been a cop out," he says. "[W]atching the airport massacre wouldn't have had the same impact as participating (or not participating) in it. Being a civilian doesn't offer you a choice or make you feel anything other than the fear of dying in a video game, which is so normal it's not even a feeling gamers feel anymore.”
No Russian served a pragmatic storytelling purpose. The player's outrage would be the emotional leverage needed to make Makarov a more weighty villain. As heavy handed as that might seem, Alavi suggests that, from his perspective, getting a strong reaction of any kind from players is a victory. “It isn't really relevant whether that makes you enjoy the entertainment experience even more because you're being naughty (à la Grand Theft Auto) or it engrosses you further into the story and makes you resent your actions. What's relevant is that the level managed to make the player feel anything at all,” he says.
“In the sea of endless bullets you fire off at countless enemies without a moment's hesitation or afterthought, the fact that I got the player to hesitate even for a split second and actually consider his actions before he pulled that trigger– that makes me feel very accomplished.”