Prior to its launch, Infinity Ward’s developers spoke openly about how Call of Duty: Modern Warfare draws inspiration for its story from real-world conflicts, and talked about how it would engage concepts of modern war more seriously. Since release, many players have noted that Modern Warfare does more than allude to real-world events through a veil of fiction; it lifts the name of a prominent Gulf War attack and simulates an infamous, reviled act of torture. In a new interview with GameSpot, Modern Warfare’s narrative director Taylor Kurosaki defends Infinity Ward’s storytelling choices whilst also deflecting certain criticisms.
Spoiler Warning: GameSpot editors Michael Higham and Tamoor Hussain spoke with Kurosaki about the entire campaign, so there are spoilers for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare ahead.
Amongst the various provocative elements of Modern Warfare’s campaign, a pointed reference to a “Highway of Death” and a scene during which players control a character who’s being waterboarded have attracted some of the strongest criticism.
The real-world Highway of Death is the location of a United States-coalition led attack carried out during the Gulf War that resulted in the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of retreating Iraqi soldiers. In Modern Warfare’s story, a character refers to the Highway of Death as an attack carried out by Russian forces on people from the game’s fictional setting of Urzikstan. In the interview, Higham asks Kurosaki if swapping the aggressors of the “name-for-name” attack is necessary.
“I think you could probably find many instances of the words ‘highway of death’ being used in a lot of cases,” responds Kurosaki.
Continuing his answer, Kurosaki says that Infinity Ward doesn’t “portray any one side as good or bad in” in Modern Warfare, including the game’s Russian characters:
There are American characters who sort of betray the trust of other characters in the story. There are Middle Easterners who kind of resort to extreme tactics that you wouldn’t think are sort of above board and, and there’s also characters that are from the same sort of region that, that you think are, are more morally just, same thing for Russian characters. We have Russian antagonists and Russian heroes in this game. And again that was our goal. This is not some kind of propaganda or anything like that.
Moving on to the sequence where players control Urzikstan resistance leader Farah Karim while she’s being waterboarded, Hussein asks Kurosaki how designers established the scene’s tone. In-game, players have the option of either trying to breathe or letting Farah endure the torture—both Hussein and The Daily Beast’s Alec Kubas-Meyer characterize the scene as gamifying the act of waterboarding. Kurosaki disputes this, arguing that presenting an optional mechanic doesn’t qualify as gamification:
There’s nothing in the game that compels you to play along and there’s nothing in the game that makes you gamify that moment as you say. The game doesn’t fail you, the game progress is regardless. We are giving our players a choice and we believe that most players know who she is and know that she would fight in that circumstance, and we know that she would resist and use whatever means necessary to gain an advantage over her captor. If your instinct in that moment is to sort of retreat within yourself, the game allows you to do that and progress regardless.
In USgamer’s review of Modern Warfare, Caty says she found herself wishing Infinity Ward had taken the story in a pulpier direction. Though Modern Warfare depicts a range of morality in all its factions, just as Kurosaki says, Caty found that the story always keeps the player on a certain side of the fence.
“The campaign is sometimes compelling in the gross scenarios it drops you in,” Caty writes, “but it’s always happy to pat you on the back and tell you you’re the good guy in the end. The contrasts don’t work together.”
Read GameSpot’s full interview with Kurosaki here.