A Pizza Well-Tasted

The biggest disappointment I had last night was when I bit into the pizza I’d just pulled out of the oven and discovered that it was delicious.

I was using a new recipe from Peter Reinhart that Robert Ashley linked on his Twitter account a few months back, a recipe that calls itself the best pizza crust recipe ever. Since Robert’s photos always looked delicious, and I’ve been getting a little bored with the modified Alice Waters’ recipe that I usually use, I decided to give the Reinhart crust a try.

From the first steps, it’s a bit trickier to work with. It’s a finicky recipe. The dry ingredients have to be chilled before you start the dough. You have to work it together for about ten minutes, stirring against the dough’s thickening, strengthening gluten strands. The recipe says the dough should be “sticky” and not just “tacky” to the touch.

I got it nice and sticky, then turned it out and divided the dough as instructed. Which led me to my next problem: finding a place to rest the dough overnight.

It has to be rested in the refrigerator, you see, and unfortunately I do not have room in mine to park a large baking sheet full of six dough balls overnight. Between the large pot of rice I had set aside for fried rice later in the week, the large cannister of chicken soup that was lunch on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and the usual assortment of vegetables, five square feet of rack space was simply not available.

My partner swooped in to play Fridge Tetris, and had the ingenious idea of putting the milk on top of the rice inside the pot. This gave us the extra inch of clearance we needed to shut the door. We couldn’t get food or drink from the fridge, but at least the dough had space to rest.

(Truthfully, this was a first-timer’s mistake. There’s no need to make the six pizzas right away. I should have frozen half the dough and put the other half in the fridge. Still, there are a number of ways in which I feel like this reciple makes me serve it, rather than serving me.)

Last night I took the dough from the fridge and patted it into discs about two hours before baking. The dough seemed not to have risen at all, and it was stickier and less consistent than it had been the night before. When it came time to shape the pizzas, the dough promptly crawled up my wrist and forearm while I was trying to toss it. Then the strands snapped and there was a hole in the dough.

You can see how it is translucent on the left side from being too thin.

You can see how it is translucent on the left side from being too thin.

Heavy sighs all around. The dough would roll away from the center, so that the center was always tissue thin while wads of dough curled up around the edges. It also had some crazy springback. The pizzas never got much larger than they had been before being tossed.

I gave up and handled the dough how it wanted to be handled: barely at all. I warned MK that we were probably in for some terrible pizzas, then put the first one in the oven. Plain cheese, to see if this could even work.

By then, I didn’t want it to. I didn’t want this recipe to be good enough to warrant making again, because it was such a pain in the ass compared to my other, hassle free recipes. I wanted it to suck, so that I could run the recipe through the shredder and forget about it.

Sadly, it was delicious. Crisp but not “crackery”, tasty in its own right (I’d happily eat one of these crusts topped with nothing but oil and salt), and pleasantly chewy, it was exactly the kind of dough that suited the kind of pizzas I’m increasingly interested in making: fewer-toppings, more vegetables, better cheeses.

Sliced artichoke hearts on a spread of artichoke and ricotta puree

Sliced artichoke hearts on a spread of artichoke and ricotta puree

In went the artichoke heart on an artichoke-ricotta puree. Followed by pepperoni on the puree, then chicken on the puree, a pineapple and chicken on rosemary tomato sauce, and then a bog-standard pepperoni pizza. All of it was excellent. By the way, a salty puree of artichoke hearts and ricotta cheese is a fantastic subsitute for red sauce, if you’re a bit tired of it.

As we nibbled at our various pizzas, I told MK that the Reinhart recipe had won two more invitations back to my kitchen. If it remains as fussy and annoying as it was this time, it’s leaving the rotation. But if more practice makes this recipe faster and easier for me to prepare, as practice usually does, then this was going to become as much a standby as the recipe I modified from The Art of Simple Food. I just need to nail down the reasons why the dough handles so poorly, and find whether it can be made a bit more user-friendly without sacrificing the texture. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know. In the meantime, I need to reheat some for lunch.

The Real War Will Never Get in the Games

Note: I wrote this one year ago on my old blog. I didn’t know it was Armistice Day until after I published it. Not many people read it, but it still seems like a fitting subject for the day. So here is what I wrote when Call of Duty: World at War was released.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps far earlier than I was willing to admit to myself, the World War II shooter genre started become reprehensible.

I had my moment of clarity yesterday morning when I watched the video of the first five minutes of Call of Duty: World at War, with it’s slick opening cinematic (leaning heavily on the style of the “War Corporatism” antiwar video) and grotesquely cliched in-game cutscene. About the only thing that I can say in its favor is that it at least takes note of the fact that the US embargo against Japan was, from the Japanese point of view, casus belli. Beyond that, I think we may have reached the genre’s nadir.

The game appears to open with a scene from every crappy action movie you’ve ever seen. The villain is torturing and interrogating one of the good guys, in this case a captured US Marine, and the good guy shows his defiance by spitting in his face. This is the thing to do when otherwise powerless, apparently. The villain reacts calmly, takes a drag on his cigarette, then extinguishes it in the Marine’s eyeball. The villain orders another Japanese soldier to execute him using, naturally enough, a sword.

Then Kiefer Sutherland shows up, carrying a Ka-Bar knife and all the baggage of being Jack Bauer in one of the most over-wrought shows in television history. Whoever directed his voice acting decided that Jack Bauer is exactly what this game needed, and there seems to be no trace of the fine character actor fromA Few Good Men and Dark City. All that’s missing from this 24 moment is the Ford Expedition that Jack and the Marines presumably drove to this island.

Now that the player is free, the Marines launch into a standard Call of Duty action sequence, promising to “make ‘em pay for what they’ve done”. The Marines also say “fuck” and variations of the same, coyly demonstrating that the game is hip to what it’s like “in the shit”.

I don’t mean to unfairly single this game out. It’s probably a very good war-themed shooter with glittering production values and sobering bromides about warfare that pop up every time the player is killed, just to show that the game is sensitive to the fact that war is not a game. The Call of Duty series has always been very good at slipping little antiwar messages into its militaristic fortune cookies. The fourth time you die crossing a field, Douglas MacArthur will remind you that it’s fatal to enter a war without the will to win it. The fifth time you die, Barbara Kingsolver is on hand to talk about the inhumanity of man.

This has been bothering me lately, and I’m hard pressed to completely explain why. There were always things about the series that never sat quite right. The quotes are one example, but there was also the annoying way the games were so barefacedly ripping-off Band of Brothers, Enemy at the Gates, and a slew of other World War II films. The games were never about the war, but were instead about movies that were about the war.

Except that the games always had such a stench of horseshit coming off them, far outstripping Hollywood in terms of jingoistic revisionism. The movies at least acknowledged some of the human cost of the war. Not just in terms of the awful damage it inflicted on so many human bodies but also the minds and hearts of those caught up in the maelstrom.

The Call of Duty series, always so careful to keep its ESRB rating, redacted any of the physical cost of war. More insidiously, they whitewashed the monumental cruelty, stupidity, and misery of the war. The troops rather cheerfully went through each mission with their grizzled sergeant character, playfully bitching about their orders, and then celebrated after their victories. War, as the early Call of Duty series liked to portray it, was kind of like a big football practice. And it was all for a good cause.

Where were the fuckups? Erased from gaming’s recounting of the war are all the stupid and pointless wastes of lives that made such a contribution to the war’s final, staggering death toll. Hurtgen Forest, where several divisions of US infantrymen were devoured in a long, bloody, and ultimately meaningless battle for a piece of land with no military value. The wholesale slaughter that occurred along the Siegfried Line after Market Garden failed, and the Allied offensive lurched back to life only to find that the Germans had used their brief reprieve to fortify the border. Anzio? The daylight bombing campaign? Dieppe?

Naturally, games aren’t unique in this regard. Starting with the 50th anniversaries of the war, World War II became a big business and our culture began a very dangerous love affair with one of the greatest catastrophes to ever befall mankind. In retrospect, what a strange spectacle it was to see a nation ostensibly honoring its “Greatest Generation” with a series of increasingly lackluster movies, TV specials, sentimental bestsellers, and finally videogames. And how thoroughly that primed us for the misguided adventurism and empty promises that marked the past several years. The Bush administration may have misled the country into a war, but would the country have been so easily manipulated if it had not spent the previous decade reliving a time when we slew dragons?

What I am sick of is the disingenuousness we see in our military shooters. Hell’s Highway was marketed, on the one hand, as the most historically accurate and respectful World War II FPS ever made. The series had the pedigree to support that claim. On the other hand, the game included a feature that was basically a “fatality” cam, letting gamers revel in the carnage they inflicted. So what we had was a bit of two-faced marketing, where one developer video would talk soberly and respectfully about how serious this game was, and the next was all about “sweet kill” and “check out the gibs”.

I don’t think gamers are burned out on World War II games, but I know that I’m burned out on this particular kind of World War II game. I’m tired of playing games that present a vision of historical reality that I know to be false.

Go read Paul Fussell’s books to understand what I’m talking about. Actually, you only need to read the final chapter of Wartime, “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”. There is a guy who saw the war firsthand, nearly died over in Germany, and who fifty years later was still filled with a palpable sense of rage over the pity of the entire damned thing. He writes about the stupidity of Allied command, the shoddy equipment that most definitely cost lives on the battlefield, the lies that were told to the “home front”, and most of all the Disney-fication of the war.

Read some Kurt Vonnegut, particularly an essay from Armageddon in Retrospect called, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”, in which he talks about Dresden. After annihilating the city, the Allies send bombers over a few days later to drop leaflets explaining why there was a sound tactical reason why the city had to die. Vonnegut explains:

The leaflet should have said: “We hit every blessed church, hospital, school, museum, theatre, your university, the zoo, and every apartment building in town, but we honestly weren’t trying hard to do it. C’est la guerre. So sorry. Besides, saturation bombing is all the rage these days, you know.”

There was tactical significance: stop the railroads. An excellent manoeuvre, no doubt, but the technique was horrible. The planes started kicking high explosives and incendiaries through their bomb-bays at the city limits, and for all the pattern their hits presented, they must have been briefed by a Ouija board.

Tabulate the loss against the gain. Over 100,000 noncombatants and a magnificent city destroyed by bombs dropped wide of the stated objectives: the railroads were knocked out for roughly two days. The Germans counted it the greatest loss of life suffered in any single raid. The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and wilfully executed. The killing of children – “Jerry” children or “Jap” children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us – can never be justified.

The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all clichés, “fortunes of war”, and another: “They asked for it. All they understand is force.”

Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalise the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.

It’s useless to ask that war not be exploited for entertainment purposes and I’ll cop to enjoying good wargames, movies, and books. I don’t mean to be sanctimonious. But I simply cannot handle any more sentimentalizing when it comes to war, especially World War II. It was a nightmare and one from which the world has not fully recovered, and it is crass to see games wilfully over-simplifying and idealizing an event that killed scores of millions of people.

Valve Is Not Your Enemy

Valve and Steam seem to be taking fire from a lot of quarters these days.

Last week, Direct2Drive, GamersGate (digital distributors hate using the space bar), and Impulse announced they would not be selling Modern Warfare 2 so long as it included a mandatory Steam installation in order to activate the game. In effect, you could buy the game from any number of sources, but you could only play it through Valve’s online service.

A few weeks earlier, Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford made a mostly incoherent attack on Valve and Steam, saying that while he trusted Valve, he did not trust Valve. You read that right. Apparently Randy Pitchford, regular guy, trusts Valve but Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox Software and “guy in this industry,” sees a dangerous conflict of interest. Valve is a developer in competition with other developers, but it is also a distributor that markets games from those competing developers.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Pitchford’s stance has more to do with resentment than with actual business conflicts. While Gearbox has enjoyed a lot of success and produced a number of excellent titles (and superb expansions, back when that was their business), it has produced no franchise that is even within shouting distance of the Half-Life series, or the Source-powered juggernauts of Left 4 Dead or Team Fortress 2. More obnoxiously, Valve is sitting on a gold mine with the Steam platform, and its former peers and competitors now rely on Valve to sell their games.

But when Pitchford argues that Valve’s position as a game developer poses a conflict of interest with its role as the owner / operator of Steam, I lose the thread. First, Valve is not in a position where it needs to sweat the competition from other developers. Second, it is still in Valve’s interest to see that other developer’s titles do well on the platform, and to ensure they get a good deal compared to other outlets.

Frankly, as someone who purchased Gearbox’s entire Brothers in Arms series through Steam, I think Pitchford underestimates just how symbiotic his relationship with Valve actually is. When Hell’s Highway stalled at retail amid mediocre reviews and WW2 shooter-fatigue, it was on Steam that the game got a new lease on life through heavy promotion as a featured discount deal. It’s on Steam where a company’s back catalogue stands the best chance of being noticed and purchased by consumers, because Steam is omnipresent on PC gamers’ computers. When you open the program, it notifies you about important deals, some of them on games several years old.

Furthermore, the number of independent developers who have come to Steam’s defense says quite a bit about how Valve treats the people with whom it does business. From generous and straightforward contracts through promotion to prompt payments, Steam offers developers a number of good deals. So what, exactly, is so broken that it needs to be fixed?

I’m similarly confused about what the other digital distributors are up to, because their given reasoning seems a bit disingenuous. My hope is that it’s a publicity move aimed at getting the attention of the PC gamers who have already written off Modern Warfare 2 due to Infinity Ward’s antagonism to the platform where the franchise originated. Even though their objections are completely different, the other services are casting themselves as consumer advocates sticking it to a game that’s already unpopular with many of those consumers. Superficially, it looks like the other distributors are joining PC gamers at the barricades. If those gamers started voting with their dollars and made an effort to support these newfound allies, it would be to the benefit of Direct2Drive, GamersGate, and Impulse.

Still, it’s important to note that these services are boycotting Modern Warfare 2 for one reason only: it forces gamers to use Steam. Infinity Ward and Activision don’t care about this so long as Steam also provides them with good, uncontroversial copy-protection. But the distrbutors resent the hell out of this, because it means that they are being forced to grant Valve access to their own customers. Where you have to actually navigate to and browse around GamersGate’s and D2D’s websites, Steam constantly runs in the background while you are using it, always ready to provide a helpful reminder about a sale. From the other distributors’ point of view, they are being forced to cut their own throats.

From this consumer’s point of view, however, their reasoning is small-minded and not a little hypocritical. For one thing, it was seeing how well Steam worked that I became comfortable enough with digital ownership that I started trying the other services. I heard about Paradox’s anniversary sale on Steam and that led me to the Paradox-owned GamersGate, where there were even more items on sale. I was put off by a lot of negative reports I heard about Direct2Drive back when it launched, but I only recently felt confident enough to buy from them. Prior to Steam, however, I was a die-hard “physical ownership” kind of guy. Steam hasn’t just created Steam customers. It has created digital customers.

More annoying, however, is the self-righteousness of this boycott. From Direct2Drive’s Modern Warfare 2 page:

Thanks for your interest in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 from Direct2Drive.

At Direct2Drive, we believe strongly that when you buy a game from us, you shouldn’t be forced to install and run a 3rd party software client to be able to play the game you purchased. Because COD MW 2 requires you, the consumer, to do that, we aren’t able to offer the game via Direct2Drive at this time.

I strongly believe that as well, Direct2Drive. But I’m not certain you do. Because I find you are still selling Dawn of War II, which requires the odious Games for Windows Live “service” for online play. It will load every time I run the game regardless of whether I’m actually playing online.

I can also buy Grand Theft Auto IV via D2D, despite the fact that that game requires me to install Rockstar Social Club in order to play it. RSC provides, as nearly as I can tell, no real service and is just another way that the developer retains control of its product. I suppose since it is Rockstar it is not really a 3rd-party program, but it is nevertheless astonishingly consumer-unfriendly.

Nor does Impulse seem like it is standing up for the little guy. The problem with Steam, from Impulse’s point of view, is that it got to PC gamers first and is now in the exact position Impulse would like to occupy. The chief difference between Impulse and Steam is that Impulse has never had a product as successful as Half-Life 2 with which to leverage itself. But what is to be expected from a company that routinely brags about its DRM-free approach to publishing while tying its games to an online authentication service / storefront?

As for conflicts of interest, who is kidding who? Impulse is an arm of Stardock, a game developer just like Valve. Direct2Drive is owned by IGN, which is in turn owned by News Corp. You might know IGN as a site that reviews the games that it is also involved in selling. GamersGate was created by Paradox, another developer / publisher.

My worry here is that forces are lining up to try and change the way Valve does business, and I don’t see that consumers stand to gain anything from such changes. Not only are Valve and Steam the devils I know, but I don’t see them as devils of any sort. I have far more reasons to be skeptical when I hear the envious and the ethically compromised taking a stand in the name of integrity and consumer protection.

Ambivalently Ambivalent about Glee

My partner and I were really enjoying Glee until one of us, I don’t remember who, pointed out that it seemed to be a bit misogynist. Now that’s practically all we can see.

We were slow on the uptake because the show seems upbeat. It’s like Star Trek in that major issues are often resolved in the last few minutes of every episode, except that the solution is always, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” It’s an MGM musical for our times, where every character becomes the best version of him or herself the moment the music begins to play. It might be even more uplifting, because between songs these are not Fred Astaires or Judy Garlands. The teachers and students of Glee are the sad lost souls of the Heartland living out Springsteen lyrics while dancing to Broadway melodies.

I love this premise, but Glee’s handling of sexuality and gender leaves a bitter aftertaste. Underneath the charm lurk a bunch of nasty archetypes I hoped TV had outgrown.

Let’s start with Kurt, the gay high school student, because he is the canary in Glee’s coal mine. In the episode where he comes out to his father, we find him re-enacting the “Single Ladies” music video with two girlfriends in his basement. While I get that the show is always eager to find excuses for its characters to bust a move, must the only openly gay boy in the show spend his leisure hours working on choreography?

At the end of the episode, he comes out to his father, who is totally unfazed. He has always known his son is gay, he explains, because when Kurt was three, the only thing he wanted for his birthday was “a pair of sensible heels.”

In a later episode, when there is a girls vs. boys competition in the Glee Club, Kurt assumes he is on the girls’ team. He is incensed that Mr. Schuester directs him back to the boys’ side of the room, and later betrays them to the girls, explaining that his allegiance is still with them.

An episode or so after that, he ends up with a Slushie all over his face. His response is to turn to his girlfriends and say, “I need a facial, STAT!” They all duck into the ladies’ room together.

In addition to the fact that none of these gags are actually funny, they are also indulging in cheap, inaccurate stereotyping. The gay boy considers himself a girl. He loves cross dressing. He just wants to sing and dance with his only friends, the girls. Caring for his delicate skin is the most important task in his life.

One thing that I have never seen with my gay friends is gender confusion. They don’t think, “I like boys, so I’m a girl.” They are men who are interested in other men. They might make jokes about how they are preternaturally good dressers, but they aren’t actually spending hours trying on women’s shoes or exfoliating.

What really pisses me off here is that Glee is trying to pass itself off as a modern show that embraces the values of tolerance and understanding, but then turns around and others the only gay kid in the show. It’s completely backhanded.

It’s the insidiousness of the female characters, however, that’s most disturbing. The show revolves around two love triangles. The first is that of the teacher, Mr. Schuester, who is in a loveless marriage to Terri, while he and Emily, the school guidance counselor, pine for one another. The second is that of Finn, the quarterback and the lead male singer in the Glee Club, who is dating the head cheerleader, Quinn, while he and the best female singer in Glee Club, Rachel, pine for one another.

To recap:

  • Will and Terri = Married.
  • Will and Emily = In Love
  • Finn and Quinn = Dating, expecting a baby
  • Finn and Rachel = In Love

Will and Finn are the good guys of the series, a pair of kind-hearted Lost Boys who have been ensnared by treacherous women and are being kept from the happiness they deserve with the Good Girls. Will’s psychotic, manipulative wife is faking a pregnancy in order to preserve their marriage. Finn’s girlfriend, Quinn, is pregnant and has decided to keep the baby.

Naturally, Quinn is lying to Finn. She’s telling Finn that it’s his baby when it is not. She cheated on him with his best friend. In fact, she and Finn have not even had sex.  He thinks that because he ejaculated while sitting in a hot tub with her, she somehow got pregnant. Finn is too naive and ignorant to know that’s impossible.

(It’s worth mentioning that the friend is absolved of any real wrongdoing here. He goes on being the lovable reprobate who is guilty about what happened with Quinn, but nothing more. Quinn is the betrayer here. He’s just following his horn-dog instincts. This is almost identical to the way Glee creator Ryan Murphy’s other big hit, Nip/Tuck, handled the relationship between Christian Troy and David MacNamara. Christian and David’s friendship trumped any reprehensible thing Christian might do because, hey, you can’t blame a man for screwing.)

Meanwhile, Will’s wife is claiming to be pregnant and is using a small cushion to fake a bulge. Will does not think it’s odd that he hasn’t seen or touched Terri’s stomach in months, and Terri has cut a deal with Quinn to take her baby when it is born. Quinn will go on with her life, and Terri will produce the baby that will save her marriage.

Terri dodges a bullet by using her stupid, cow-like sister to blackmail the OB/GYN into cooperating. Terri’s sister has been cranking out babies, “each one dumber than the last,” and she threatens to sue the doctor and ruin his reputation. The doctor goes along with Terri’s deception.

Notice a pattern here? We have two good, decent men who have been ensnared by a mysterious reproductive system they do not understand, and women who use their uteruses to trap them and ruin their lives. One of the women is aided by her sister, who speaks with a rural accent and craps out kids.

Ah, but if only Finn could get with Rachel and Will could get with Emily! These are the good women of Glee, who are above all defined by their adoration for the show’s male protagonists. Rachel is a sweet, loyal, generous girl who is unpopular despite talent and beauty (welcome to TV high school). Emily, on the other hand, is an awkward guidance counselor with a phobia of being touched or otherwise experiencing contact with another person. Ball of neuroses that she is, however, she finds a horse-whisperer in Will. She, too, is loyal, selfless, and honest.

To summarize the lesson:

  • Bad Women use sex and childbearing to ruin men’s lives.
  • Good Women are loyal and selflessly supportive.

Which leaves one last character to consider: Will’s nemesis Sue, the cheerleading coach.

Sue is unquestionably the strongest, toughest, and funniest female character in the show. The only thing she values is winning, at everything, and right now she sees the Glee Club and its charismatic coach as a threat to her primacy as the only winner in a high school full of losers. Worse, the Glee Club actually threatens her cheerleading team, as it is pulling cheerleaders into its orbit. Cheerleading is no longer the only thing her her girls’ lives. So Sue must destroy Will and his little club, using ever more nefarious and hilarious means.

Unfortunately, Sue is also not a Real Woman.

We know this because she is always wearing a track suit and has her hair cut very short, giving her an androgynous look. She bites out her words like a Lee Marvin character. There is no one and nothing in her life. In contrast to Quinn, who is always in a cheerleading outfit, and Rachel, who is usually in some variant of the Sexy Schoolgirl outfit, Sue stands out as the one sexless character in the show.

For one episode she mellowed, appearing to be on the cusp of turning into a good person. We saw her dancing and laughing with Will. The reason? She had developed a crush. She was suddenly (and unrealistically) in love, and it changed everything. Naturally, about 3/4 of the way through the episode, the relationship collapsed. She caught him with another woman, and the relationship ended. Prior to this, it’s worth noting that she had mistakenly bought a zoot suit for a dance date, not understanding that the men wore the zoot suits.

Immediately thereafter, Sue went back to being a vindictive bitch. A man briefly feminized her, transforming her into a sympathetic character, but when he spurned her she reverted to being the harsh androygne.

My problem with Glee is that it’s a decent show that uses heteronormative stereotypes for cheap laughs and as plot elements. There is not a single character that really cuts against the grain of gender roles, despite all the “quirky oddballs”  in the cast. It’s a show that is so charming, you may not notice that its sexual politics are disgraceful. But they are, and once you spot them, they color every scene and every line of dialogue. The show is still enjoyable, but there’s something rotten at the heart of it that always leaves me uncomfortable as the credits roll.

Videogames and Defeat

My latest article at The Escapist focuses on how videogames handle defeat, and how they often choose not to. I look at a how a few high-profile games have chosen to tried to make war an unequivocally positive gameplay experience. Then I consider the way wargames and sims, despite a reputation for bloodlessness and abstraction, can end up bringing us much closer to the experience.

Since it’s been on my mind so much lately, I use Silent Hunter III as an example of the way an unaffected, straightforward military sim can elicit a tremendously empathetic reaction. I’ll probably explore this idea a bit further here on the blog.

The article is called “The Agony of Defeat”. You can read it here.

Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare: Play :: Pornography: Sex

One thought keeps recurring when I play Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare: “Why even bother?”

Followed by the corollary: “Is this really what people want?”

I finally finished the single-player campaign for the first time. This was an overdue playthrough, certainly, but I could never quite bring myself to buy the game after I tried the demo. My friend Lange gave it to me when I asked to borrow it, saying that Modern Warfare had left him utterly cold. Now I see why.

Imagine how cool this would be if you were actually playing.

Imagine how cool this would be if you were actually playing.

I started to get a bad feeling during the very first mission, as my team boarded a storm-tossed freighter. The scene was evocative, but as my SAS team swept across the deck, I did not feel like I was in control of my character. It felt like if I took my hands off the keyboard and mouse, “Soap” MacTavish would continue to move toward the hatchway below the bridge. The whole thing reminded me of those times when you’re playing split-screen multiplayer and you are looking at the wrong window, thinking you’re in control while watching someone else play.

I don’t remember previous Call of Duties having such a strong sensation of being on a conveyor belt. They were heavily scripted, yes, but I felt like I had some freedom in the space between the trigger points. Now I constantly feel like I’m tugged along against my will. The effect extends to the way the game looks. I always feel crowded and claustrophobic, because all the characters seem to suffer from tunnel vision. Trees, buildings, and other types of cover cut deeply into the level maps. Whether I’m in the Ukrainian countryside or a subterranean missile bunker, I am always fighting in alleys.

The scripting is likewise more in-your-face than almost any shooter I can remember. The game practically revels in your sheer lack of agency. This is what I noticed in the demo, and why I couldn’t quite bring myself to get excited about the thought of the entire game.

Modern Warfare, making sure you know your place from the start

Modern Warfare, making sure you know your place from the start

In the part of the game excerpted for the demo, you and your Marine squad start taking heavy machine gun fire from a tenement house. I took cover behind a car and heard the Lieutenant start yelling something about how we needed to get around these guys. I took one look at the constellation of muzzle flashes and the deafening roar of heavy weapons and thought, Are you out of your fucking mind?

I kept shooting machine gunners and riflemen from my cover position, trying to suppress them enough so I could move, but within a second or two of clearing a window, a new gunman would take over the position. This went on and on, and I had this vivid flashback of a game I had forgotten: Hogan’s Alley, a lightgun game for the NES. Almost twenty years later, Modern Warfare was feeding me the same game mechanic.

Feel free to keep shooting. Or dont. It doesnt matter.

Feel free to keep shooting. Or don't. It doesn't matter.

This sequence turned me into a lost sale, and it repeats throughout the game. At another point I was tasked with destroying some BMPs while fighting off waves of Russian ultranationalist soldiers. I noticed a few streaming out of a hangar and gunned them down with my SAW. Before I could turn away, however, a few more came out of the same hangar. Then a few more after them. Then more. Every two seconds, someone came out, marched into my crosshairs, and joined the growing pile of corpses outside the building. It was like a cross between a clown car and a batting cage, far more Hot Shots Part Deux than 24.

The nail in the coffin, however, is Modern Warfare’s passive-aggressive level design. Time again, I find my progress blocked because I am not going to the magic spot that Infinity Ward has decided is the correct place to fight, or I haven’t identified the correct route through an encounter. Whenever I am in danger of improvising, I can practically hear the game turning into a Woody Allen character. “Are you sure? You’re positive this is the best way to handle this? Because in my opinion, and I say this with all due respect, your plan may be the worst thing conceivable. I just want the record to show that I was not responsible for what you are about to do.”

But even if you try to be an obedient little drone, Modern Warfare won’t make clear what it actually wants. It will demur. “Oh, I don’t know where you should defend from. Anywhere seems like it could work. I don’t want to ruin anything for you. It’s your game, after all, not mine.”

The game has many sequences that behave this way, but I think the quintessential example has to be the last stand beneath the Pripyat Ferris wheel. You set your wounded comrade, Lt. MacMillan, on a ridge where he can command a wide field of fire. Then you get hit by wave upon wave of Russian troops while waiting for exfiltration.

I tried to defend my spotter / team leader, but kept dying while the rescue chopper was about 4 klicks out. Oh, for awhile it was a heroic gunbattle as I gave ground while leaving piles of Russian dead in my wake. I was furiously setting traps, detonating charges, and switching between my rifle and my shotgun. But nothing I did seemed to make a difference.

On my best run, I spent my last few minutes hiding behind a bumper car in the back corner. The Russians had a hard time getting to me, and had a tendency to run right past me into positions where I could easily gun them down. This made me think, “What if I tried holding out behind the bumper car platform?”

This shouldn’t work. It meant abandoning my teammate, but of course he is invulnerable. One gimpy Irishman with a sniper rifle turns out to be tougher to kill than Roland. When we finally get Call of Duty: Easter Rising, Connolly will probably get out of his chair and simply kick the Tommies’ asses.

The Russians should just be able to pin me down, lob a bunch of grenades at me, and maybe send some guys around the flank to kill me. I’d say they should be able to get me from behind as well, but it just so happens that a field of radiation fences off the space behind the bumper cars.

Bumper Car Masada

Bumper Car Masada

So I hid behind the track, running back and forth while dodging grenades and watching Russian troops charge up the ridge that I wasn’t defending. Sometimes they rushed at me, but were confounded by the railings at the edge of the bumper track.

Eventually, the chopper showed up, and I walked back across the ridge, grabbed my invincible cargo, and boarded.

There was nothing convincing about my response to this sequence. Everything I did was suggested by the exploitable level design and mechanics. My teammate couldn’t be killed, so I could leave him alone. The Russians couldn’t outflank me because the designers left an obvious corner in the gameworld, and they were also scripted to attack along a single axis. By moving to the artificial corner behind the bumper cars, I also placed myself perpendicular to their path of attack. The scripting was too rigid to allow them to face me head on, so I was able to mow them down as they rushed past.

My objection to this structure is that it fundamentally breaks the contract I sign when I load up a Call of Duty game. They are supposed to, and often have, made me feel like I am in an old-fashioned war movie. But with Modern Warfare, I feel more like I’m on the set of a war movie, and Infinity Ward is the director, yelling at me to use the blocking and hit my marks.

This just about sums up the experience

This just about sums up the experience

What I’ve seen in COD 4: Modern Warfare and World at War has made me seriously skeptical for the future of this franchise. Regardless of how these games perform commercially, they are feeling increasingly antique after games like Stalker or Far Cry 2. This isn’t to say that every game needs to be an open-worlder (far from it, as the Half-Life series continues to show), but there are more and more games that dazzle me with freedom and possibility. Modern Warfare tries to dazzle me with spectacle, but I can never quite bring myself to forget its shackles.