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No Russian

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No Russian
A screenshot taken from the level. The player is holding a gun and is aiming it at a large group of civilians. Bullets can be seen coming from other gunmen offscreen.
In "No Russian", the player can (but does not have to) shoot civilians in an airport.
First appearanceCall of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)
Last appearanceCall of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Campaign Remastered (2020)
Created byMohammad Alavi
GenreFirst-person shooter
Information
LocationZakhaev International Airport, Moscow
Notable charactersJoseph Allen (aka Alexei Borodin), Vladimir Makarov

"No Russian" is a controversial mission in the 2009 video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In the level, the player can participate in a mass shooting at a Russian airport. "No Russian" is noticeably more graphic than any other level in the game. The player is not forced to shoot anyone, however (until exiting the airport where the player is forced to shoot FSB agents in order to complete the mission), and may skip the level altogether without penalty if they are uncomfortable with its content. The plot of "No Russian" revolves around undercover CIA agent Joseph Allen, who attempts to gain the trust of a Russian terrorist named Vladimir Makarov.

Game designer Mohammad Alavi was heavily involved in the level's development. Alavi wanted the level to serve as a catalyst for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's plot, and create an emotional connection between the player and Makarov. Much of the level's development was spent designing the massacre portion, which Alavi did not want to feel too contrived or traumatic. Members of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's development team were polarized in their opinions of the level, and several game testers expressed disapproval, including one game tester who refused to play the level at all.

"No Russian" sparked significant controversy for letting players partake in a terrorist attack, and it became a popular subject in both gaming publications and major news publications. Journalists described the level's plot as illogical and derided the ability to skip the level. Due to the level's graphic content, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was subject to censorship in international versions of the game, including its entire removal from Russian versions. Journalists have since discussed the importance of "No Russian" to the video game industry.

Level content[edit]

"No Russian" is the fourth level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's single-player mode.[1] In the level, the player controls Joseph Allen, a Private first class Army Ranger turned undercover CIA agent under the alias "Alexei Borodin" tasked by his commanding officer General Shepherd with infiltrating and gaining the trust of a Russian terrorist group led by Vladimir Makarov.[2][3] In order to do this, he must participate in a mass shooting at Zakhaev International Airport in Moscow.[4] "No Russian" begins with the player exiting an elevator with Makarov (who says "Remember, no Russian" – an instruction to only speak English in order to not give themselves away as Russians) and three other gunmen (Viktor, Lev, and Kiril), who proceed to shoot at a large group of civilians at an airport security checkpoint.[5][3] The player then accompanies the gunmen as they walk through the airport killing any remaining civilians.[3] "No Russian" is noticeably more graphic than any other level in the game—civilians' screams can be heard throughout and the crawling injured leave blood trails, perch themselves on various stands whilst bleeding out, and getting dragged away by other civilians.[6][7][8]

The player is not forced to shoot any civilians, however, and may instead walk through the airport as the massacre unfolds.[9] The game does not explicitly encourage the player to shoot civilians, and the gunmen do not react if the player does not shoot.[10] The player can shoot the gunmen, but they will retaliate, causing the player to fail the mission and restart at the last checkpoint.[10] The player can stay behind as Makarov and the gunmen continue the shooting, but they will retaliate after a short period of time and the player is forced to start at the latest checkpoint. Once the player exits the airport, they enter a firefight with FSB agents, some of whom have riot shields.[1] The agents must be killed in order to complete the level.[11] At the end of the level, Makarov kills Alexei (Allen) with a single shot at point-blank in the chest with a Desert Eagle as the surviving group members get into a getaway van with two other associates of Makarov (Anatoly and Robot, the getaway driver), and reveals that he knew of Alexei's (Allen's) true identity; his goal was for Russian officials to discover that one of the assailants was an American, and for Russia to declare war on the United States.[3] The mission ends with the getaway van driving away and FSB agents finding Allen as he bleeds out. The screen fades to black as the player hears Makarov state, "The American thought he could deceive us. When they find that body... all of Russia will cry for war."[12] Before the single-player mode begins, a warning message notifies the player of the option to skip the level should they find its content "disturbing or offensive"; if the player chooses to bypass the level, they do not miss any achievements and their progress in the game is not penalized.[9]

Development[edit]

The airport setting for "No Russian" was inspired by air travel safety concerns following the September 11 attacks.

"No Russian" was conceived early in the development of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.[13] The development team at Infinity Ward initially wanted to make a level where the player would pilot a Lockheed AC-130 and kill zombies in Moscow.[14] When the fantasy elements were scrapped, the development team shifted their focus to a level centered around a terrorist attack at a Moscow airport, which was influenced by air travel safety concerns following the September 11 attacks.[14] Lead writer Jesse Stern believes people have an innate desire to experience mass shootings firsthand, and says that this belief inspired the idea of having the player control a terrorist.[13] Stern cited documentaries about the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the Columbine High School massacre as evidence, and said: "These are human beings who perpetrate these acts, so you don't really want to turn a blind eye to it. You want to take it apart and figure out how that happened and what, if anything, can be done to prevent it. Ultimately, our intention was to put you as close as possible to atrocity."[13]

Game designer Mohammad Alavi was heavily involved in the level's development, from programming the artificial intelligence to directing the motion capture used for the character animations.[15] Alavi's intentions while working on "No Russian" differed from Stern's, as he simply wanted the level to serve as a catalyst for the game's narrative.[14] In a 2012 interview, Alavi said he had three goals while working on "No Russian": "Sell why Russia would attack the U.S., make the player have an emotional connection to the bad guy Makarov, and do that in a memorable and engaging way."[16] Alavi drew inspiration from news articles and films, and did not interview victims of real terrorist attacks.[15]

Much of the level's development constituted designing the massacre.[15] In the first iteration of "No Russian", the massacre ended once the group of civilians were killed outside the elevator, which then transitioned into a firefight. Alavi felt that having an emotional scene abruptly shift into a firefight was "gimmicky". He altered the level to prolong the massacre.[16] He also removed scenes with children or families hugging each other to reduce player trauma.[15] "No Russian" initially featured a limited amount of gore, a decision that was changed when the wife of lead artist Joel Emsile questioned the authenticity of such a level without blood.[17] Due to the level's emotionally charged set piece, some of the voice actors became tearful while reciting their lines.[18]

Some members of Infinity Ward strongly opposed the level's content, while some members suggested the player should control a security guard instead of a terrorist.[17] According to Emslie, "No Russian polarized this studio".[17] Alavi was not aware of any pushback from Activision, the game's publisher, about the level, but did note that game testers elicited a variety of reactions.[15] Many were initially angry and confused at the level's content, but eventually settled down and began shooting at the civilians.[13] One tester, who at the time was enlisted in the United States Armed Forces, refused to play the level at all but was willing to play the rest of the game. This led to the implementation of the skip feature, as Alavi did not want the player to be punished for not doing what they felt was morally wrong.[15]

Initial reception[edit]

Prior to the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, video footage from "No Russian" was illegally leaked onto the Internet. Activision quickly confirmed the level's existence and clarified its context within the game.[19] In an email statement, Activision wrote how the level was "not representative of the overall gameplay experience in Modern Warfare 2". The video was a popular story in both gaming publications and major news publications, including the Associated Press and The Guardian.[19][20] Journalists attributed the story's widespread exposure to the series' cultural significance.[19][21]

The leaked footage divided video game journalists.[14] The Daily Telegraph's Tom Hoggins felt that while he could not properly judge the level without having played it, he still questioned whether Infinity Ward had approached the level from the wrong direction by letting the player use grenades to "treat these civilians as human bowling pins".[22] Writing for The Guardian, Keith Stuart criticized the skip feature, describing it as a "cop-out" for a level that the developer intended players to experience.[20] Jim Sterling of Destructoid was more positive, as they thought that it was a statement that video games could discuss controversial topics, which they felt that many developers would often shy away from. They felt if "No Russian" was able to make players question whether the deaths of innocent civilians were justifiable, then video games could finally be considered an art form.[23]

While Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 received critical acclaim at its release,[24] journalists heavily criticized the content of "No Russian". Marc Cieslak of BBC News was saddened by the level, as he felt it disproved his theory that the video game industry had "grown-up".[25] Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Kieron Gillen chastised the level for failing to live up to expectations. He found the plot to be illogical, criticized the skip feature for rendering an artistic statement as "laughably pathetic", and ultimately summarized the level as "dumb shock".[11] Writing for PC World, Matt Peckham questioned why the gunmen would not care if the player did not shoot, and felt that not informing the player of what was about to happen until the last possible moment was "creating a kind of plausible emotional deniability by removing all the dramatic impetus that ought to surround it".[10] Several prominent British religious leaders condemned "No Russian": Alexander Goldberg of the London Jewish Forum was worried that children would play the level; Fazan Mohammed of the British Muslim Forum described the level as an intimate experience of enacting terrorism; and Stephen Lowe, the retired Bishop of Hulme, felt that the level was "sickening".[26]

International censorship and game ratings[edit]

Due to the graphic content featured in "No Russian", some international versions of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 were subject to censorship.[14] Activision removed the level entirely from Russian versions of the game, a decision that was made based on the country's lack of a formal rating system for games.[27] According to Activision: "Russia does not have a formal ratings entity. As a result, we chose to block the scene after seeking the advice of local counsel".[27] Some journalists erroneously reported Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had been banned or recalled in Russia.[28][29] In Japanese and German versions of the game, the level was edited so that the player would be given a game over screen if they killed any civilians.[30] The Japanese version was criticized by some players for changing Makarov's opening line, "Remember, no Russian", to "Kill them; they are Russians".[31]

Uncensored versions of the game were given a high content rating, such as an M rating by the ESRB in North America, and an 18 certificate by the BBFC in the UK.[6] Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was the first game in the series to receive an 18 certificate, which the BBFC noted was specifically due to "No Russian".[32][33] In their game summary, the BBFC wrote: "The evident brutality in this mission does carry a focus on the 'infliction of pain or injury' which, along with the disturbing nature of the scenario it sets up, was felt to be more appropriately placed at the adult category."[32] British Labour Party politician Keith Vaz was "absolutely shocked" by the content of "No Russian", and questioned whether sales of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 should be halted in accordance with the Byron Review.[34][35] Vaz raised his concerns in the House of Commons, although this had no effect on game sales.[33]

In Australia, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was rated MA15+ by the Australian Classification Board (ACB).[36] When the video footage of "No Russian" was leaked, the Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM) lobbied for a rating reclassification. ACCM president Jane Roberts said: "The consequences of terrorism are just abhorrent in our community and yet here we are with a product that's meant to be passed off as a leisure time activity, actually promoting what most world leaders speak out publicly against."[36] At the time, an MA15+ was the highest rating a video game could receive, and a potentially higher rating would effectively ban sales of the game.[36] Many Australian gaming publications called for the implementation of an R18+ rating, which was opposed by Attorney-General of South Australia Michael Atkinson, who felt that "No Russian" let players be "virtual terrorists".[37] He sought to appeal the rating and have the game banned, although the ACB never received correspondence from Atkinson.[38]

Retrospective commentary[edit]

In 2012, Laura Parker of GameSpot discussed how "No Russian" was a watershed moment for the video game industry. She felt that the level raised the question of whether or not it was acceptable to discuss human suffering in video games, and if their status as entertainment products prevented them from doing so. She also commented that if more developers were willing to take risks and include controversial material, then video games would finally receive cultural recognition.[39] One game that included controversial material was Spec Ops: The Line (2012). During one scene, the player comes across a squadmate who had been lynched by a mob, and the player has the option to either kill the civilians or scare them away with warning shots. Walt Williams, the lead writer for Spec Ops: The Line, remarked that the development team wanted to make the scene feel organic, and explicitly sought to avoid the "clumsiness" of "No Russian".[40]

In his book, Playing War: Military Video Games After 9/11, Matthew Payne analyzed three controversial levels from the Call of Duty series, including "No Russian". He suggested that Allen's death emphasized the militainment theme of the soldier who sacrifices themselves for the greater good and that the level rationalizes morally suspect operations as long as they serve under the guise of national security.[41] Payne also commented that while "No Russian" could be seen as a realistic depiction of war when compared to contemporary representations, it could only be viewed in the context of the story, and thus removes any potential of having the player reexamine the precepts of modern warfare.[42] Following the November 2015 Paris attacks, Robert Rath of Zam.com replayed "No Russian" and examined how the level mirrored real-life terrorist attacks. Rath felt that while the plot was absurd, the attack featured in the level was realistic and that it could teach players that terrorist attacks often occur at soft targets.[43]

"No Russian" has been linked to some real premeditated attacks.[44][45] Following the 2011 Domodedovo International Airport bombing, the Russian state-owned television network RT broadcast a report that juxtaposed security camera footage of the attack with gameplay footage from "No Russian". The reporter stated that the level was reminiscent of the bombing, and quoted Fox News analyst Walid Phares as saying terrorists could be using video games as training tools.[44] In 2013, a student from Albany, Oregon, was detained by police for plotting to attack his high school with explosives and firearms. Notebooks found by police detailed how the student planned to use napalm grenades and have the theme song from "No Russian" play in the background.[45] The perpetrator of the 2011 Norway attacks, Anders Behring Breivik, called Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as a "training-simulation", and some journalists commented on a potential link between the attacks and "No Russian". The level was not explicitly referenced in Breivik's manifesto however, and media scholar Gareth Schott argues journalists ignored the majority of the manifesto and instead used video games as a scapegoat.[46]

Legacy[edit]

"No Russian" reappears in the game's sequel, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2011), during a flashback scene. In one mission, the playable character, Yuri, reveals to Captain Price that he was originally an aide to Makarov. He was originally part of the group assaulting the airport in "No Russian", but since Makarov was aware of his betrayal of the group, he wounded Yuri with a shot to the chest at point blank with a Desert Eagle and left him for dead. He survives and attempts to stop the massacre by crawling into an elevator and picking up a Walther P99 off a fallen security guard, and firing at the gunmen. He eventually collapses, having missed every shot, succumbing to the pain and blood loss.[47][48] He reveals that he was found by security personnel and fell unconscious shortly after receiving emergency medical attention.

The level was remastered for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Campaign Remastered (2020), with no significant changes outside of graphical improvements.[49][50] An easter egg was included in the remastered mission which shows Yuri attempting to stop the massacre before collapsing, from Joseph Allen's perspective, referencing the flashback scene from Modern Warfare 3.[48] The player can shoot Yuri before or after he collapses, but it will count as friendly-fire, and the player will have to start at a previous checkpoint. The game, available only on digital services, was not made available in Russia; while Activision did not specify a reason for this, journalists speculated it was due to the "No Russian" inclusion.[51]

References[edit]

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