"Remember, no Russian."
Those are the only words, the only directions the player hears on the elevator ride up before Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 asks them to do the unthinkable: step out the doors, raise their gun, and mow down innocent civilians.
Everyone from game journalists, to politicians, to religious leaders had something to say about No Russian when it arrived on the scene in 2009. Some felt the emotions it might engender was an argument for why video games are "art." Others found it "laughably pathetic," or perhaps gamifying tragedy in such a way that players might think terrorism was "all right." The level was censored in countries like Japan and Germany. Publisher Activision removed No Russian from the Russian version of the game entirely.
But what was the point of No Russian to begin with? Where did this level come from, and what were the developers trying to say, allowing players to orchestrate an act of mass violence? And how has the game industry's thoughts on the level changed over the past ten years? We reached out to critics, academics, game writers, and members of Modern Warfare 2's development team to ask about the legacy of No Russian a decade removed from launch.
If there's one takeaway, it's that no one is quite sure how to feel about No Russian anymore.
The following feature contains explicit descriptions of violence and screenshots that some readers may find uncomfortable.
To understand where No Russian came from, you have to understand a different Call of Duty mission: "Death From Above," from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Death From Above puts players in the cockpit of an AC-130 gunship, as its pilot and crew provide air support for ground troops heading to their extraction point. The level's perspective shifts from the series' typical first-person perspective to that of the plane's onboard camera, giving players an infrared, gray and white perspective of the level below as they target and kill enemies with a variety of guns and bombs, all while the crew casually chitchats about the people they're killing. It's a chilling reminder of the distance people put between themselves and their actions in war.
According to Jesse Stern, the writer of Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2, Death From Above was made to evoke the real-world footage you can find on the internet from AC-130 onboard cameras.
When it came time to develop a follow up to Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward co-founder Jason West wanted to do another level like Death From Above, but with one major difference, Stern recalls. "I think the initial pitch of it was 'What if we did AC-130 in a populated area,'" he says. "We were [imagining] a lot of horror movie scenarios and World War 3 scenarios of 'What would have to happen for that type of power to be unleashed in a city.'"
The team landed on Moscow for the level's setting, originally pitching ideas for the player to pilot an AC-130 over the Russian capitol as a zombie-like outbreak ravaged the city. The goal would've been to contain the virus to Moscow, Stern explains, having the player blow up bridges and tunnels to isolate the citizenry there. "And then there was, of course, in that conversation, 'Well, you gotta blow up the airport,'" he says.
Eventually, the team decided they didn't, as Stern puts it, want to "make a zombie game." It would be dehumanizing, he says, and Infinity Ward ultimately chose not to do another AC-130 mission in Modern Warfare 2. "The only part that kind of stuck around [...] was this prospect of killing civilians in a Russian airport," he says. "That stuck around as just, 'What does that look like?' You know, this was not that long after [9/11], so we all had pretty intense fears around air travel."
And like that, the seeds of No Russian were planted.
Asking players to take part in a mass shooting, Stern says, was a response to the way Americans talked about terrorists post-September 11. It was dehumanizing, he says, a way to put a gap between ourselves and the "monsters" who commit these acts. "We wanted to bridge that gap a little bit and say, 'Let's put you in some place you never thought you could go,'" he explains. "'Let's put you in some place'—which is what video games do in a lot of ways, as opposed to the fantasy element or the wish-fulfillment element—'let's put you someplace that you can't even imagine being.'"
Former Call of Duty designer Mohammad Alavi explains No Russian a little differently. For him, the level mainly came down to selling how bad the game's antagonist was. "For that level we were trying to do three things," Alavi told fellow game developer Matthew Seiji Burns in 2012. "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. 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 declined USgamer's interview request for this article.)
Art lead on the project Joel Emslie, speaking to Game Informer in 2019, says No Russian "polarized" developers at Infinity Ward. Some at the studio thought No Russian should be dialed back. Some thought it should be played through the eyes of a security guard. There were others who were happy with the its direction. According to Emslie, his wife was actually a large influence on the level of violence in the level, suggesting it should be presented realistically and graphically.
"My wife looked at it and she's all like, 'Where's all the blood and guts?' and I'm like, 'We didn't need to do it,'" he told Game Informer. "She called me out. She calls me on my bullshit. It's pretty funny. She looks at things in a different lens. She's a lawyer. She doesn't mess around, but she's a good gut check on stuff."
Infinity Ward and Activision would hint at No Russian in trailers leading up to Modern Warfare 2's release, showing the terrorists shooting off screen in one and playing the level's audio in another. Then it leaked online, forcing Activision to verify and explain the mission a few weeks before launch.
"The scene establishes the depth of evil and the cold-bloodedness of a rogue Russian villain and his unit," Activision said in a statement at the time. "By establishing that evil, it adds to the urgency of the player's mission to stop them."
Players would have the option of skipping the scene entirely, Activision continued in its statement, adding there would be two checkpoints in Modern Warfare 2 advising players they may find No Russian disturbing.
The floodgates were open, and people were free to take the scene out of context and form their opinions on it. The reactions were messy.
An Adult Audience
When No Russian leaked, some people wanted to give the level the benefit of the doubt and see the mission within the context of the rest of the game. Others made their minds up about the level and game relatively quickly.
"The product wasn't out there, it's a tough one to defend for those who haven't seen it. My gut was this has a fair explanation," Adam Sessler, former video game personality and critic for G4's television show X-Play, says. "Obviously it would be very hard to defend something that wasn't actually out there."
Walt Williams, writer of games like Spec Ops: The Line and Star Wars Battlefront 2 had a different reaction to No Russian. "I remember the story breaking, and I remember watching the video of it, and just kinda being like, 'Really? Really?' To both things," Williams says. "One, there was huge backlash and hand wringing over it, but also just [over] the fact that it existed. I had a lot of feelings on it at the time, most of which boiled down to none of this seems necessary."
The reaction to No Russian stretched far beyond the game industry and press; the world didn't seem to know what to do with this level, and a lot of feelings boiled down to it being unnecessary and confusing. For one, No Russian's entire set-up makes no sense. Even if it was an attack orchestrated by Russian ultranationalists on their own soil to pin the attack on the United States and spark World War 3, it stands as a pretty weak "truther" set up. Instead, players are forced to suspend belief and buy that this figurehead of one of the world's most powerful nations can kill hundreds of civilians in plain sight and no one will identify him because he spoke "no Russian."
Narrative inconsistencies aside, most people simply didn't understand why the level existed in the first place. There was, of course, the same moral outrage from evangelicals and conservative groups over video game violence whenever they need a scapegoat when faced with real-world issues surrounding guns and violence. But even for intelligent and rational people, No Russian's inclusion had trouble being justified in the eyes of its critics. The fact that the level was skippable only exacerbated that fact, as it seemed to undermine any message the game was trying to convey.
"It was weird, the idea of skipping it," Stern says. "That doesn't bother me, like, 'Oh my God, that's some crazy censorship.' I didn't think about that. More than anything, I was like, 'Who's going to do that? Who's going to skip a thing not knowing what's in it?' I guess there's some parental controls, but what parents are letting a kid play the game to begin with? Like, you know going into this game it's a hardcore war shooter."
According to Alavi, speaking to PC Gamer in 2016, the decision to make the level skippable came from the game's playtesting sessions. When an enlisted service member refused to play No Russian during playtests, Alavi said Infinity Ward added the option to skip because the developer "didn't want anyone interested in the rest of the game to be blocked by something they found morally wrong."
In Williams' opinion, including something like No Russian in the beginning of the game, yet giving players the option to skip it, makes the whole thing not necessary to the overall experience. If a developer is going to put something in a game on the level of No Russian, it has to be necessary to the experience you're creating, Williams says.
"Outside of that, all you're doing is making shitty pulp," he continues. "You're making a grindhouse movie, and you're just trying to get the shock value of it. If it's not necessary, it's just shock. And if it's just shock, then you're wasting everyone's time. It's faux transgressions, where you get the appeal, and you get the press of being [like], 'Oh my God, can you believe they did that?' But you didn't actually really do it; you did it kind of half-assed. And, you know, in a year you're still going to have your zombie expansion, you're still going to sell this game to 13-year-old kids, because that's your real market. You have not made a mature piece of art for an adult audience."
When Modern Warfare 2 was released, we were a lot closer to September 11 than we are now; Americans were still reeling from the attacks on the World Trade Centers, the War On Terrorism still fresh in our minds and on TV. For some, No Russian seemed to be a critique of the nation's paranoia and xenophobia following 9/11.
"At that point, there was deep, deep cynicism about the national security apparatus—what we had done in Iraq, obviously Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, things like that," Sessler says. "It's really playing off of that cynicism, and obviously this deep, deep cynicism that a military establishment, rogue or otherwise, would do something that cuts right to this core of sensitivity of something like 9/11 all for gain, perpetuating war, and causing conflict."
But that was then. In 2019, a level about gunning down civilians in a public space doesn't carry the same post-September 11 message it did a decade ago. No Russian doesn't so much speak to the fears Americans once had about air travel or foreign threats anymore. Today it more feels like a mirror to the mass shootings that plague our country at unsettling regularity.
Willing to Accept
I played Modern Warfare 2 for the first time in preparation for this feature. I'd seen No Russian before, but I'd never been in control of the mission. Despite knowing it was coming, knowing what was going to happen, what I'd be asked to do, I found it incredibly difficult to play. It's a gruesome, horrific level. In that sense, if the objective was to shock or disgust the player, Infinity Ward did an impeccable job.
"I hope it still shocks people," Stern says. "I hope it still elicits an emotional response. I guess if you wanna know the truth about it, I hope we don't get numb to it."
However, today every conversation about No Russian has to be recontextualized through the lens of the United States' mass shooting epidemic. "I think that probably what No Russian does more than anything else is it provides this historical moment when the game designers could really push the proverbial envelope," Matthew Thomas Payne, associate professor of media studies at Notre Dame and the author of Playing War: Military Video Games After 9/11, tells USG. "They could figure out, 'What will be okay in a popular commercial landscape? How far can we push simulating violence against civilians?'"
In Payne's opinion, No Russian is important for retrospectively teaching us something about ourselves. What the level shows, he says, is that on "some level," back then, the gaming public was okay with something like No Russian. "If only by measured by sales," Payne says, "which is an imperfect measure to be sure, but that game did really well. At the very least, you could say the No Russian level did not negatively [...] affect sales."
In January 2010, Activision announced Modern Warfare 2 had made more than $1 billion in sales worldwide. No Russian, despite its controversies, didn't stop the Call of Duty train. The game has since gone on to be considered a classic first person shooter and one of the best Call of Duty games of all time.
Ten years on, people we talked to struggle to nail down exactly what the legacy of No Russian is. For some, like Sessler, it's long since faded from their memory, getting lost among every other video game controversy. For others, it's an example of the frivolity of games.
"If anything, I think the legacy is that you can do something like that and make it not necessary and absolutely get away with it," Williams says. "I think the biggest legacy is that you can do something like that in that kind of franchise and it doesn't really matter. [...] Like, something like that should've mattered for some reason. Whatever the reason was, it should have more of a legacy than it did."
Which leaves one last question—what would happen if No Russian were released today? Maybe it'd be a different story, as our opinions on violence in media continue to evolve, as a level like that mirrors what's actually happening in our backyards. Maybe there'd be a bigger backlash that affects the reception and sales. As Infinity Ward plans to tackle similarly troubling moments in its new Modern Warfare reboot, it's a fair question to consider.
"It seems like Activision wants to go back to that," Payne says, "but it's tough because there's not an appetite for something like that, I don't think. Certainly not in the states for seeing public displays of gunplay like that. Certainly not on unsuspecting civians."
"I'll be frank, given what happened over the last weekend, I think you would have some real problems on your hands putting that out on the market [today]," Sessler adds, referencing the El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio mass shootings in August. "When these incidents happen, the consumption of entertainment violence, I think across the board, becomes a little unsettling or not desirable. I wouldn't say the problems would hit the game just because it was a game—it should be across the board—but it would sure as hell be a lightning rod."
"Realism is always defined by those things that we're willing to accept or not," Payne says. "We were willing to accept No Russian in 2009. I don't think we're willing to accept No Russian 10 years later."