Before continuing you should know this post is anecdotal and makes no claims I can quantify with data. I'm surmising a few things based on my own observations and conversations with local MW2 players.
My son is playing Modern Warfare 2, and so are a bunch of his friends. My students are playing it too - along with 9+ million other folks around the world. It's likely to be the biggest-selling game of the year.
Because they know I write about games, some of these guys (all male, aged 16-22) talk to me about their experiences and occasionally ask about my impressions. For a time last week, "When will you finish grading our midterms?" was briefly supplanted by "What did you think of Modern Warfare 2?" and I was grateful for the relief.
I've played roughly half of the solo campaign, through "Exodus" in Act II, but I've spent no time with the multiplayer mode. And that, it turns out, makes me a nutjob. Upon hearing this startling revelation one student exclaimed "What, are you insane?" Yes, apparently I am.
My conversations with these students have made me stop and reflect on the distortion field that surrounds those of us who write about games. In the circles I frequent, the "No Russian" sequence in MW2 has been a lightning rod cause célèbre, provoking angry essays, thoughtful essays, kneejerk essays, from all corners. It's the thing we're talking about. Or at least we were. These storms bring a lot of rain, but they pass quickly.
Yet here's the thing: almost nobody cares about it. MW2's campaign mode is irrelevant to most gamers. It doesn't matter. It's a bullet point.
Please don't get me wrong. Those of us who feel invested in the storytelling dimension of games should, by all means, stop and take a careful look at what Infinity Ward has wrought; I'm not scolding anyone or suggesting we're silly for diving into this big vigorous conversation. Given the nature of the provocation, how can we not discuss it?
But we're a tiny sliver of a great big pie, and I think it's worth noting how differently the vast majority of gamers perceive this game and its series. Would you be surprised to learn that the majority of the 15 players I spoke to hadn't even heard of the "No Russian" level? Would you be surprised to learn only 4 had even loaded the single-player mode a week after purchase?
These guys jumped right into multiplayer because that's what this game is all about. MW2 is a humongously popular online competitive shooter that also includes a campaign mode on the disc. The most frequent comment I heard about solo mode? "I hear it's short."
Question: if the game contained no single-player story, how many of them would buy the game anyway? Answer: All of them. "I'm sure I'll play the campaign at some point. It would be cheap of them to not include it," one of them observed. "But this is Call of Duty. It's all about the maps. The campaign is dessert. It's probably tasty, but you can skip it."
I don't play many online shooters because I'm lousy at them. But I'd love to read more solid analysis about how and why this game and its predecessor work such magic with players. We're drawn to writing about narrative games because we understand (or at least we think we do) their structures, and we have a vernacular for discussing them. And, as I mentioned before, this is a thing worth doing.
But I think the distortion field has distanced many of us from the vast majority of players and their perceptions of this game. It's like we're talking about one game, and they're playing another. I'm not sure how to close that gap, but I think it's worth considering that it exists and that we tend to ignore it.