Modern Warfare 2 writer Jesse Stern made headlines earlier this month when he spoke about the background to the infamous "No Russian" level in Infinity Ward's latest blockbusting first-person shooter. But who is Jesse Stern, and how did he get involved in Call of Duty in the first place? Friend-of-Eurogamer John Gaudiosi tracked him down.
Eurogamer: What games did you play growing up?
Jesse Stern: Let's see. I was pretty much a videogame junkie I guess. My first console was the Atari 400. I played a lot of Missile Command and Pac-Man and Centipede. I had a Nintendo and was a Super Mario Bros. junkie. I played Zelda and all that stuff. And then I think I probably peaked out with GoldenEye on the N64. I think [that's] as far as games that made an impression. I think GoldenEye was the gold standard and once I finally managed to pull myself away from GoldenEye I found I had a lot more time to devote to becoming a writer. My career seemed to take off a bit when I quit playing videogames.
Eurogamer: What are your thoughts on how far videogames have come?
Jesse Stern: When I first worked with Infinity Ward on Call of Duty 4, I had absolutely nothing to draw upon. They were talking about all these games that were contemporary games that I hadn't played at all so I had to get re-educated. I couldn't believe what I had missed in maybe four years when I put down the controller. I think it's just incredible. I think it's a completely modern art form. It's pretty amazing.
Eurogamer: Were you at least familiar with the Call of Duty franchise?
Jesse Stern: I had heard of it but I had never played it until I had one of my agents give me a copy of Call of Duty 2, which I think had been out a little while already, and said, "Here, try this." He threw me Call of Duty 2 and The Sims and I didn't have a PC. I had a PS2, so I played Call of Duty 2 [presumably Big Red One - Ed] and thought it was pretty amazing.
It was terrifying to me. I thought it was really scary and I was playing with a friend of mine and we'd take turns doing the single-player campaign with who's looking out and yelling. There was a guy on your right and a guy on your left, go over there and do that. That's how I always played Resident Evil in college. My buddy would run the controller and I would yell at him, so I kind of liked the collaborative experience of it. It made me so tense and I like the exhilaration and the feeling. It gets your heart pounding.
So I called up my agent and they ended up setting up a meeting. They were in the midst of getting Call of Duty 4 going and had an outline and an idea of what the story was and had already started building it. There was some debate about how to proceed, which direction with the story, and I guess they brought me in to kind of break the tie.
I said, "Here's what I'd do. I'd take this out and move it over here and I'd move this over there and I think you need one more level over here," and I pitched them a thing and wrote up about a three-page treatment and then I left and didn't hear anything from them. About four months later I get a call saying we got an offer for you and I guess they were ready for me.
So I came in and started working with those guys about halfway through Call of Duty 4, which was interesting because that story and the way that gameplay unfolded changed a lot. We were still figuring out a lot of things. We were testing and experimenting and there were things in the narrative of that game that I think we were really going out on a limb.
There are flashbacks in there and your player gets killed and there's nothing you can do about it. You get shot in the face in the opening title sequence. A bomb goes off. There's an entire level where all you do is die. There are things in that videogame that, when I was growing up, I wouldn't have known what people were talking about and they said that's how it works.
Eurogamer: Why do you think Modern Warfare has connected with so many gamers around the world?
Jesse Stern: I wish I knew. I wish I was responsible for more of it. I think a hell of a lot of it has to do with that team of people over there at Infinity Ward. I think they're just incredibly talented, gifted, and work harder than anyone I've ever been associated with. They work around the clock for two years getting these games ready to go.
I think some of it can be attributed to a very solid, very strong, very entertaining single-player campaign, but I think the bulk of it is really they made the best multiplayer experience that there is. Single-player offers you a chance to get into the world and into the characters and connect with them and feel related to them and really ground all the world, the levels, and the weapons and the missions that are presented to you.
But then that multiplayer is incredible. It's incredibly detailed. The gameplay is phenomenal and I've just recently gotten addicted to it myself. The way it's designed it keeps rewarding you for playing it. It just keeps improving. So I would say it's a combination of appealing to anything that anybody wants to play in a videogame. They're gonna find it there. They'll find it's good single-player. They'll find it good multiplayer online.
There are some games I've picked up recently and if you want to play multiplayer in the same room with a buddy of yours, it's almost impossible. I love that this game has split-screen. Infinity Ward is all about giving people what it is they're looking for in a videogame and trying to think of the things that people don't know how to ask for yet and give them that too.
Eurogamer: How have you seen Hollywood's acceptance of videogames evolve over the years?
Jesse Stern: Well, I hadn't until this last week, in all honesty. My only previous experience with it is I've had a few friends who've written some crossover games and titles that are based on movies or TV shows. And I've had a few conversations with people who've worked for LucasArts or some of these other companies that use WGA writers.
This, I think, is something of a turning point in Modern Warfare 2, because I've gotten more calls and letters and emails the past week from people I've worked with in television and features who seem more excited by this videogame than anything else they've experienced all year.
I think at this point, Hollywood is pretty much obligated to stand up and take notice that videogames are here to stay. It's not just entertainment but narrative, storytelling.
Eurogamer: What are your thoughts on games as the new comics for movie adaptations?
Jesse Stern: I grew up a giant comic book fan and a lot of those titles I was always just chomping up, waiting to see them happen on screen. And I never really thought I'd get to see the day where there was X-Men movies and Iron Man movies and all the Marvel comics I grew up with and I love that. I think that they've done a great job with most of them.
I think the success rate with adapting videogames in the past has not been nearly as high, but obviously the people know that these are commodities. People spend an awful lot of time in these worlds and now they get really tied to these characters. I wouldn't be surprised to see all the videogames start coming to the big screen in the next few years. They're licensing boardgames right now, so it makes a lot of sense that videogames would follow.
I don't know that there's one that I'm dreaming of seeing other than Call of Duty.