Modern Warfare 2's Jesse Stern

On how he came to Call of Duty and what makes it tick.

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?

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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.

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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.

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