Critical IntelThe Medal of Honor CurseCritical Intel - RSS 2.0
Though Spielberg sold DreamWorks Interactive to EA shortly after Medal of Honor's release, the series continued its homage to Private Ryan in each subsequent game. Despite the name change to EA Los Angeles, DreamWorks DNA was still in the studio's blood, and the first game developed under the EA name, Medal of Honor: Frontline, was essentially a mishmash adaptation of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, with a side dish of A Bridge Too Far on the side. When twenty-two members of the Medal of Honor: Allied Assault team left to found Infinity Ward, their brash new Medal of Honor competitor, Call of Duty, took inspiration from what had by then become the standard visual language of World War II films and games: dirt brown, concrete grey, and olive drab all the way to the horizon. Infinity Ward even upped the ante by swiping more elements from Ryan, like the shell shock and tinnitus effects that occur whenever the player survives an explosion. The aesthetic became so pervasive that even franchise installments that dealt with the Pacific War, like Medal of Honor: Rising Sun and Call of Duty: World at War contained fairly anemic greens and blues, which is strange for games set largely on tropical islands. Of the major WWII shooters, it seems only the Battlefield games were willing to add a bit of vibrancy to their Pacific maps.
Then, when shooters went modern and "realism" became the watchword, Spielberg's Frankenstein aesthetic marched on, though not because it looked good or made sense - after all, why would you make a game set in the modern day that looks like antique film? - but because the style had evolved into a signifier of authenticity. Spielberg's attempt to break down the Technicolor war myths of old Hollywood has become the new Hollywood myth, one that confuses ugliness with veracity, and suggests that anything drab and gritty must therefore be true. Unfortunately, the overuse of this visual style doesn't make games look true, it makes them look boring.
The tragedy of the grey-brown palate is that it doesn't reflect reality. Speaking as someone who grew up in Hawaii and has hiked World War II battlefields around the Pacific, I can tell you for a fact that Saipan isn't a dim jungle under a faded denim sky. Pearl Harbor doesn't have grey water capped with red-shot clouds. The men who hit the beaches at Normandy and Guadalcanal didn't see the battle through an antique camera lens, they saw the horror and, yes, sometimes the beauty too, through eyes as sharp and color-sensitive as ours. The antique film aesthetic is fundamentally incompatible with games as a medium for one simple reason: In a movie we're watching history, but in games we're there. Private Ryan's motif assumes that the audience is an observer, but in games, we're a participant.
There are a few things that can be done about this: The first is to recognize that the idea is tired, outmoded, and not particularly necessary. The second is to realize that World War II was literally that - a World War, with interesting and heroic actions taking place all over the globe. Games have largely neglected The Pacific War, for example, and many of the major actions have gone almost completely unexplored. Saipan has never appeared in a game, and neither has the Burma Campaign or any theater of the Sino-Japanese War. All of these settings would force us outside the geographic box of Fortress Europe and let us see new and colorful things: rainforests, lantern-lit Chinese streets, and the tennis courts and bungalows of the British Raj. We could even (gasp!) play as non-white soldiers: the Chinese National Army, the Indian Assam Rifles, and the famous Nepalese Gurkhas with their vicious curve-bladed kukris. The Pacific offers a new, vibrant setting, fresh weapons, and new protagonists ready for action.
Another option is to draw from a greater mix of films. As a contrast to Saving Private Ryan, we might consider Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. While the plot is a bit of a mess, Malick went the opposite direction from Spielberg, emphasizing the sumptuous colors and natural beauty of Guadalcanal (though the film was actually shot in Australia). Malick's focus on the tropical scenery communicates the possibility of life growing out of human chaos, but it also reflects how out of place the soldiers look in their dull uniforms, trapped between neon green grass and the endless aquamarine of the sea. The wondrous plants and mountains eventually become ominous to these men, an alien landscape where they don't belong.
We could also simply reject the so-called "grittiness." Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway managed to depict Operation Market Garden with a bright clarity that was extremely welcome, and of the modern shooters, Rainbow Six: Vegas and its sequel used the city's fluorescent garishness to great effect.
We, as gamers, owe Steven Spielberg a debt of gratitude for blazing the trail with innovative visuals, sound, and mechanics in Medal of Honor. That we are still stuck in the rut he created is, in many ways, a testament to the depth of his footprint. However, enough is enough. Steven created that footprint by innovating, and it's time we did the same.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.