Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Medal of Honor Curse

Robert Rath | 8 Nov 2012 16:00
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Medal of Honor: Warfighter has been judged and found wanting. While not necessarily bad, the game is simply another brown shooter, a relic of a worn-out genre. During the conversation about Warfighter I became curious about the much-maligned "brown shooter" -where did it start? What was the reason for going brown, and why has it now gone grey? Interestingly, every avenue led me back to the original Medal of Honor from 1999, a game so innovative that, if my theory is correct, it defined the genre's visual design over a decade ago.

Medal of Honor was the brainchild of director/producer Steven Spielberg, who saw it as a way to introduce kids to WWII history. Back then, first person shooters were largely sci-fi fare, like Marathon or tactical shooters like Rainbow Six, and there was some skepticism at DreamWorks Interactive about whether a historical setting and retro weapon options would appeal to a modern audience. Spielberg remained adamant despite the advice of his team, and charged ahead with the game, cross-pollinating it with elements from his film Saving Private Ryan, which was then in post-production. Spielberg brought weapon experts on board to oversee the realism of the firearms, recorded live sound effects at a shooting range, and even retained military consultant Dale Dye - also part of the Saving Private Ryan team - to advise DreamWorks on tactical and historical accuracy. These steps were major innovations at the time, more familiar to Hollywood than the game industry, and the eventual success of Medal of Honor directly contributed to the military consultants we see in the industry today. However, the most crucial and long-lasting impact of Medal of Honor was that Spielberg borrowed the visual language of Private Ryan to inform the aesthetics of his new game, an influence that proved so pervasive that it permeated the entire genre.

Critics and veterans often praise Private Ryan for its accurate depiction of combat, but Private Ryan wasn't just a movie about the "reality" of WWII, it was also a reaction to the glamorized myth Hollywood had built around the War. This is especially clear during the Normandy scene, where the images of maimed American soldiers serve as a dual indictment of the horrors of warfare and the glossy film culture that glorifies it. The Americans in this scene aren't tough, gravely heroes like John Wayne, they're nineteen and twenty year-old kids being butchered en masse. What makes them heroic isn't a steely lack of fear, it's that despite their terror and anguish, they still push forward with blood on their boots and sand in their mouths. It's a masterful piece of filmmaking that simultaneously manages to be anti-war and pro-soldier. To shore up this "realistic" take on cinematic combat, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński decided the movie should look like color footage from the 1940s rather than the Technicolor epics of old Hollywood. To accomplish this they slowed the shutter timing to half its normal speed, stripped the protective coating off the camera lenses, and ran the film through a bleach bypass, desaturating the colors and making the images slightly fuzzy. In addition, Spielberg shot most of the action using shaky, handheld cameras and then edited the footage into quick cuts. The result looked like something between a feature film and period documentary footage, with the imperfect nature of the film reinforcing to the audience that they were watching real events that happened to real people. Private Ryan's formula proved so successful, in fact, that drab colors, quick cuts, and shaky pans became cinematic shorthand for scenes of combat being "authentic," and movies as diverse as Black Hawk Down, Enemy at the Gates, Windtalkers, and even the South Korean Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, cashed in on the aesthetic. Spielberg himself doubled down on the process when he used similar techniques for the 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers, which even featured a credits sequence on scratched-up film. Essentially, when Spielberg attacked the Hollywood myth of glamorous combat, he accidentally replaced it with the myth that dull colors and dirtiness was a signifier of reality.

But Medal of Honor had the benefit of being part of the Spielberg circle, and jumped on Private Ryan's sepia bandwagon before it was even a bandwagon. Spielberg almost certainly ordered this himself, likely because it tied Medal of Honor into the larger DreamWorks brand. In addition to the desaturated colors, it also included the film's memorable tracer rounds, as well as the hallmark zipping sound bullets made when they slashed by the camera. There were differences too - DreamWorks removed all gore in response to the Columbine killings, for instance, and the game's story focused more on espionage and sabotage a la Where Eagles Dare (Spielberg's favorite WWII film) than the front line soldiering of Private Ryan. One notable mission even tasked the player with going undercover as a Nazi officer, using a set of forged papers to pass checkpoints, then executing the surprised guards with a silenced pistol. The game was also laced with miniature historical documentaries that filled the player in on period topics like the OSS, German railroad artillery, and V-2 rockets, making it somewhat of an educational experience. This mix made Medal of Honor a hit both critically and commercially; it sold more than 2.5 million copies and made WWII a landmark setting for shooters.

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