Warning: This post contains spoilers for both Medal of Honor and Red Dead Redemption.
There was no reason for there to be any controversy over Medal of Honor. The months-long dispute was over a feature of the multiplayer part of the game—a shooter set in 2002 Afghanistan—where you could play as the enemy, and therefore the Taliban. It ended with EA embarrassedly renaming the characters that are so obviously the Taliban the "opposing force," a move that was barely even cosmetic.
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The game they made, however, contains none of the willingness to engage with the bitter realities of the war in Afghanistan that the early controversy suggested. And ultimately, the game tells a story that despite its best intentions, fails to do the one thing that would have justified their contemporary context. It fails to matter.
That isn't to say that the game doesn't have its moments—the scene where the Rangers are heading to the front, trying to hide their nerves with aggression before they're ambushed stands out, as does a confused goat herder looking into the headlights of the first special forces into Bagrah.
But the gameplay itself is not clean. I spent much of my time running around trying to trigger scripted events, or wondering whether I was doing things the way the game wanted me to or if stabbing in the dark might yield the same result. Medal of Honor set out to make a Hollywood-style game, but while certain scripted sequences feel clean enough to communicate, the complete experience isn't tight enough to drive the story from one scene to the next.
The storytelling feels rushed intellectually as well. Before caving to popular opinion, EA spent a brief period defended their product as a piece of art that should be considered like any other. But in the end, despite the contemporary setting, the attempts at relevance, and the painstaking attention to detail, Medal of Honor says the same thing as any other game: these are badass dudes, and you are these badass dudes.
Medal of Honor seemed to be parroting Call of Duty throughout the process: a WW2 shooter turned modern with a bit of controversy swirling around it. But where Call of Duty was at times reserved, other times ridiculous, other times disturbing and always riveting, Medal of Honor stays skin-deep. Even their controversy, which never seemed entirely unintentional, ended as a bungled embarrassment for EA.
The famous AC-130 gunship scene in Call of Duty was silent, fuzzy, and terrifying—American technological superiority carried out a grim task with the Chinook scene in Medal of Honor, in contrast, turned leveling an Iraqi village into an interactive Limp Bizkit music video.
Time and time again, what sticks out for in games aren't depictions of success, but failure. Like the end of Red Dead Redemption—when the game asks you to kill as many soldiers as you can before you realize you're fated to die, or in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, when you struggle to walk after your chopper goes down until your legs give out and the screen fades.
In one scene in Medal of Honor, you arrive at the landing zone and into a massive ambush—you fight wave after wave of Taliban behind a crumbling hut as you frantically radio for air support. Just when the last piece of cover falls, the choppers scream into the fight and light up the hills with rocket fire. Everything is okay, America wins.
In the midst of the controversy, one developer said that keeping the game respectful kept him up at night, and the game they made does feel like a genuine attempt to revere its heroes. But the picture they painted was incomplete, and they do a disservice to those they try and pay homage to by simplifying their story.
The game ends with the death of a Tier 1 operator and titles about the fighting men and women they made the game for. But ultimately, the game spends its time respecting the skill of the American military rather than honoring the sacrifice of the American soldier. For them, the worst of war happens to the elite special forces killed miles behind enemy lines, but they miss the real tragedy of an average soldier who went to a landing zone, got ambushed and crouched behind a crumbling hut while he frantically radioed for support that couldn't come quick enough.
The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was a wild success story for the American armed forces, and so this picture isn't inaccurate. But now, eight years later, we know that the picture is nowhere near as simple as it seemed back when we first smashed the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. But it's hard to make a game out of that.