The Medal of Honor series has always had its roots in the cinema. The first entry in the series, released some thirteen years ago, was based on a story by legendary film maker Steven Spielberg, and developed by an arm of Dreamworks that went on to become Danger Close, the developers who still guide the series to this day.
While the setting may have shifted from the heroics of World War 2 to the actions of modern operators in warzones around the world, that cinematic impact can still be felt in the upcoming Medal of Honor: Warfighter. But now games are having an impact on the big screen too, changing the way film makers approach action. It’s almost a symbiotic relationship, with games taking the best that Hollywood has to offer and re-purposing it for an interactive medium, and movies adding videogame style flourishes to their output.
It was the last generation but one of console gaming when the links between live action motion pictures and interactive digital entertainment really started to coalesce, lead in part by games like the original Medal of Honor. The increased power of the technology behind consoles like the PlayStation made cinematic storytelling possible not just in cut scenes, but in emergent events within the controllable parts of games. Action set-pieces stopped being simple, but thrilling, exposition heavy pieces of FMV, and started to react to the player’s actions, throwing in breath taking sequences that gamers had only dreamed of before.
The Medal of Honor series began to tell stories using the language of the war film, a language ingrained in the public conscious by decades of movies that regaled us with tales from theatres of conflict the world over. The ability to tell those same stories but in an interactive form was a revolution, aided and abetted by graphics engines that pushed the boundaries of our gaming experience ever further towards the photo realistic. Storming the beaches of Normandy in the Medal of Honor: Allied Assualt is, thankfully, as close to being a part of that truly harrowing experience as any of us are likely to get. It’s a gritty and brutal portrayal of one of the most turbulent and violent periods of modern history, and it owes as much to the likes of Saving Private Ryan as it does to textbooks and survivor’s stories.
But where video games began to trump motion pictures was with their first person perspectives. Looking at the destruction through a narrower field of vision than the sweeping cameras of the movies makes it a more personal experience. That’s one thing that movies have adopted too, with shaky cam shots rather than framed and positioned shots becoming the norm in almost all action movies in recent years. Look at the work of Michael Bay, who’s inability to stay focused on a single object or character borders on ADHD.
At the same time, games were borrowing a lot of the camera angles and mise en scene of movies in order to add an edge of gravitas to their productions. Especially in cut scenes, which still hold the brunt of the narrative weight of a video game, you’ll find many of the tools film directors employ used to great effect. Video games and films began to feed off one another, a relationship highlighted by a renewed rush of films based on games. It became clear that the creative minds behind games and films were, in certain areas at least, pulling in the same direction.
Ten years on from the shock and awe of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, the series has now moved into a more contemporary setting, but it still retains that ability to throw us headlong into the centre of a decidedly cinematic battlefield. Warfighter picks up where the reboot of the series left off, casting you as a Tier 1 Operator, a special forces soldier in the US Army. Once again, you’re off trotting the globe, visiting Pakistan, The Philippines and a pirate hideout on the Somali coast.
The power of this generation of consoles doesn’t just take video games closer to their cinematic inspiration, it gives them more freedom to create their own versions of the visual language of war that we’ve come to understand. Games like Medal of Honor: Warfighter are able to influence the public conscious in the same way that films have done in the past. Now though, rather than experiencing combat passively, we’re engaged, part of the action in a way that we’ve never been before. Using the joint languages of interactivity and cinematic visuals, developers are able to tell stories that are more immersive and entertaining than those they were telling a decade ago.
A more cinematic approach to narrative has allowed games not just to tell bigger stories, but to tell the smaller, interpersonal dramas that exist between people pushed into extreme situations. So grunts aren’t just grunts, they’re people with back stories, tales of their own to tell, and reasons for fighting the good fight too. In spite of what tabloid newspapers might think, the violence in most video games is rarely mindless, and is no more controversial than the action scenes in any big Hollywood blockbuster. There’s blood, sure, but you’re a soldier on a mission, not some lunatic with a hand cannon like some people seem to think.
While video games owe a lot to films, and films are starting to owe more and more to video games, both disciplines stand out as different and important ways of telling stories. Video games can go where films can’t, allowing people to inhabit soldiers at the very front line of some of the most dramatic and interesting modern conflicts. Games like Medal of Honor: Warfighter are pushing the boundaries between the cinematic and the interactive, letting us play games with a scope and a scale that would entail eye watering budgets to be reproduced in Hollywood. Video games are becoming the real successors to the legacy of on-screen combat.