It’s November 1999 and the atmosphere in Steven Spielberg’s office is frosty. The director’s Amblin production company, on the Universal Studios lot, is hosting Paul Bucha, the president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. The Vietnam veteran, awarded America’s highest decoration for his own courage under fire, is stating his case against videogames. Strongly. The particular target of his ire: a firstperson shooter based on an original concept by Spielberg himself called Medal Of Honor.
Spielberg, whose company DreamWorks Interactive developed the title, looks absolutely gutted. Medal Of Honor was his passion project, after all, designed to give kids genuine insight into the history behind WWII. As a proud American, the filmmaker is left heartbroken by Bucha’s verbal tirade.
“It was an intense meeting,” recalls Medal Of Honor writer and producer Peter Hirschmann. “Paul came in and laid it out on the table. We just sat there and let him speak. He didn’t know anything about the game but laid out a case: ‘When it comes to the Medal of Honor, it’s a serious and sacred thing; you don’t turn it into a videogame. It’s an awful thing to do.’ He made a really compelling case that we shouldn’t be doing this.”
At the end of the meeting, Medal Of Honor appears to be done for. Even though it’s just reached the “release to manufacturing” stage – and DreamWorks has invested millions in its development and production – Spielberg is seriously thinking about cutting his losses. Bucha’s blitzkrieg seems to have landed a fatal broadside. Hirschmann respectfully counters with a question: has the decorated war veteran got time for a quick play?
When DreamWorks set up shop in 1995, “interactive” was Hollywood’s favourite buzzword. Every major studio, from Paramount to Universal to Disney, had a newly minted interactive division, and DreamWorks was no exception. Its software segment – staffed by ex-Microsoft employees who’d been lured from Redmond to Hollywood by the glamour and flip-flop weather – focused on developing PC titles. Yet unlike other movie-studio software divisions, DreamWorks Interactive held a trump card: Steven Spielberg.
Writer and producer Peter Hirschmann (left); art director Matt Hall (middle); and EA Los Angeles lead designer Max Spielberg
The bearded director and DreamWorks co-founder recognised the appeal of interactive entertainment earlier than anyone else in Hollywood. Over the years he’d exerted a largely unacknowledged influence over the medium’s early evolution, working as an unofficial consultant at both Atari and LucasArts. At DreamWorks Interactive (DWI) he finally had a chance to get some skin in the game personally.
It wasn’t a vanity play; more a sign of how much he loved videogames. “I think he was inspired by the invention and toy-like sense of creation and engagement that overtook people in the games business,” explains Medal Of Honor’s executive producer Patrick Gilmore. “He thought games could unlock new ways to tell stories.”
The story behind Medal Of Honor began, appropriately enough, on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1997. Spielberg, at the time deep in post-production on Saving Private Ryan, outlined his idea for a game to DWI’s team. His R-rated movie was too bloody for kids but, inspired by his teenage son Max’s love of GoldenEye, the director wanted to share his deeply ingrained interest in WWII with younger audiences via videogames.
Addressing the team, he sketched out an ambitious concept: a firstperson shooter for Sony’s PlayStation, set in the European theatre of war and named after America’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Orders given, Spielberg closed the meeting with that boyish grin of his and a parting shot: “I’ll be back in a week.”
At the time, there was little enthusiasm for the project among DWI’s corporate management. Console games weren’t DWI’s main focus and the PlayStation market wasn’t big on the FPS genre. Plus, hard as it is to believe today, World War II was considered passé. “People were really dubious,” recalls Hirschmann, “They said, ‘World War II is old, it’s got cobwebs on it. People want ray guns, hell-spawn and laser rifles.’ The idea of doing something with historical relevance set in a low-tech game environment was a challenging sell.”