While their peers worked on the much-touted Small Soldiers game, Hirschmann’s team – “a ragtag group of misfits, very much the underdog institutionally” – spent the next seven days putting together a demo using the engine from their previous project, PlayStation game Jurassic Park: The Lost World. “It was a crazy week. We took that renderer and put together a demo with bailing wire and chewing gum,” the producer laughs, still amused by the white-knuckle ride that Spielberg set in motion. The demo proved the concept: shooting Nazis was extremely satisfying.
For Steven Spielberg, Medal Of Honor was no ordinary licensed movie title, and it shared none of Saving Private Ryan’s plot. As a companion piece, though, it shared the film’s reverential tone. Early in development, Spielberg told Hirschmann to call up Captain Dale Dye, the retired US Marine officer turned Hollywood military advisor who’d worked with him on Ryan.
“I was like: ‘Oh, no, he’s gonna think we’re a bunch of pencil-necked geeks who don’t know what the hell is going on’,” recalls Hirschmann. “It turns out he thought we were a bunch of pencil-necked geeks who didn’t know what the hell was going on. The last thing he wanted to do was babysit us. It was like, ‘Oh, shit’ – on both sides.”
Dye arrived at DWI’s offices in fearsome drill instructor mode, convinced the studio was making, in Hirschmann’s words, “an exploitative, tone-deaf, irresponsible thing.” Once he saw their intentions were honourable, his mood softened. He became a valuable ally to the team, running them through an impromptu boot camp, calling them out on their military inaccuracies and lending his distinctive, authoritative voice to the game’s opening narration.
The training paid off, bolstering the game’s sense of historical authenticity. Not just a shoot ’em up, it offers miniature history lessons while you play, offering background on everything from the OSS to the Gestapo to V2 rockets while nostalgic art and video clips convey a sense of the period. The original Medal Of Honor remains arguably the most educational FPS ever made.
With the game in development so early in the life of Sony’s console – the DualShock controller hadn’t even made its debut – the hardware’s technical limitations were a challenge: “We couldn’t even show day,” laughs art director Matt Hall, “so every level is a night mission!” The programming team did their best with what they had. “Enemies had 250 polygons max; it’s laughable today,” says Hirschmann. “We had a hierarchical animation system that we thought was pretty cutting-edge. We blew our memory budget running that on a console with two megabytes of memory.”
The attention to character animation and AI gave the game’s combat a raft of emergent possibilities: throw a grenade and a Nazi soldier would try to kick it back at you or dive on it to protect his comrades; wing an enemy and they’d drop their weapon; score a headshot and a helmet would fly off. “To be crass about it,” Hirschmann says, “whenever you shot a bad guy, something cool happened.” Even the German Shepherd dogs could be made to play “grenade fetch”, carrying a tossed explosive device to their unlucky handler.
Max Spielberg, then 14 and today a level designer at EA Los Angeles, remembers being thrilled by the DWI offices when he spent a fortnight doing QA work on the game: “I’d grown up around movie sets and studios, but I’d never felt more excited than walking around DWI. This was a place where they’d use building blocks and green army men to map out the next level. I mean, it was basically taking all my tangible childhood toys and bringing them to life.”
As a filmmaker, the elder Spielberg wanted to test the capabilities of interactive entertainment. Ideas like the “show me your papers” scenes – where the player brandishes fake ID papers instead of a gun – were pioneering attempts to expand the scope of the FPS genre.
“Suddenly our interaction with the AI has changed,” says the younger Spielberg. “We no longer need to use cover to hide from them. And now we’re unsure of how long the disguise will hold, eliciting a state of nervousness and perhaps fear. These changes are mainly cosmetic but by doing so the Medal Of Honor team was able to alter the behaviour of the player. This was way back in 1999.”