Combining such innovation with the game’s fantastic audio design – the ping of a Garand rifle as it runs out of ammo; shouted German phrases; ambient sounds of planes flying overhead; and Michael Giacchino’s sweeping score – made it obvious the game was destined for greatness. When Electronic Arts received a demo disc during the Easter of ‘98, staff traded it around the office all weekend. EA immediately signed up DWI to its Partners Program.
Then two disasters struck. First was the Columbine massacre, which tainted the public’s perception of firstperson shooters overnight. For DreamWorks, the bad PR was potentially disastrous. “A lot of soul searching went on,” says Gilmore.
At least one early build of the game had been incredibly gory. “I recall shooting a Panzerschrek [an anti-tank rocket] directly into a Nazi and, as the smoke cleared, all that was left was half his upper torso down to his feet,” says Max Spielberg. “He would dance around for a little bit, blood particles squirting from his wounds, and then finally collapse. It was more fitting for an Evil Dead movie than Medal Of Honor.” Following Columbine, the team pulled all the blood from the game. It was a decision that, regardless of issues of sensitivity, also gave Medal Of Honor a more grown-up demeanour.
Controversy has a habit of rolling downhill, however. A few months later, Paul Bucha, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s president, heard about the game’s development and wrote an angry letter to Spielberg Snr. As Hirschmann recalls: “Bucha said, ‘What you are doing is terrible. You are dishonouring the Medal of Honor. Please change the name of the game.’”
With the release date looming, DWI was understandably reluctant to comply with the request. However, Steven Spielberg was concerned the issue was just too sensitive. “He was willing at that point to cut his losses and just pull it from the shelves,” suggests Hall. It was only Hirschmann’s intervention that saved it. “Peter is a really humble guy – he never toots his own horn,” continues the art director. “But he saved that franchise. I would wager that well over half the people at DWI didn’t know that story.”
Inviting Bucha to see the game for himself and explaining in detail the team’s passion about honouring American military personnel, Hirschmann convinced the Vietnam veteran of the project’s weight. Not only did the Society drop their objections to the game, they decided to endorse it too. “I give all credit in the world to Paul Bucha,” says Hirschmann. “He had won the conversation but he was willing to listen.”
Released in November 1999, Medal Of Honor quickly became DWI’s most successful title. It was something of a pyrrhic victory, however. DreamWorks’ bosses, hit hard by the interactive division’s losses, had already put in motion the sale of the company to EA. Medal Of Honor has made north of $1 billion in its lifetime, but DWI and Spielberg cashed out before the profits rolled in.
“EA got an incredible deal,” reckons Gilmore. “It was the Louisiana Purchase of game-company acquisitions.” Spielberg later described the sale as both the “smartest and dumbest” thing he ever did. Despite his regrets, he personally handed out a bonus cheque to the team. Hirschmann, who’d gone far beyond the call of duty, got something even better: a letter of recommendation to Spielberg’s friend George Lucas. After working on several Medal Of Honor sequels at EA, the producer moved over to LucasArts.
Yet the real legacy of Medal Of Honor wasn’t its sales or the franchise it launched. It represented something more: the first sign that the videogame medium could support the unique vision of a storyteller like Spielberg. “Medal Of Honor is one of the few great marriages of game and film,” says the director’s son. “It was that first rickety bridge built between the silver screen and the home console.”
It was also proof that a videogame could tackle a topic as weighty as World War II with gravitas. “The history of Medal Of Honor,” says Gilmore, “is in many ways the history of public acceptance of videogames.”