When tasked with evaluating a history themed video game, I could not think of a better place to start than Electronic Arts’ World War II first-person shooter (FPS) Medal of Honor: Frontline. Released in 2002, Frontline was the first FPS I ever owned. At the time, the game was perfectly tailored to my interests. It was set during the Second World War and as a 13 year old, receiving my parents permission to buy an FPS meant I no longer had to sneak in Goldeneye sessions at my friends houses. The Medal of Honor franchise also struck a chord with gamers in the late 1990s and early 2000s because it piggybacked on the success of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. In fact, the first level of Frontline is taken directly from Saving Private Ryan‘s portrayal of the landing at Omaha Beach (perhaps unsurprisingly, Steven Spielberg was heavily involved in creating the Medal of Honor franchise and Dreamworks Interactive produced the first two games until Electronic Arts purchased the game developer from Spielberg’s Dreamworks Studios).
Admittedly, I was not able to go back and replay Frontline for this blog post because I no longer own a Playstation 2. However, with the magic of Youtube I was able to sit and watch someone else play through the game. Yes, yes, playing the game is a fundamental part of the gaming experience, but I still fondly remember the technical and cinematic aspects of Frontline. What I did not remember as vividly was the treatment of history, something that Youtube is more than capable of communicating.
From a gameplay perspective, Frontline does a poor job depicting combat during WWII. Certain parts of the game, like the D-Day sequence, are more accurate than others, but overall the game lacks realism. (I am fully aware that it is impossible to capture the brutality of war in a video game, but because Frontline attempts to do so, it is necessary to critique the effort). The biggest problem is that the game’s protagonist, OSS agent Lt. James Patterson, almost single handedly dismantles the Third Reich. Not only does this emphasize the role of the individual over the unit, but it also allows the developers to bypass difficult subjects like death and the effects of violence. On occasion, Frontline manages to hint at these aspects of war, but these ideas are communicated less through the images on the screen and more through the soundtrack composed by future Academy Award winner Michael Giacchino. But here again, the player recognizes that this is still a heavily romanticized version of war.
While the game fails to capture the brutality of war, it is much more successful at providing an outline, albeit a very general one, of the war’s course. Missions are occasionally separated by film clips contextualizing the gameplay and, while these never stray from boilerplate History Channel material, they adequately frame post D-Day actions. However, in their attempt to include historical content, the game developers also reinforce the “the good war” narrative. By ignoring the complexity of the Second World War, the game fails to ask any questions about the events it depicts.
My feelings about Medal of Honor: Frontline are mixed. On the one hand, it was a technical achievement for its time and remains an exceptionally well designed game. It makes history accessible and has the potential to stimulate players to investigate the period independently. On the other hand, the brand of history advanced by Frontline lacks any critical thought and the close connection to the Spielberg empire makes historians like Stephen Ambrose appear to be paragons of historical inquiry.
Ultimately, I believe that Triple A video games are the wrong format for history gaming. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, the massive budgets required to publish these games do not lend themselves to historical accuracy. Other formats seem better suited for history based video games. Browser based games or real-time strategy games, similar to the Civilization franchise, are more likely to succeed in communicating academic material because there is less emphasis on fast paced action, allowing for a stronger focus on substance.