"There is a new enemy. There is a new war. There is a new warrior. He is Tier 1."
-- Current tagline for Electronic Arts' new Medal of Honor, releasing fall 2010
As of this morning, the Department of Defense reports 852 American soldiers have died since the military entered Afghanistan in 2001. 2009 has been the costliest year yet -- 300 and counting.
We don't know much about the new Medal of Honor yet. Electronic Arts has released precious few details about its long-rumored series reboot set in modern-day Afghanistan, an announcement that came less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama announced a controversial decision to introduce thousands more United States troops into the troubled region. EA had said this new Medal of Honor will be "inspired by real events," giving them some clear leeway on what "reality" means.
Medal of Honor will be released about a year after Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and its "No Russian" airport sequence. I do believe Infinity Ward copped out with "No Russian," favoring forced narrative spectacle driven by the game's Jerry Bruckheimer-esque storytelling philosophy. But at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter if you took issue with Infinity Ward's execution of "No Russian;" in terms of creating a reaction from players in a war game, it set a certain bar for the interactive experience.
Call of Duty, while usually in historical settings, is ultimately a scripted fantasy. From what EA's said about the new Medal of Honor, it's rooting in reality. So far, that means Afghanistan and secret (but "real") operatives. With more of our friends and family possibly headed to Afghanistan, EA has the potential to release a game whose player experiences are driven by personal, emotional investment.
I don't think that's what Medal of Honor will achieve, but I hope EA tries.
Modern Warfare 2 presented two massive "what if?" scenarios, an airport shootout that would certainly shock, but maybe not surprise very many if -- god forbid -- it actually became headline news on CNN tomorrow and another, more apocalyptic situation where America finds itself on the receiving end of an invasion. Both have been explored before in movies, television and literature. It wasn't the situations that shocked people, it was their presence in a video game. Video games make you part of the action, a key differentiator. In a movie, someone else pulls the trigger. In a game, you actually make that call.
Medal of Honor has typically chronicled the wartime campaigns of rank-and-file soldiers, the same sort you'd find on an episode of HBO's Band of Brothers. The reboot seems to move the franchise in a new direction. Medal of Honor will follow at least one, if not more, Tier 1 Operatives, a specialized group of soldier which EA claims is very much real. A Google search reveals little about them other than Medal of Honor headlines, but EA describes them as "the most disciplined, deliberate and prepared warrior on the battlefield" and "a living, breathing, precision instrument of war." In the book Enduring the Freedom, Canadian Joint Task Force member Sean M. Maloney reportedly became part of a Tier 1 unit in Afghanistan, which he described as "hunting high value Al Qaeda and Taliban personnel."
Is, as EA describes it, the new "enemy" actually going to be labeled as Al Qaeda?
Obama's decision makes Afghanistan a massive talking point, especially over the next year. We saw Konami drop Atomic games' Six Days in Fallujah like a hot potato, just weeks after the game was unveiled. It's unclear how Konami did not foresee a game set in war-occupied Iraq wouldn't cause intense scrutiny, but based on the language EA has presented so far, compounded by the public's perception of what war in Afghanistan even is, allows EA to move Medal of Honor in a few different direction.
EA is a creative risk-taker, evidenced by games like Mirror's Edge, but EA's risks tend to graft towards design creativity, not expressively brave narrative, and I'm not yet convinced EA is about to take the risk on the same level of Six Days in Fallujah. Konami didn't stand up for Six Days In Fallujah long enough to see where that ended up, but there are two unanswered questions that will shape perception of Medal of Honor:
- Will making the "inspiration" a secretive set of operatives allow for a war fantasy set in a facade of reality made legitimate only by placing the game in Afghanistan?
- Is, as EA describes it, the new "enemy" actually going to be labeled as Al Qaeda?
I'm more interested in the second one. Despite reading media reports, I find it difficult to grasp what the military operations in Afghanistan entail. I don't have a clear vision of it. The media's attention has only shifted back to that war in the past year and even if EA decided Medal of Honor would incorporate missions inspired by real-life events, it'd be hard for me to confirm one way or the other. I have to take them at their word. But what if the missions, real or not, had you tracking down Al Qaeda, the monsters responsible for the planning and execution of the greatest terrorist plot on American soil, 9/11?
That would make me want to play Medal of Honor. Not because I have a particular interest in pursuing virtual revenge, but it would drive emotion into the player experience. Raw, real emotion.
Will EA have the courage to do it?
[image credit: flickr / the u.s. army]