The rebooted Medal of Honor is supposed to be about the soldiers and not about the controversial Afghan war that serves as a backdrop for the action. The game was criticized for sticking to such a narrow subject matter; staying apolitical in this case seemed like a marketing gimmick meant to stir up just the right amount of controversy—enough to hype the game, but not enough to hurt sales. In retrospect however, after beating the single-player campaign, I’m confident in saying that this approach works for this game.
Medal of Honor wants to be a realistic shooter or at least more realistic than its peers. It only wants to put us in the shoes of a highly trained soldier as he goes about his daily life; it has no greater narrative ambition than that. Naturally, the daily life of these soldiers consists of being shot at a lot, and ignoring politics is easy when you’re being shot at. Since the entire game (like all shooters) is just one firefight after another, staying apolitical feels natural. I don’t care about the greater context of the action when I’m in the middle of it, I just want to shoot the bad guys and survive. In this way, this kind of hands off storytelling regarding war lends itself to the shooter genre in that it’s a story that doesn’t ask us to do or think about anything other than shooting and surviving.
As such, Medal of Honor is a “slice of life” story. It has no central conflict or main character. The first several missions are episodic in nature with only tenuous links to each other, but about halfway through the game, something bad happens and some soldiers get captured. The ensuing rescue mission makes up the last act, and allows for a climax that seems to provide some kind of resolution. But there really isn’t any resolution, which makes the ending feel awkward in a good way. There’s no major blow against the bad guys to give us hope that this war will be won in time or no character growth that results in someone learning some harsh truth about the world, and in any other game, this would be infuriating. It works for Medal of Honor, not just because the game is based on an ongoing war with no resolution, but because the lack of resolution works in service to a greater theme.
By the end, one is left wondering what the point of it all was. If nothing really changed, what was it all for? Such questions feel honest. Instead of trying to fashion meaning out of random events, Medal of Honor just lets us experience those random events and lets us pull whatever meaning we want out of them.
From a practical point of view however, this hands off approach is lazy. It takes a skilled writer to get political without becoming partisan, to show both sides of a controversy fairly and to let the players decide for themselves which side is “right.” There are a few moments where Medal of Honor does try to show us the greater context of the war. In between missions, you’ll see cut scenes that concern an out of touch politician giving bad orders to ground troops. He’s such an obviously one-dimensional antagonist that these cut scenes feel painfully forced, clichéd, and even more lazy than the hands off approach taken with the soldiers’ stories. If this is a peek at what the game would have been like had it gotten more political, I’m glad they took the easy route. Ambition is admirable but so is knowing your limits.
Danger Close could have done more with the story while still keeping it focused on the soldiers, but as it is now, Medal of Honor and its lack of any proper resolution raise an interesting question about the nature of storytelling in general: How much is enough? For a game like Medal of Honor, I believe that it’s “enough” to put me in a battle with some good AI partners, and it’s here that the theme of the game finally becomes apparent. I became attached to my effective teammates not through dialogue or character development but through their dependability, giving the game a theme of camaraderie that is portrayed through gameplay alone.
There aren’t many games that can relate a theme without a story, but the campaign in Medal of Honor pulls it off. It’s strange to say that it succeeds because it lacks so many staples of a normal narrative, but it’s true. It’s just a slice of wartime life and that’s a refreshing change of pace from all the other bombastic, macho, over the top shooters.