World War I was a definitive moment of the 20th century. Spread across four years of bloodshed, mud, disease and depression, it was the world’s first ‘total war’, and its aftermath directly affected human progress right up until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1990. You would assume, therefore, that such a pivotal moment would be substantially represented in popular culture. In fact, in a quirk of modern, cultural consumption, World War I has become sacrosanct.
Every year we remember, but very rarely tell. Very few films and TV shows have used the subject matter to any great extent; something which is especially obvious when you compare World War I to World War II. In gaming, it’s even less represented. In November of this year, though, Battlefield 1 will be released, the first real AAA game to tackle the subject matter. But will it be able to do justice to the Great War?
Battlefield is one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world. Over its extensive life span, it has covered modern warfare, Vietnam, and World War II. In November, it will move timelines, across the diplomatic, economic and social mess of the 1920s and 30s, to the horrors of World War I.
It’s admirable that Battlefield developers DICE have decided to tackle this oft-ignored battle. Yet while there is much hype behind the game, it’s more for the change of setting – and at the very least, a move away from the near future, fast-paced, mech-induced gameplay of the modern first person shooter – rather than for the specific First World War setting. This lack of focus is increased by the incoming information from early alpha previews, suggesting that the game is more of a fantasy version of World War I – not great. The fact that there is very little mass media based on World War I means that when a game, film, or TV show is released that is set during the war, or based around it, it will be under more scrutiny. This is to be sure it does justice to the cultural and historical importance of the conflict. At this time, it’s a phenomenon almost specific to World War I, which is why few mass media outlets have taken the risk.
While it is yet to be seen whether Battlefield can deliver the experience necessary to justify its setting, one game that is a great example of a First World War game is Valiant Hearts: The Great War.
Released way back in 2014, Valiant Hearts is a poignant, harrowing, and enlightening homage to its namesake conflict. The game’s story, while not extensive, is an engaging tribute to the millions that fought, helped in, or were affected by the war from the perspective of all sides. It manages to do all this with no character voice acting, instead using a range of historical information and statistics, giving the player the context needed to fully immerse themselves in the setting. Coupled with intelligent pantomime and a beautiful score, Valiant Hearts is proof that when it comes to World War I, the story, the setting, and the context are far more important than the gameplay.
This brings me back to Battlefield 1. The First World War holds a distinctive place in the hearts of millions of people across the world; it should be treated with a level of respect. Battlefield 1 should take a leaf out of Valiant Hearts’ book – but I fear it hasn’t. I fear that the story will be lost in a game tailored to bombastic massive multiplayer battles, with zeppelins looming overhead, and environments blown to smithereens. Yes, the destruction will be realistic, the game will sell in its thousands, and it may well be a critical success, but as Valiant Hearts – and plenty of other games that tackle difficult subject matter – show, gameplay should be seen to take a back seat to story. However, that doesn’t mean that gameplay should be poor; simply that if after playing, you are more enamoured with the gameplay as opposed to story, then Battlefield 1 has failed in its imposed mandate to show respect to the Great War. That will be even more jarring if the gameplay, purported to be realistic, is in fact modified to suit a more dynamic experience. Gameplay should be tailored to suit the time, not the other way around. I like the fact that DICE are saying that Battlefield 1 will shine a light on little known stories from the war – gaming can be exemplary as an educational tool – but that will pale into insignificance if the stories they try to tell are just an afterthought to supplement the multiplayer mash-ups.
We are currently in the midst of the 100th anniversary of the war. Scrutiny and feelings will be high. Remembrance is rife. Only two years ago, there was an outpouring of emotion for the Tower of London Poppy display. It means games like Battlefield 1 and Valiant Hearts are under more pressure to do justice to the conflict. While Valiant Hearts did so brilliantly, I fear, based on trailers and alpha previews, Battlefield 1 won’t.