‘Battlefield 1’ Is a Fun, Serious War Game, But Can’t Have It Both Ways

The harder ‘Battlefield 1’ tries to teach players about the horrors of war while still being fun, the more it fails.
October 17, 2016, 10:00am
Image: EA

I am in hell, one that actually existed here on Earth and not terribly long ago. The ground is black sludge and dead bodies tangled in barbed wire. Bullets crack as they fly overhead, and after a warning whistle from the sky, everything around me explodes. There's a moment of quiet, and then Germans in pointed helmets charge the ruins of the farmhouse where I'm hiding. I kill a few as they approach, beat one of them to death with a shovel, but am eventually overwhelmed and killed.

At this point in a normal first-person shooter, I would restart the level or respawn at a checkpoint, rewriting history so I didn't die. But this is Battlefield 1, which takes place in the first World War. I was supposed to die. Instead of respawning to an earlier point I move on to embody a different soldier. I'll kill a few Germans with him as well, then die again, and move on to another doomed soldier.

This breathtaking opening sequence is trying to say something about war that's anathema to video games and first-person shooters like Battlefield specifically: Wars are won not by video game protagonists with infinite lives, but the willingness to sacrifice thousands of young people who don't get a second chance.

Image: EA

Battlefield 1 struggles with the moral paradox at the heart of every shooter. Big budget, mass market video games need to be fun and engaging in order to recoup millions of dollars publishers invested in their development. But war is not fun. How does a developer use war as an aesthetic while at the same time not making light of the horrors of war?

The short answer is that it can't. It's not possible. Battlefield 1 tries with that opening sequence, which, at the very least, is a novel, interesting thing you haven't done in a shooter before. Rather than following one protagonist through the whole game, it also bounces from character to character in different theaters of the war, each of which opens with somber, white on black text that underlines the futility and horrors of some of the worst stalemates in history. Since it quickly reverts from the futility of the opening sequence to traditional shooter heroics for the rest of the game, it toys with the idea that the action sequences I'm playing through didn't really take place, but are the embellished memories of the soldiers who were there. It even makes clever use of the Overview Effect, showing the globe far high up in space before zooming into the battle in order to highlight how pointless and wasteful these battles are in the grand scheme of things.

There have been a few exceptions from smaller developers (I wrote about Verdun last year), but big budget shooters aren't set in the first World War because those battles were so ugly and desperate. Battlefield 1 developer DICE, it seems, felt it needed a more considered approach when tackling this war, one it did not display in its previous games about modern war, World War II, the crime world, and Star Wars.

Image: EA

The problem is that Battlefield 1 is still too good, too fun, to preach about war. If you like shooters, I highly recommend you play it for the single-player campaign alone, not to mention the 64-player multiplayer chaos, which is easily one of the best in the industry.

A developer can engage with this subject matter honestly, which can make for an interesting and worthwhile video game, but not one that is "fun" in the traditional, AAA sense. Alternatively, it can exploit the subject matter, not only glorifying war, but making it seem like fun, which is deplorable if you truly consider the gap between Battlefield games and an actual battlefield and the fact that so many underemployed young men play video games.

DICE, like every big budget shooter developer that came before it, has picked the latter strategy, though in a fascinating development, has made a valiant effort in trying to acknowledge the ugly reality of war. The result is like an ethical uncanny valley. Just as video games become more photorealistic, the more jarring the differences between them and reality are, so does Battlefield 1's attempts to truthfully portray war in a blockbuster video game highlight how ill-equipped it is to do so.

This is true with every video game that relies on some kind of violence as its driving force. It's true in Halo, where players shoot energy weapons at purple aliens. But the more Battlefield 1 tries to teach players about how horrible the war truly is while aiming for financial success as mass market entertainment, the more obvious its ethical failures become.