Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
This is Battlefield 1. This is the Achi Baba map of the brand-new Turning Tides DLC, made available on December 11th for console players, and you’re spending all of your time making your way toward “C.” There’s always a rush to the “C” point. “A” and “E” are gimmies, “B” is hard to hold, and “D” is too complicated to capture reliably. It’s an Operations map, and you need the points to score, so everyone hammers their way toward the fortified position at “C.”
This is the first World War. You get cut down on your way. Downhill, toward “A,” you’re fired upon constantly. Uphill, in the trench that leads to “E,” you’re sliced in half by LMG fire. If you go for the back way, you’re going to be blown to bits by grenades. No matter your tactical calculus, your best laid plans, you end up in a heaving mass of bodies making your way toward “C.”
In Achi Baba, the bodies pile up. I’ve written about the speed of death in first-person shooters before, but nothing matches the intensity of this new experience at Achi Baba. The lanes of fire are so well-constructed, the routes of ingress and egress so well-wrought, that you can’t help but make your way to a hotspot targeted by dozens of assault players with grenades and guns.
A medic comes to save you, and against all odds, they make it. You live one more time, and you hold down the fire key, cutting into the dense pods of defending or attacking troops who huddling in cover or heaving their way toward you in waves. Giving or receiving, it’s always the same at “C”. Live, die, respawn, quit the game, come back later. It’s still the same. The living become the dead with speed, at scale.
Battlefield 1 is probably the game that best presents the fantasy of the contemporary multiplayer first-person shooter. The maps are all sprawling, war-torn versions of the battlefields of the Great War. They are peppered with clear locations that players need to capture and hold to “win” the conflict. The everyday world, the pastoral countryside, becomes a strategic location that will mean the difference between winning and losing, and the simplicity of going to a point, killing the enemies who are also there, and standing on it has a certain beauty to it. The thing separating you and victory is personal skill and an awareness of this location. Increase your skill. Learn the map. Go on to victory.
But Achi Baba doesn’t feel that way. The cover is too slight, the blasted landscape too barren, the artillery-dug divets too shallow. Storming a position comes with immense risk, and the fortifications are strong.
My near-constant play of this map since its release has revealed an emergent strategy which rarely wins but almost always makes an appearance at some point: Players begin traveling in massive packs. Twenty players take a position, lose all of the others, and then move on to the next one. “C” then “B” then “D” then back again, in a loop, until they lose the match.
One of the explanations for this is that the design of Achi Baba is such that any singular individual who is attempting to take a point will be lost, inevitably, to defensive fire. There’s not enough cover. The fortifications are strong. Safety appears in numbers, or appears to only be accessible en masse, so players crowd around each other. They begin surging. They’re still cut down in those numbers, but the defenses can’t hold, and they take the position.
Was the real Achi Baba this way? Battlefield 1 can’t stop telling me about the reality of these maps and battles and locations every time I load it up. Splash screens tell me that we’re passing through the anniversary of the battle. Sometimes they simply give me facts about who was there, and when it was, and why it matters. Each time I load it up, the game tells me that Achi Baba happened. The Allies wanted to take parts of modern-day Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire didn’t want them to. Casualties in the range of half a million. Australia celebrates Anzac Day to commemorate it. At Achi Baba, the bodies piled up.
They piled up everywhere, so many that they can’t be simulated. They rotted and fed into the dirt. People didn’t respawn, and they didn’t rise up again to storm the positions that they lost only seconds ago. Achi Baba happened in the way that we play it, but so much more protracted and nightmarish. Each body was a body. Each life was a life. Not all in one, in you, but all separate and snuffed out just the same.
Battlefield 1’s single player campaign went to great lengths to talk about the horrors of war. It borrows heavily from the tropes of films, notably the WW1 pilot film Wings and the WW2 tank film Fury, in order to communicate the nightmare of death on both those who die and those who remain. As Gareth Damian Martin pointed out, though, the flippancy with which the tools of war get deployed in that historical fiction world do much to undermine that narrative. Rob Zacny has noted the way that Call of Duty: WWII reduces its own relation to history to a pastiche, a greatest hits album of things we imagine to be true about some of the most terrible conflicts in human history.
People didn’t respawn, and they didn’t rise up again to storm the positions that they lost only seconds ago
When you read about Achi Baba and the Galliopoli campaign of the Great War, what you come away with is the abstract gesture of the number. This place was chosen, that group of people charged it, many of them died. Coordinating drives and broken ground. A profound defensive position. Few defending troops. It’s all pointillism. Getting too close blows the entire image out; you miss the grand strategy if you focus too closely on one point.
The rhetoric of charging, failing, dying, trying again remains, though. I can’t tell you about the tank campaign or Lawrence of Arabia, those narrative bits that were supposed to latch into my mind and help me understand some version of the past in a narrative way. That single player campaign has been annihilated in my mind, replaced by planned routes of maximum safety from “B” to “C” in Achi Baba. I don’t remember any of the names of the characters. I know exactly the right combination of button presses that will allow me to slide and revive an ally so that we can continue our assault.
No video game can simulate war. The arcade gameplay of a multiplayer combat game cannot approach reality. At the same time, the abstractions of the past, the grand historical reductions, are captured in that eternal charge from “B” to “C.” The striving, the hopelessness, and the number of attempts, all together, without command and learning nothing after every session. In developing my mastery of the game, by hyperfocusing down into the relations between capture points, I’m not learning anything at all. I’m memorizing a relation and my feelings about that relation. I’m experiencing the same abstraction that I get when I read about the historical battle; it’s all numbers, probabilities, and thinking about what I might have done wrong.
I play it again. The bodies at Achi Baba, piling up.
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