‘Battlefield 1’ Offers a Unique Emotional History of the First World War

EA’s shooter expresses a distinct respect for the timeless significance and impact of WWI.

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Nov 3 2016, 8:20am

Battlefield 1's campaign, considering the brutality of the war around which it is based, is very light and very short. One might say Battlefield 1 displays humility and respect toward the magnitude of the First Word War. The game and its makers feel they cannot comprehensively, or even adequately, sum the war up, so they prefer not to try; the campaign intends to provide not an historical or traditionally educational context but an emotive one, encouraging players to feel the war rather than attempt to coolly understand it.

But that would be a generous, borderline altruistic evaluation. Battlefield 1, a mega-budget game from a multinational company, doesn't require my charity. Its characters are mostly thin. Its emotional beats are often heavy. Its sentiments, generally, are predictable and trite. 

I doubt anyone will reach—or has reached—the end of Battlefield 1's campaign and not wonder, "Is that it?" Before confronting the substance of the Great War, the game makes a quick, wordless exit, and such brevity should not be conflated with sophistication or intelligence.

It's also difficult to, straightforwardly, praise Battlefield 1 for decorum. The game's internet marketing campaign began with a viral image boasting more people had played the multiplayer beta than were deployed in the Middle-East during World War 1 by the British and Ottoman empires combined. A second image, showing soldiers being burned to death by a flame thrower, with a hashtag "#justww1things," was removed from Battlefield 1's Twitter feed after a litany of online complaints regarding taste – EA DICE subsequently apologized​. Whether these adverts are the product of the game's publisher, marketer or developer, or all three, it is clear some of Battlefield 1's creators are not above treating the First World War frivolously, stupidly, if they think it could increase sales. One would like to mentally separate the game from its marketing campaign—​you've only to play Battlefield 1 to know it isn't as witless as its advertising—​but anything admirable about how the First World War is depicted, by Battlefield, is ultimately overshadowed and caveated by awareness that the war is being used, nakedly, as a selling point.

Nevertheless, there are several occasions when Battlefield 1 proves itself not just a capable WWI game, but an admirable game about war in general. And describing these moments isn't an act of charity, but an admonishment of game-makers for, over the last five to ten years, driving the war shooter into creatively barren ground. The various small achievements of Battlefield 1 should, one hopes, cajole its contemporaries into doing better.

Battlefield 1 screen courtesy of EA

Take the opening level, for example. Each time you are killed, rather than restarting from a checkpoint, you jump into the body of another soldier, fighting at a different section of the same battle. You struggle to survive, but the bullets and chaos eventually, inevitably, overwhelm you. 

After five or six deaths, only one soldier from each side is left alive, and they wordlessly agree to drop their guns and stop fighting. It's a simple subversion of video games' oldest trope, the retry, which gracefully implies the futility and grotesqueness of war.

Heroic actions and impressive shooting still always result in death. People are meat being fed into a grinder. On each death, you are shown the name and age of the person whom you were just controlling. As well individualizing and humanizing these characters, after multiple body switches, the names and dates become, in your mind, difficult to remember and interchangeable. 

Battlefield 1's "memorial wall", by the sheer quantity of names it bears, paradoxically betrays not the honor or significance of personal sacrifice, but despair and defeat at trying to keep track of the innumerable lives taken by war. Suitably, the narrator concludes this opening level by commiserating how myriad war stories are "lost to history".

Its interest in individual people sets Battlefield 1 apart from its peers.

The game then, regrettably, doubles back on its mournful tone by presenting five more vignettes, literally called "war stories" and each centering on discernible, super-heroic individuals. A game about the First World War, which is also designed to be enjoyable to play, over and over, Battlefield 1 is nothing if not self-contradicting. But it nevertheless earns several small, significant moments.

The game's interest in individuals—no matter how sharply its tone sometimes contrasts with the opening level—sets Battlefield 1 apart from its peers. Two missions in Italy involve destroying German artillery and routing reinforcements, in order to protect a contingent of Allied troops attacking a nearby town. 

Typically, the dramatic stakes in these kinds of missions are rooted in a military objective: an early section of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare tasks you with capturing a town in order to secure intelligence about a group of terrorists. But Battlefield 1, again in an effort to humanize the people fighting on the ground during the First World War, invests you not in a general war effort but the personal circumstances of your character.

Battlefield 1 screen courtesy of EA

One of the soldiers attacking the town is his brother. As you destroy the German artillery and fight the reinforcements, you are doing so to protect a person close to you—the grand plan of the war is depicted as less important than the lives of individual people. 

A later mission—wherein, during the notoriously bloody invasion of Gallipoli, you must defend and rescue a young, optimistic soldier of the Australian Imperial Force—further expounds Battlefield 1's personification of history. Rather than offer statistics to illustrate the sadnesses of the First World War, the game leans into character-led melodrama.

As opposed to a factual one, Battlefield 1 prefers an emotional context for understanding WWI. Arguably, a statistic such as "20 million people died in the First World War," due to its enormity, cannot be processed like, and does not hit as hard as a single, anecdotal human tragedy.

If war can be characterized as a product of obtuse and complex political circumstances, the messy combat in Battlefield 1, to an extent, feels appropriate.

Small mechanical conceits go a long way to convey the havoc and physical hardship of war. Steering a tank in Battlefield 1 is slow and heavy work. The aforementioned Italian missions feature your character dressed in several bulky, iron armor plates: to walk through these levels, listening to his heavy breathing and the steady clank-clank of his footsteps, conveys struggle and endurance.

Gunfights often take place in wide, ill-defined areas and attacks come from all over. Particularly during the Gallipoli "war story", in which you play a runner, charged with delivering messages to scattered, embattled allies, there is terrific sense of chaos and absence of direction. 

If war can be characterized as a product of obtuse and complex political circumstances, out of which clear heroes or even victors rarely emerge, the messy combat in Battlefield 1, to an extent, feels appropriate. Like a soldier on the front line, unsure of who he is fighting or why, you often feel lost.

Battlefield 1 screen courtesy of EA

And yet Battlefield 1 is entertaining—vitally, it's a technically impressive, compelling game. Absolutely, its capacities for sorrowfulness, reflection and seriousness are damaged by its enjoyability. From its opening message, which reminds players the "War to end all Wars ended nothing... yet it changed the world forever," Battlefield 1—in its not entirely mature way—insists World War I is still relevant today.

Its character-focused vignettes and combat mechanics ingratiate vitality and immediacy, but the game's sheer spectacle impresses that the First World War—its tragedies and its consequences—are present inand prescient to the modern world. 

Battlefield 1 boasts the production values and bombast of a contemporary war shooter. Its attempts to be mournful may as a result be diminished, but inasmuch as the events of World War I directly led to World War II, which led to the Cold War, the Afghan War, the Gulf War, the War on Terror and so on, the game's adherence to current genre standards and forms implies that the First World War, despite ending almost a century ago, remains urgently felt today.

Unquestionably, it is crass to frame WWI as a fun, exciting shooter, just as it is crass to do the same to the war in Iraq. But by aesthetically and mechanically marrying an age-old war to a modern one suggests something of a respect, on behalf of Battlefield 1's makers, for the timeless significance and impact of the First World War.

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