The Great War in Games Media

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“War is, first and foremost, a tragedy” – Dan Carlin’s Ghosts of the Ost Front, Part IV

 

When looking back at a history of military-themed games, the king of all settings is quite clearly the Second World War. It’s not hard to see why; the war provides excellent avenues for gameplay with modern armies equipped with tanks, planes, and all kinds of automatic weaponry as well as a very palatable good versus evil dichotomy, pitting the righteous Allies versus National Socialism. Not only that but, in terms of speaking to the American audience (of which I am a part of), the war is one in which the U.S. played a vital (yet overrated) role in the defeat of Germany. Here in the United States, our great war really was the Second World War, leaving the First Word War overshadowed by its more modern sibling. With the release of EA’s highly anticipated Battlefield 1 imminent, I find it is an excellent moment for a wider audience to learn and better understand the intricacies and the horrors of the war (Eurogamer has an excellent article on this). But, being an avid military historian, what I don’t want is the glorification of this war. To me, the history of the First World War is a history of average human beings getting swept up into events beyond their control and confronting the sheer barbarism of which man is capable; that is why I think it is important that Battlefield 1 takes a page from Valiant Hearts: The Great War and tells a grounded approach to the conflict.

Valiant Hearts is a platformer from Ubisoft that follows the stories of four different individuals that are wrapped up into the conflict. While they all are from different combatants (French, German, American, and Belgian), their experiences weave into each other as they fight all across the Western Front. Along the way, you collect things and notes that turn the game into a playable museum, following the war all the way up to the end of 1917, just as the first American doughboys were landing in France. Both of these elements more than made the game fascinating to me; it became one of the better war games I have ever played.

 

****** SPOILERS AHEAD *****

 

The tale of Emile is one that emphasises the great heroism and the awfulness that the war brought to Europe during August in 1914. Drafted into the French army at the outset of war, he is captured by the Germans, then freed and eventually repatriated into the French army. Throughout, he ends up at the hottest spots in the war, like the First Battle of the Marne (1914), the Battle of the Somme (1916), the Battle of Verdun (1916), and the disastrous Chemin Des Dames offensive (1917). By the end, Emile has seen some of the most gruelling combat in the history of warfare (the effect is somewhat reduced because of the game’s art style). However, during the Chemin Des Dames offensive, the morale of the French Army had slipped after the millions of French corpses that now lay across the green fields of France. Emile, seeing that his own company was being sent into a slaughterhouse led by a captain who gave little thought to the lives of the men under him, tries to knock the captain out and rescind the order, inadvertently killing the officer. Emile is court martialed and shot by his own country men while his voice overlays his last words to his darling daughter.

Now, I bring up that little bit of story/history because I think this is one area that Battlefield 1 has to take into account; the First World War was not the mobile war that was seen in the 1940s but a static, brutal war where men were forced time and time again to undertake almost certainly suicidal missions to move just a few hundred yards forward. When they were not dying in between the trenches by the hundreds, they would cower in their trenches, amongst the rats and the corpses, experiencing the heaviest artillery barrages in the history of warfare. It was so much less about participating in these large-scale, famous battles where the victory was clear. This war was so much more about the high price of victory  and the savagery that modern war inflicted upon humanity. The irony in Emile’s story is that he was a true hero for France; he fought well throughout the war and genuinely tried to protect the common French poilu (infantryman). He’s murdered because he tries to save his own men from the hell that was the war. I’m afraid that, with the market incentive to create a big-budget action game, Dice might de-emphasize the essential nastiness that was trench warfare. To its advantage, Valiant Heart eschews direct combat for platforming and stealth. This allowed them to make a game about war without getting caught up in the While it is easy to get caught up in the great leaps of technology that the era brought, it is a disservice to the men who fought on all sides to not tell a story that appropriately portrays the trials of combat on the Western and Eastern Fronts.

What Battlefield 1 does provide is a sense of realism that Valiant Hearts could not deliver. UbiArt is a fantastic framework and it made Valiant Hearts a charmingly gorgeous game. But its cartoonish aesthetic can limit the impact of its more dramatic moments like charging machine gun nests in the First Battle of the Marne or running through gas at the Second Battle of Ypres. With their incredible Frostbite Engine, DICE can bring an amount of photorealism to the Great War that Valiant Hearts could not in making the design choice to go with the UbiArt environment.

From the gameplay footage I have seen so far, DICE seems to have little understanding of the meat of the Great War. Granted, most of what I’ve seen has been multiplayer footage but it shows gameplay that is fast-paced and mobile, with tanks that are clunky yet mobile. Of course, DICE wants to make the combat fun for players who are accustomed to the twitchy nature of first-person shooters, but there should be some thought to the historical accuracy. Am I being a stickler? Yes, I know I am. But I think it is important that, with this being the first AAA experience set in the conflict and it coinciding with the centennial of the war’s worst year, there be some modicum of honesty in portraying what these men actually went through. Valiant Hearts does so by detailing the tragic story of a French soldier caught between duty to his superiors and duty to his own comrades, a very real struggle experienced throughout this conflict (Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Louis Barthas, 1914-1918 is a great example of this). I think DICE can manage to blend the gameplay they are known for with a relatively accurate portrayal of the war. But, especially in regards to something as terrible as war, I think it is important to carefully tread the line between fun and realistic so as to avoid glorifying the deaths of millions of French, British, German, Australian, New Zealand, Algerian, American, etc. in a war that was so tragically avoidable. If EA could manage to make the landings at Normandy feel both entertaining and terrifying in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault there’s no reason they can’t do the same for Battlefield 1.