I've often wondered how World War I would translate to a video game. The most notable work of fiction ever published about the era is probably All Quiet on the Western Front – a radically pacifist story originally published in 1929 about a young German soldier and his life in the trenches. While the battle scenes are grotesque and horrifying, one of the things you come away with is just how boring life on the front could be. You sit there for weeks, malnourished, absorbing constant shellings, hanging your socks out to dry to avoid trenchfoot, and wait for the day to charge and (probably) get mowed down by the machine guns waiting on the other side. Translating that reality to a blockbuster entertainment franchise seems daunting, if not impossible.
The first thing you see when you boot up Battlefield 1 – the latest, and somewhat confusingly-titled entry in the hit first person shooter series, out this week for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC – is a black screen with a message telling you that the touted War to End All Wars in fact ended nothing. It serves as a solemn reminder that one of the most brutal acts of bloodshed in modern history only served as the prelude to something even worse. In the prologue, you are dropped into the trenches of an American battalion under siege. The rain pounds into the earth. You fire endless rounds into a foggy haze of nothing in particular while artillery shells whizz by your ears. When you inevitably succumb to the guns, or the gas, or the mortars, you're given a black screen with a name and a lifespan, and are immediately placed behind the eyes of another terrified young soldier.
The message is clear. Nobody really won in World War I. There was no glory. It was a conflict that erupted due to paranoia, secret alliances, and the stockpiling of new, deadly munitions across Europe. DICE – the studio tasked with making all this work – could've easily thrown out the history and put together a globetrotting, special agent adventure in the vein of your average Call of Duty game, but instead they've done something a lot more tasteful. The single player experience in Battlefield 1 is a collection of individual novellas that focus specifically on a small, personal story: an odd-couple pilot partnership; a young woman in the midst of the Arab revolt; an Australian troubadour and a young soldier who probably lied about his age. In fact, the only immediately recognizable character is probably Lawrence of Arabia, who you accompany during the Arab Revolt in 1916.
This is smart. There are no flashpoint moments in World War I – you can't build to The Battle of the Bulge or Iwo Jima – but instead of trying to retell all that unknown history in a grand meta-narrative, DICE boils it down to its essentials. Some of the vignettes are told completely retrospectively – an old man's daughter asks about the fate of her uncle. He narrates our actions as we're transported to the Italian front on the eastern alps, and slowly trudge up the mountains with a machine gun and a heavy iron chestplate, before an errant bombing run casts us down into a deadly avalanche. In another story, about a British tank crew in dire straits, the player takes control of a carrier pigeon with crucial, life-saving information. You soundlessly fly over the carnage – just a few moments of placidity before returning to hell. Nothing here turns the tide. This war wasn't about good and evil. The historical conclusion it reached in real life was hollow and unsatisfying. Instead of sweetening it up for baseline customers, DICE presents human beings under impossible circumstances. It would've been dishonest to do anything else.
Battlefield 1 fails in one crucial area. Each of the six War Stories are presented from an Allied perspective. The Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire – are omitted. World War II shooters have always been cautious about handing the narrative reigns to an Axis combatant for obvious reasons, but World War I should be different. Nobody entered cleanly, the provocations and declarations were all muddy and senseless, and for a game that prides itself on stripping away god and country to spotlight intimate struggles, it feels lopsided to fixate entirely on the West. At the conclusion of one section, the epilogue lamented the Ottomans as brave men who fought tooth and nail for their country. But during the actual gameplay they were relegated to the same endless, faceless target practice as Nazis, or zombies, or aliens, or any other stock enemy that populates a first-person shooter.
I especially feel bad for the Germans, who have been served up as the final boss in so many games over the past few decades. For the first time, they're featured in a war where they're not the default villains, and yet they still get pigeonholed into the exact same place. It's a missed opportunity. Why not take the chance to evoke what it was like fighting for the dying embers of the Ottoman Empire, or explore the tensions between Austrian and Hungarian soldiers?
There's always a lot of cognitive dissonance when you're making a historical war game, but Battlefield 1 aims to take World War I beyond a clash of nations, to a place where the soldiers are just the boys and men they were at home. It does a great job at that, but it also plays it safe. Humanizing a sobering conflict is a noble goal, but it only works when everyone is invited to the table.
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