Battlefield 1, By the Numbers
Reid McCarter

It’s difficult to think about World War I without considering its scale. Tens of millions of soldiers and civilians dead and wounded within a handful of years; millions more to come in the revolutions and genocides directly associated with the war. When an era’s causalities rise to these heights, the unique tragedy of individual lives, families, and communities broken or torn apart by conflict is subsumed by the impersonality of numbers. The World Wars are human disasters so immense that it’s tempting to fall back on referencing that apocryphal Stalin quote to describe them: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” To do so is an obvious disservice. History is always struggling with immediacy. Its greatest enemy is the idea that events from another time or place—events that happened to another person—have no bearing on the present day. Render the past into a spreadsheet and it becomes easy to view it (and, most importantly, the people who lived it) with dispassion. This is a familiar problem for anyone hoping to express the complexity of an event as momentous as the First World War in art or entertainment. How can something that spanned continents and years, destroying global empires and entire populations, be captured in even the longest film, book, or game; the most carefully considered music or visual art? Take too holistic a view and war becomes as bloodless as a textbook, the unthinkable agonies and hopes of those caught in its wake turned into figures in spreadsheets and arrows on maps. A too intimate perspective annihilates the perspective that sets one time and place apart from another. (This may be a more valuable approach—the homogeny of human violence as a wretched, universal constant—but it has a flattening effect, ignoring the value of political and ideological causes, threatening to suggest that every conflict, from Nazi Germany’s September Campaign to the English Civil War, is essentially the same.) Still, as difficult as it may be, the artist’s job is to find ways into the subject matter she’s chosen—to burrow around until the right spot has been found through which a statement can be made that justifies a premise. If one doesn’t present itself then the project should be abandoned. There are plenty of talented, creative people who find themselves drawn to a topic that, approached more closely, has to be left alone until further inspiration strikes and a way forward can be thought out. The artist has to choose her subject deliberately and carefully. Otherwise, the work that follows will likely end up at odds with itself, struggling to find its actual purpose, let alone communicate its intentions to an audience. All of this considered, who would envy anyone asked to make a mainstream action game set during World War I? EA DICE’s Battlefield 1, even before its release, faced immense challenges. The easiest arguments against its existence centred primarily on the inevitable dissonance of portraying the horrors of WWI through a videogame where shooting and being shot at by enemies would need to be, on some level, enjoyable. This, I think, isn’t insurmountable, though. Games have managed (if rarely) to communicate the misery and terror of conflict by shoving the players face directly into the muck they sign up to witness (IO Interactive’s Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days) or undermining minor victories in combat with reminders of the larger, systemic injustices of participating in a cruel, needless war (Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare). A thoughtful approach taken into account, there is nothing that makes the First World War any more sacred than contemporary conflicts either. No matter when, where, or between which groups a war was fought, every event involves loss and devastation. Portraying any real-world conflict has to be handled with a level of consideration for those involved. In this sense, Battlefield 1’s setting is as difficult a proposition as any of the pseudo-historic takes on the 21st century Iraq and Afghanistan Wars featured in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games. The challenge faced by EA DICE is not so much about the possibility of respectfully, intelligently communicating the brutality of the First World War, but in choosing how to say something of value about a complicated conflict that stretched across the globe and directly influenced the shape of the modern world. Battlefield 1’s set of short “War Stories” are meant to marry a comprehensive, international perspective with smaller, emotionally resonant and character-driven snapshots of ordinary soldiers. The game’s plot is segmented entirely into relatively brief vignettes: American Harlem Hellfighters defending territory in 1918 France, a British tank driver fighting in the Battle of Cambrai, an Italian pushing Austro-Hungarians from the Northern Italian Dolomites in 1918, a Bedouin raider attacking Ottomans in 1918 as part of the Arab Revolt, an American civilian pilot who ends up aiding the British Royal Flying Corps in 1917, and an Australian taking part in the Battle of Gallipoli. This heap of nouns and dates looks, in writing, like a fairly audacious attempt at representing the massive scale of WWI, but the in-game effect is scattershot and far too brisk to establish any meaningful context, dramatic or historical. The game’s somewhat broad (not broad enough to meaningfully portray the Central Powers) approach to the war is meant, I think, to show the player that the era’s combat touched the lives of very different people, from very different cultures. None of its characters, though, are presented as much other than blandly heroic. Aside from a light seasoning of national stereotypes (the cavalier American, romantic Italian, and stoic Englishman), the stars of each story are little more than hands holding guns or animate vehicles of war. Their character arcs impart almost nothing of interest. “War is horrible,” each story says in turn. “Many courageous people fought hard in battles staged amidst many different types of scenery.” (The lone exception is the fantastic experimentation of the Harlem Hellfighters’ prologue, in which each player death shifts perspective to a brand new character, subverting videogame respawn systems to hammer home the inane horror of WWI’s enormous human cost.) It’s cold and emotionless, engaging neither the head or the heart. Its attempts to communicate history are ultimately callow, the attempted apolitical skimming of subjects like the Arab Revolt, America’s late entry to the war, and the fall of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires suggesting an interest in WW1 aesthetics rather than substance. Even though each story’s viewpoint may be narrow—an Italian man trying to rescue his brother; a British tank driver trying to survive a terrifying first mission—that doesn’t mean that these characters must be rendered as incapable of relaying something of their culture, politics, or ideology. The tanker may have no genuine convictions as to the survival of the British Empire or the need to curb German expansionism, but his very presence in the war can at least communicate something about how a young man in his position might have felt about his mission and country. Otherwise, what are we left with? Why are we immersing ourselves in history if not to glean even the faintest knowledge of the people alive during its events? Battlefield 1 is not obliged to provide its audience an in-depth education, but, as historical fiction, it will only resonate as worthwhile art by offering its audience more than accurate depictions of British fighter planes or the cut of an Ottoman soldier’s uniform. As it is, the game is populated only by cardboard cutouts, gorgeously rendered automatons performing empty martial gestures against lavishly detailed backdrops. It tries to sidestep the inherent problem of depersonalizing history by presenting players with intimate portraits of average people, motivated by relatable desires, but goes too far, unwilling to offer the context needed to fully establish them as believable characters. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what history means. Even though an attempt to portray only the scope of an era risks dehumanizing its events, stripping historical circumstance from the personalities of people who lived it is similarly mechanistic. A Bedouin woman risking her life to drive Ottoman occupiers from her homeland is not just an angry mannequin with a gun. She’s someone who understands the immediate political context of being an occupied person. She does not need to explicitly outline centuries of history, but can at least express an opinion of what imperial rule means to her as a person—a Bedouin, an Arab, a Muslim person—who fights to achieve some future outcome, even if only for herself. History is not something that happens apart from people's everyday existence. It is an accounting of our lives. Freed from providing either an impersonal, statistics-style recounting or an adequately expressed “eyewitness” drama of the First World War, Battlefield 1 is left confused. This isn’t the fault of its setting—of choosing to engage with a well-documented and brutal war—but of the game’s inability to decide on a firm approach as to what it wants to communicate.


Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.