Battlefield 1: If It Told the Truth
Ed Smith
If you know nothing about the First World War, Battlefield 1 isn't going to help. Moment to moment the game is chaotic and tense. On occasions, it's melancholic. But though it ingratiates a basic, heartfelt sympathy toward the soldiers of the First World War, Battlefield 1 provides little to no historical information. Short, written introductions precede each level, but they are too terse, and the levels themselves too disparate and spread over too many countries and chronologies, to benefit a clear, factual story. In general, the game is both scared to say anything and over-eager to leave. The brevity of each of level, or “War Story,” demonstrates not concise, efficient writing but timidity and pretension. Battlefield 1 portends to humble reflection. In actuality, its laconic style betrays apprehension and absence of depth. Something has happened to the makers of war games. In the 1990s, using the Second World War as a narrative skeleton, they told clear stories which were partially—or sometimes largely—based in truth. However, after the early 2000s, the War on Terror and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, all of that changed. Confronted by a new kind of war, one that was propagated on dubious political engineering and fought against an unclear, ever-changing enemy, the creators of war games were unable to continuing telling simplistic moral fables. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, America and Britain did not, uniformly, constitute the good side. Between Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin-Laden, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the role of villain kept shifting. Especially when thousands of civilians were being killed every week by Western bombs, it was difficult to identify precisely who were the aggressors. And so game-makers, rather than contend with the new and complex circumstances now before them, started to create—with only the slightest adherence to history or fact—their own war stories. Suddenly, players were not fighting existent terrorist groups, but, as in games like Homefront and Call of Duty: Ghosts, far-fetched and hypothetical ones. The morals and practises of front line combat, in the modern world deemed too ambiguous and opaque, were ignored in favour of easier to tell fairy-tales about hyperbolic, down the line special forces soldiers. Out of the War on Terror, game-makers sculpted their own World War Two: unambiguous, noble and with the Allied powers cast, errantly, as the underdogs. Over almost ten years, beginning with Modern Warfare in 2007, history and factual basis were phased out of war shooters—the genre concentrated on entirely different things. A game like Battlefield 1 has, or rather had, the opportunity to buck the trend. But a strange thing has happened. Rather than the canon of historical war games from the 1990s, Battlefield 1 has adopted the narrative model of games from the post Modern Warfare, post War on Terror era. Its makers have at their disposal reams of information, resources and factual material—the story of World War I, certainly more than the story of the war in Iraq, has been told and can be understood. But a narrative style which deliberately reshapes and distorts has crept so far into war games that Battlefield 1, despite its inherent factual basis, is given to incredible, simplistic fiction. Rather than front line soldiers or decisive battles, the game focuses on five ultra-heroic individuals and their personal deeds. Instead of contending with the true and chaotic nature of World War 1, Battlefield, like many of its predecessors and contemporaries, tells contained, straightforward stories, using the actualities of its war only for backdrop. War games based around modern and recondite conflicts have not only birthed their own narrative tropes, they have, with Battlefield 1, successfully exported them into games centred on older, firmer, more fathomable history. Confronted by the abstruse reality of contemporary warfare, game-makers not only retreated into outright fantasy, but did so successfully. Black Ops 3, perhaps the most extravagant game in the Call of Duty series, made $550 million in three days. At time of writing, Infinite Warfare, Black Ops' successor, and Battlefield 1, sit at places one and two on the UK game chart respectively. And so rewriting war into a simple, affirming tale has not only eased the role of a videogame writer but redefined it. Now, because it is what shooter games are expected to do, even long-standing and broadly understood history—a narrative which is already prepared for writers and audiences—must be further formulated and glanced over. Where thematically it does not fit, and where a previous set of approaches worked more effectively and produced better, more honest work, a familiar storytelling model is being adapted for use in all war games. When history was still unwritten and the reality of modern war was, even for the most dedicated followers of news and literature, difficult to explain, game-makers, whom serve a notoriously young and capricious audience, could almost be excused for repairing to fantasy worlds. But to a game about the First World War, such justifications do not apply. The research is available. Via a century's worth of history writing and hindsight, the facts are known. Without considerable dumbing down and reduction, the war has a traceable, often moral story already. One worries that game-makers have gotten so used to focusing on superheroes instead of heroes, imagination instead of fact, that it has destroyed their ability to work with even the most readily printable material. Without streamlining or emphasising, the First World War is an eminently exciting story. Battlefield 1's disservice is not just to prestigious, fragile history, but the dramatic thrust of an action game. If it told the truth, it would be better.


Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.