World War 2 is back in, but exactly what that means for mainstream shooters, if anything, is unclear. Reid McCarter and Ed Smith discuss Battlefield V and its depiction of the past.
Reid McCarter: Over the last three years, we’ve had three big-budget shooters set during the World Wars. There was Battlefield 1 back in 2016, the inventively named Call of Duty: WWII last year, and now here’s Battlefield V. With each of these games, especially given their multiplayer focus, I’ve thought a lot about their attempts to balance reverence and mindless excitement—about what, if any, obligation these things have to portraying the gravity of the wars they’re set within—and I think Battlefield V is something like a tipping point for me sort of just falling into apathy regarding this whole subject. I’m not moved much by the historical backdrop being repurposed into a good time shooter anymore, by which I mean the question of “is this in anything like good taste?” has been beaten out of me a bit. It all just seems too abstract and distant, even though I do very much care about the effect a game like Battlefield V has on portraying its subject matter to a broad audience.
I think this is a topic that remains important when looking at any of these historically-themed shooters, but this year in particular—or maybe it’s something about Battlefield V specifically—it’s especially hard to see the game as anything more than a really loud colouring book or a detailed set of self-regenerating dioramas to smash up. And this should be disconcerting to some extent, but I feel a little deadened to all of it.
Basically, I want to know what reaction you had to the game’s historical setting. Did it ever stir anything in you in single or multiplayer?
Ed Smith: I think it stirred something but not in response to the game or its historical setting directly, more in response to myself and why I play all this shit. It’s not comprehensive but something of a checklist of requirements for a game set in the past, more specifically during World War II. I want it to:
- Move me emotionally
- Teach me something
- Excite me and be spectacular
- Feel well-researched and like it has some relevance to the present day as well
Battlefield V didn’t/doesn’t hit any of these notes, so all I’m left wondering—responding to—is my own having played it. And it’s not that there isn’t or are no reasons; it’s that the reasons have nothing to do with the game specifically. I’m probably playing it to kill time, anaesthetise myself for a while and farm something for opinions and articles, and that could go for any game—or anything, really. I played it and responded to it because it was what was in front of me at the time, I suppose. And now I’m entering the realm of despondent game review cliches: serviceable sequel, does what it says on the tin, does the job. The question now is whether I’ve the energy or enthusiasm, and think it’s worthwhile doing, becoming indignant that a game about the Second World War is this ineffectual: can I be bothered to be bothered? Can you?
Reid: I want to care more. That sounds super backhanded, but I don’t mean it to be. I think about subjects that interest me most and, really, up near the top of the list is 20th century history and the Second World War, which is endlessly fascinating and horrifying and informative of the state of the world today. And yet, I couldn’t care very much here.
What made me want to play this game, beyond knowing that multiplayer Battlefield, regardless of setting, is generally a good time (and the multiplayer here has been a very good time so far), was the focus on relatively “unknown” aspects of the war. I was very much looking forward to seeing what was done with the different “War Stories” here because just the descriptions alone—a Senegalese unit fighting in France; a British convict exchanging prison time for military service; a Norwegian civilian sabotaging her country’s Nazi occupiers; a German tank commander facing up to his country's defeat—are all so much more engaging than another retelling of American troops in Western Europe during the last two years of the war. But each of these set-ups are really hollow in practice. I think of what could be said, with the hindsight of 70 plus years, about post-war decolonization in Africa or multiculturalism and racism in “the liberal West” in one story, about demythologizing patriotism in favour of stories regarding personal and national self interest in another. But instead the game is largely just bland. It starts conversations it doesn’t seem interested in having.
So a part of me wants to jump on these points and pull what I can from the text (and I will and am doing this here and elsewhere to some extent) but another wants to talk about gunplay and level progression and take the World War II setting as nothing more than paint on the walls rather than anything to really engage with. But that feels lazy or defeatist almost. So, this is a roundabout way of saying that I am bothered, but mostly bothered about not being bothered.
Should it be concerning that the response to evoking the Second-goddamned-World War leaves us both not enthusiastic or offended or in possession of any other strong response, but sort of just … bored? I’m not asking for a digression into postmodern theory 101, but I am curious what you think about how bizarre it is to be so cold on historical events that are, usually by simple reference alone, so monumentally powerful.
Ed: I think that’s the unique power of videogames, to make the affecting unaffecting; to de-brain, de-heart, and escapism-ise everything they touch. I have no problem, personally, with delving into postmodern theory and “what does it all mean?” style conversations because I think there are a lot of questions, about videogames’ soul, that are unaddressed, and one of the reasons this kind of talk is avoided—under the rubric of it being pretentious, sophomoric, onanistic, etc—is actually because the can of worms is so enormous, and opening it probably means conceding that this thing we’ve spent so much of our lives on is congenitally, artistically defective, which is an intimidating prospect.
Even the intelligentsia camps of critics, players, and game-makers have dedicated their time and work to strengthening the medium’s ability and license to—for example—deliver a World War II story that’s completely inoffensive. We’ve made it so that the greatest accolade a game can receive is “it’s really fun.” We take intelligent and educated people and commit them to two years designing downloadable weapon skins, or plausible dust particle effects, or other trivial shit. So it’s no wonder to me that this game is also so trivial. In my response to your first question I made it seem like my absence of a response to Battlefield V was totally the result of a personal crisis. And to some extent it is: you spend so long and so much playing videogames over and over again, and you grow up a little, and of course it becomes increasingly difficult to find them enthusing. But then also, that crisis wasn’t immaculately conceived. If three war games in a row, Battlefield 1, Call of Duty: WW2, and now Battlefield V, can leave me feeling absolutely zero, something is wrong, surely—I mean, surely that’s not a controversial or loves-the-sound-of-his-own-complaining kind of point to make.
And I feel like the people making the game know this as well, hence you getting those tokenistic concessions to alternate historical viewpoints. It seems like a craven attempt to claw back some credibility.
Reid: So my final question, then, in light of the rest of this conversation, is simply: is there a game you would point to that has managed to make good on a WWII setting? I ask this not because I want to end on a different subject than the game at hand, but because I think there’s a subtext running through this exchange that could suggest that games can’t tackle this history rather than the problem being a few examples of it being done poorly, as in Battlefield V. I think there are notable exceptions—the first Call of Duty, despite imitating well-known WWII films so strongly, is still striking, as are the Red Orchestra games among others I’m forgetting—but I’ll leave it to you to hear your thoughts.
Ed: It doesn’t have a strict WWII setting but LA Noire makes good on a lot of the promises of other WWII games, I think. It’s melancholy and deep and implicates America. Medal of Honor, Medal of Honor: Underground, and Medal of Honor: Frontline as well. If part of what Battlefield V or Call of Duty: WWII are trying to do is make you interested in and care about the war, the U-boat and V2 rocket lab levels in the first Medal of Honor I think do a better job of transmitting and making entertaining war history, and the “Arnhem Knights” level in MoH: Frontline is more somber than anything in either of them, just owing to the title and the music as well. I think because these games really ram down the horror and sadness of the war, in this way that feels artificial and forced, I get the sense the people making the games are actually disinterested by the war. There’s this false enthusiasm, this really mawkish over-sentiment, that I think betrays a resentment, almost like they’re trying, really trying, to make themselves believe in what they’re producing. And if they need to force themselves to care about the Second World War, or something like it, I think that’s what leads to the disconnect from these games that I feel as a player.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE.
Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.