header is screenshot from Battlefield V
The War We All Wanted
Ed Smith

I don’t think it was wrong of me, as a critic, to call for war games to have more soul and intellect. That project on which I embarked—along with, it seemed at the time, almost every other writer who was optimistic that videogames would improve—had credible and decent motives: we authentically believed that the history of war and the act of killing could potentially, by videogames, be presented in ways that made audiences think and feel deeply, experience reactions to simulated violence that they hadn’t experienced before. I also don’t think it was wrong of videogame makers, specifically in this case EA DICE, to respond to critics, players and the general changing tide of game culture, by attempting to make its Battlefield series more sentimental and wholesome.

The company (so much as a company can be credited with possessing human organs and their connotative emotions) apparently has a heart; with Battlefield V it’s tried to present the Second World War from diverse perspectives, remind audiences that people from all nations fought and died, and that it’s not only the American, British, or European heroes to whom history should be grateful. Like with its Play to Give charity initiative that campaigns for “inclusion and play,” when presented with EA’s Battlefield V, its “War Story” single-player missions that focus on a young woman fighting in the Norwegian resistance, and the Senegalese Tirailleurs, there is a part of me that’s reflexively cynical, that suspects automatically any big developer that advertises itself and its game on the basis of their progressiveness, and cultural multeity. I look at a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or a Battlefield: Hardline, and I see how game-makers take popular, urgent issues, in those cases mass shootings and police brutality, and use them as selling points. I can’t help but suspect that diversity and representation, two other urgent issues, are being used by EA and Battlefield V in exactly the same way—I don’t like the part of me that thinks this, but given how Battlefield V’s (ostensibly) good-intentioned single-player makes me as a critic feel, which is less-prepared to admonish the game and give it both barrels and say what I really think, because I don’t want to seem ignorant or solipsistic, it’s hard not to imagine that somebody, somewhere, has decided to make the game superficially more diverse not because they actually care about any of that stuff, but because they know it’ll make it less vulnerable to criticism; potentially more successful with the kind of people who typically heavily dispraise shooters.

It induces a kind of paralysis by self-analysis: if I give a bad notice or low score to a game that, earnestly or otherwise, has the potential to make some positive effect on changing its surrounding culture, am I vicariously holding that positive effect back? Am I by oblivious or even well-meaning proxy actually throwing in with, or giving aid to, people who’d prefer big videogames not to have women or black people in them? And should I even be worrying about this? Isn’t it just indicative of that ignorance and solipsism and conceited self-regard that when presented with these hitherto rarely-told, even-more-rarely-celebrated stories of World War Two heroism, and the contest for improved representation in popular media they tertiarily attend, what’s foremost on my mind is how I sound discussing them, and what my reaction to them could mean? I don’t know. I don’t know. But I do feel certain that although there was a broad and sanguine call for smarter and deeper war games, and a big game developer, in this case EA DICE, may have responded to that call in what it believed was an authentic, convincing and enthusiastic way, the result of our efforts—the war game we all wanted, or at least, the way the war game that is the product of our mutual aspirations and striving has ended up turning out—is not very good. The representation and appetite for history are certainly improved, but Battlefield V possesses so few of the qualities that, surely most people would agree, are fundamental in war genre—this isn’t a startling, visceral, emotionally-trying experience; it’s repetitive, bloodless and all the feelings and facts are delivered pre-chewed. Regardless of war geography or era—inconsiderate of who you’re playing as or where—the mechanics and action are precisely the same. Context and characterisation are communicated using white text on a black background and, especially in the game’s opening, death by explosions and or bullets is presented as gentle and transcendent, a fleeting, painless moment of beautiful tragedy that’s absolutely worth it, since it inducts you into history’s annals.

The game, by being broadened and diversified, wasn’t doomed to become all of these things. It’s not like Battlefield, by attempting to grow in intelligence and fairness of representation, has become a worse war game; Battlefield hasn’t been a great war game for a long time, and “repetitive,” “bloodless,” and “pre-chewed” could go for virtually any entry in the series. But digging into other historical directions, taking into account more varied perspectives and generally thinking and feeling about war in an increased way, all those things critics and players advocated and EA seemed very receptive to, they were supposed—I think—to make Battlefield, and by implication the rest of the videogame war genre, starker, more vivid, more engaging. If the dynamic which exists between game-makers and game-players did possess a shared hope in regards to war games, and if that shared hope could be sublimated into a pithy rallying cry, it was that everyone, the people creating it and the people experiencing it, would care more about all the on-screen death. That doesn’t feel like what’s happened. Through some miscommunication or misdirection or misappropriation, when playing Battlefield V, it feels like by trying to be better in some ways the war game has become worse, or at least remained as bad as before, in others, and that those weaknesses are now redoubled and further heightened by comparison to the improvements elsewhere, and in fact have the effect of pulling the improvements down also; when the violence and spectacle are still so superficial, the wartime tribulations of the admittedly better array of characters become superficial as well, and everyone’s good intentions start to look like they’ve been wasted.


Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.