I’m no historian but I grew up with one, and I found the idea of Battlefield 1 fairly uncomfortable. Throughout my youth, my father would teach me about World War 1 and tell me stories of my great grandfather, who was temporarily blinded by a gas attack in that same war, and who inspired my father to join the army once he was old enough to do so.
I never knew my father as a soldier–he fought long before I was born–but one thing I did know is that there was no glory in conflict. Everything he’d learned from relatives and his own experiences suggested that war was beyond awful and all too often a pointless waste of lives. This seems to be all the more relevant when looking at World War 1.
A war that mostly occurred due to a mixture of alliances forcing everyone’s hand to get involved, World War 1 was primarily about attrition, trench warfare, disease, and survival. With about 8.5 million dead combatants and a legacy that contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany, and therefore World War 2, it’s an especially uncomfortable war to look back on.
It’s strange to admit that some wars seem more palatable than others. It shouldn’t matter what the conflict is because, arguably, none should be glorified in a video game. Yet something about Battlefield 1 and World War 1 makes it all the more awkward–a harsh reminder of why this war is so rarely covered in gaming.
In the case of Battlefield 1, there’s some somber contemplation in the opening minutes. Text appears on screen to point out that while WWI was considered the war that ended all wars, it actually ended nothing, while still changing the world forever.
Death is incredibly easy to come by when the game first starts. A disclaimer states ‘you are not expected to survive’ and you don’t. You hold off a few attacks before dying. A date appears showing how depressingly young the soldier was that you were controlling, then you’re thrown straight back into battle as another soldier. That’s about as far as Battlefield 1 gets in terms of atmosphere or appreciating just what a bleak situation it was, though.
Perhaps appropriately given the huge death toll involved in World War 1, Battlefield 1 deviates from the usual theme of following one character throughout the game, and splits things up into a series of war stories. This paves the way to some welcome diversity, but it also glorifies specific moments.
For instance, one sequence has you controlling a British plane as they attempt to defeat German aces over the western front. The average lifespan of an Allied pilot in 1915 was a mere 11 days, dropping to only hours in certain moments of the war. Such bleakness wouldn’t make a great game though, so don’t expect to see anything like the horror that actually happened.
Another story has you controlling a British tank crew as they attempt to survive an assault in France. It’s nearly successful at making the player think about the horrors involved, but everything about it is peculiarly sanitized; even the mud doesn’t seem particularly deep or treacherous. It’s a similar story when controlling an armored Italian soldier as he expresses dread at ‘returning’ to the trenches to find his brother.
Those trenches look suspiciously clean and far from gruesome. There may be bodies scattered around but the bloodshed is minimal. A scene such as this could have been enhanced by including soldiers dying of disease or suffering from ‘trench foot’–a particularly nasty part of trench warfare. Including details like that would be a bit too bleak for a franchise so keen to be gungho about warfare, though.
Where Battlefield 1 nearly succeeds is in its portrayal of areas of the war that have been relatively ignored in mainstream media depictions. One sequence looks at Arab tribes rebelling against the oppression of the Ottoman Empire, for example, and you play as a Muslim Bedouin woman, highlighting how women had an important role to play in this conflict too. Particularly appealing to fans of Lawrence of Arabia, it’s a pleasant change of pace, suggesting that Battlefield 1 is trying its best with some tough source material.
Similarly, there’s a look at an Anzac runner as they attempt to deliver urgent messages across the front line. Vulnerability plays an important part of adding to the tension here, as stealth becomes a larger factor.
That’s precisely what Battlefield 1 needs to truly capture the feelings provoked by World War 1–a sense of helplessness, confusion, and terror. Without those–and the gas, and the disease–it all feels a little like a cookie-cutter war game. Something that doesn’t do justice to the memory and the legacy of such an awful war.