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The Brutal History Lesson of ‘Battlefield I’

What can a video game teach you about World War I?

Electronic Arts
Electronic Arts

Battlefield 1 is a video game of spectacular savagery. It’s set during World War I, a time when Europe still belonged to the 19th century. The French army marched in similar uniforms to what they wore in the days of Napoleon — blue coats, red trousers, with plumed helmets for the cavalry, even though such garb was not particularly utilitarian and very easy to target. Armies were slow to react to new weapons that butchered with industrial efficiency. Troops on all sides charged across open ground at dug-in machine gun positions. Horses saw more action than tanks. The clash of new technology and old strategies resulted in carnage. The British Army suffered 57,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, including nearly 20,000 killed. In all, 38 million people perished during the Great War.

In his stunning memoir of the war, Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger described a feeling of “visionary excitement” that only “the extreme nearness of death” could produce. “In moments when I felt it,” he wrote, “I experienced no fear as such but a kind of exalted, almost demoniacal lightness; often attended by fits of laughter I was unable to repress.”

When its art design, animations, virtual environments, and chaotic gameplay all click, Battlefield 1 produces its own, (obviously) much weaker shade of “demoniacal lightness.” It allows players to experience the visual and aural trappings of early-20th-century combat — charging uphill through columns of smoke at an enemy strongpoint, your squadmates around you; swinging a cavalry trooper’s sword from horseback as dogfighting biplanes wheel high overhead; sprinting through a trench at an enemy soldier who’s screaming because his coat is on fire, and sticking him with your bayonet — with none of the inherent dangers.

It’s not a perfect game — the controls could be tighter, the maps could be better balanced. But at its best, it’s an amazing game. BF1 shrinks the player’s distance from the spectacle of war while banishing the ceaseless moral tragedy to the fringes of awareness. It’s the high point of the Battlefield series.

Battlefield 1942, released for PC in 2002, established the Battlefield brand as large-scale, multiplayer chaos with a real-world aesthetic. Its signature game mode, “Conquest,” pits two teams of 32 players against each other — using tanks, jeeps, aircraft — for control territory on a huge map. The settings for the last three titles in the series — Battlefield 3 (2011), Battlefield 4 (2013), and Battlefield: Hardline (2015) — were set in the current milieu.

I’ve played every Battlefield console release since 2005’s Battlefield 2: Modern Combat — six games in all — and found each to be disappointing. The games have always been buggy; in Battlefield 3 and 4, I encountered a glitch where certain guns wouldn’t fire. A downloadable weapons pack I purchased for BF3 never appeared in my game. And the technology that undergirded the console versions of the games looked and felt decidedly second-rate compared with its PC cousins. The graphics were duller, and movement and aiming was imprecise. Battlefield 1 doesn’t have these problems.

Ironically, it’s when Battlefield 1 attempts to pay homage to the lives lost in World War I that the game stumbles. “War Stories,” the game’s single-player mode, puts you in the virtual boots of the kinds of real people who fought in the Great War — a Bedouin rebel fighting alongside Lawrence of Arabia, a British tank driver, a runner on the beaches of Gallipoli, a dogfighting pilot, the Harlem Hellfighters, etc. The historical context for these stories is barely hinted at. Little is said, for instance, of the battles the black soldiers of the Harlem Hellfighters faced at home.

In theory, “War Stories” is a good faith effort at honoring those who fought and died in World War I. In practice, it amounts to little more than a series of high-concept tutorials. If you’re playing as a real person, it logically follows that the nonplayable characters you’re shooting represent real people as well. Their stories remain untold. Killing them doesn’t produce the same feeling of excitement as killing player-controlled enemies in multiplayer does. In fact, killing them generates no feeling whatsoever. This seems like the opposite effect one would want from an immersive history lesson.

With “War Stories,” then, BF1 tries to have it both ways — it wants you to know that it knows that war is tragic, but it also wants you get in the driver’s seat of a tank because killing folks is fun and that’s why you bought the game.

Attempting to grapple with real effects of violence in a first-person shooter is difficult. In the context of a big-budget, AAA action titles, it may even be impossible. This is often where shooters mess up. 2014’s Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare places its protagonist at the grave of his best friend and prompts the player to “press X to pay your respects.” And Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” scene, in which the player can either take part in or observe, but not stop, a massacre at an airport, is one of the most infamous video game moments ever. Violent video games are fun precisely because the actions taken by the player have no moral consequences. “War Stories” undercuts this dynamic.

Two television shows, Westworld and Black Mirror, ask us to consider what the world would look like if technology shrinks the conceptual distance between us and our video games to the (real) first person. What happens when you’re shooting fully realistic androids? What happens when simulations are projected right into your brain? Whatever the answer is, that’s not a video game.

Last weekend, I played my first extended session of 64-player multiplayer on a map called “Empire’s Edge,” designed to resemble Italy’s Adriatic coast — ululating hills rising from the sea, covered in scrubby grass and juniper shrubs, and dotted by gnarled limestone outcroppings. There were villas with red-tile roofs and limestone walls set along a road lined with Italian cedars, and a terraced medieval fortress perched on a cliff. The afternoon sun was shining when the round started, and the shadows of the clouds slid soft across the ground. Then a fog crept in, blanketing the landscape, the buildings, and the players in grey. Visibility shrunk from miles to feet. Enemies became shadows in the mist. For a moment, the chattering of machine guns and roar of mortars subsided, and, as if I was in a Terrence Malick movie, I could hear birds chirping in the hills.

Playing as an Italian soldier, I crouched in the ruins of a country house to guard the objective point. Fog mingled with smoke and dimmed the afternoon sun, the surrounding hills appeared in shades of grey and the sound of small arms fire crackled in the air. A shadow in the courtyard caught my eye; since I’m on the Italian team, he must have been an Austrian soldier. “Empire’s Edge” is a simulation of the WWI’s Adriatic Campaign. Italy and Austria-Hungary were formerly allies, part of the ostensibly secret Triple Alliance, until Italy renounced its membership in the alliance in 1915 and, seeking to recover territory under Austro-Hungarian rule, turned on its former friends. The soldier jumped the fence and made a run for an open-topped armored car. I shot him with my bolt-action mauser as he settled into the driver seat. Another appeared, about 15 yards away, in the road beyond the house. I shot him. As I reloaded, I saw the the barrel of an enemy rifle moving just on the other side of the wall from where I was. Its owner, unaware of my presence, ran past. I unloaded my sidearm into his back; he writhed, tried to run, and died. I reloaded. Up on the hill, maybe 45 yards away, I saw another soldier with a red icon above his head indicating he was also an enemy. I shot him as tried to navigate around a boulder.

As he fell, another armored car pulled into the yard. I tossed a grenade at the vehicle, aimed my rifle at the driver, and shot just as the grenade exploded. The enemy slumped out of the vehicle. The car was still rolling when I heard a scream from right behind me — an enemy soldier in a grey field cap stabbed two of my teammates to death. I plunged my dagger into his chest, and there was a squirting sound as I pulled the blade free. The exchange took about a minute, and, by the end, the sun had broken through the clouds.