It’s kind of difficult for me to know what to expect of shooters these days. Having grown up on the 2.5D shooters like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Duke Nukem, I was able to watch the medium make a long and frequently awkward transition into rendering increasingly realistic 3D environments. Each year brings a new technological innovation that allows game creators to cram more visual fidelity into the worlds they create.
The problem that creative works run into is known as the “uncanny valley”. The more realistic things appear the more people will see how they are, in fact, fake. This knowledge will gnaw at the subconscious of the person viewing the media, therefore undermining any kind of immersion that’s trying to be generated. The opening hour or so of Battlefield 1 is one such moment for me.
Meet a soldier. I don’t know who he is, and I don’t know who he’s fighting for. The opening scene shows him resting in a hospital bed as a scratchy recording of “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” played over a war montage. This is the first thing that tripped my uncanny alarm. I got the impression the soldier was listening to the song in the hospital bed, having nightmarish flashbacks to his time in battle. Except “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” wasn’t recorded until 1931. World War 1 ended in 1918.
It’s just a song, sure. And I get that the juxtaposition of the sweet lyrics are supposed to clash with the carnage unfolding onscreen. But this comes across as heavy-handed pandering rather than channeling the heart of what soldiers might have actually experienced. There are plenty of songs from that era that might have been a better fit for the moment. “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier” by the Peerless Quartet, for example.
At the end of the montage the screen fades to black and some serious text tells me that “What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.” Well that’s just dandy! Missing from this grim piece of news is who I am, where I am, and why I’m fighting. A soldier nearby tells me that we need to “hold the line”. Because lines don’t hold themselves, I reckon.
Fighting among a ruined village, I settle in and get used to the controls and information presented onscreen. The game is beautiful in a desolate kind of way. I’ve never seen a burned out countryside look this good! Eventually I work out that the soldiers with tiny blue dots over their heads are allies and I should shoot the soldiers without those dots.
After a few minutes, I run out of ammo and then die. The screen fades to black and shows the name of what I presume to be the soldier from whose perspective I just played, and his birth and death years. “Karl Wilcox” 1900 – 1918″. The camera pulls back from the spot where Karl breathed his last, pans over, and zooms in on a machine gun nest near some trenches.
I’m now manning a machine gun, mowing down enemy troops as they unwittingly get funneled into my field of fire. It’s kind of a fun shooting gallery! Eventually something next to me explodes and the machine gun falls over, rendering it useless. Now I’m holed up next to some allies in a burned out church, shooting enemies in the face with a trench gun. I run out of ammo. Again.
This goes on a few more times…
…but there wasn’t much emotional resonance from any of these experiences. There was a brief section in there where I played the part of a tank’s gun operator, which was pretty fun. A man I presume to be my commanding officer shouted the phrase “FOR KING AND COUNTRY” at least once, so I think that I’m experiencing things from the Allied point of view.
As the first mission draws to a close I’m enjoying the core mechanics and the slick presentation, which seems to be a bit at odds with the somber tone the game wants to present. The way the opening mission jumps from person to person suggests that the only way to progress through a mission is by dying. I tested this out once. Picking my shots carefully until I almost ran out of ammo, I was still alive. Feeling the odds tip against me, I ran away from the front lines back towards allied soldiers. I was able to hide for a bit, but nothing else in-game happened. Only when I ran out of cover and allowed enemies to shoot me dead did the game jump forward and begin the next story. Awkward?
At this point I’m sincerely hoping that the game goes into more depth in telling the individual experiences of soldiers who lived through the first World War. Thankfully, as the mission ends and I’m treated to a montage teasing, I presume, stories portrayed in the game:
Okay, now that’s more like it. ‘Through Mud And Blood’ is the first series of missions. Played from the perspective of a tank driver named Edwards, it’s your job to drive a tank named Black Bess through battle and keep her crew safe.
As tank missions in war games go, this one is pretty typical except for the World War 1 setting. Shoot some bad guys, hop out of the tank to exact some repairs when it gets damaged, blow up the anti-tank guns, etc. The visual fidelity and detail really help sell the experience here. Hills deform under the weight of the tank. Buildings and walls are destroyed by explosions. There’s smoke, water, and mud; and all of it looks fantastic.
Except that mud is very bad for your tank. Back in 1918, tanks were very new, and they didn’t know how to build them to not get stuck in mud. If you get the tank stuck you’re a sitting duck, practically inviting enemy troops to swarm in and shoot you through the view ports. So when it comes to dealing with mud, there are two options – Plan A: avoid mud at all costs. Plan B: send out a homing pigeon to call for an artillery strike of your immediate surroundings.
Let that last sentence sink in for just a moment.
Remember that it is 1918. They didn’t have radios in tanks back then. And yes, they really did use messenger pigeons during The Great War. So given a bit of context, it’s not that absurd for a commander to send a message back to HQ on the foot of a pigeon.
Your squad mates argue as to whether or not it’s a good idea to call for an artillery strike. Understandably so. If the coordinates are wrong, you’ll die. If the artillerymen don’t fire accurately, you’ll die. If the pigeon doesn’t make it back to HQ, you’ll die. This may have actually been a point of tension in real battle. After all, it’s hard to disconnect our modern perception of technology from what we think war might have been like in 1918.
Where Battlefield 1 jumps the shark is the way it portrays this moment in the game.
Battlefield 1 really, really wants me to take it seriously. But as you can see, I’m having some trouble with that. Can you understand why?