There was a definite buzz in the audience at Electronic Arts’ Battlefield reveal event last week. Rumors and possible leaked details had circulated the internet mere hours before, theories had already been suggested, and people were debating whether or not the leaked image of a man wearing a cape while brandishing a gun was legitimate.
After a twenty-minute retrospective on the history of the Battlefield franchise, the lights in the auditorium dimmed, and a series of logos appeared on the screen in the center of the room.
The trailer’s very first shot was a man savagely striking down another with a spiked club, the impacts accentuated by loud claps of sound. Then, a wide establishing shot in the desert, followed by a close-up of a man on a horse. Next, a gunner seated above the cockpit of an airplane, then another shot of a soldier delivering a deadly blow in the trenches using a shovel.
The entire trailer was a series of glimpses, each offering clues to the viewer about what the new Battlefield – called Battlefield 1 officially – would be upon its release. After the trailer had wrapped with an impressively-scaled shot of a lone soldier staring up at a massive zeppelin, the presenters onstage discussed how Battlefield 1 was a first for EA. It was the first time a major triple-A game had ventured back into the era of World War I. It was the first time DICE had created a shooter utilizing horses and tanks in the same game. The war itself saw – as they so excitedly put it – “the dawn of modern war.”
And it was the first time I have honestly felt uneasy about a first-person shooter.
Allow me to qualify this statement: I do not support censorship. It is my firm belief that no subject matter should be barred from exploration in fiction and media, no matter how heinous or grim it may be. And I love a great first-person shooter. I’ve shot or stabbed virtual zombies, Nazis, soldiers, demons, and any other generic, stock “enemy” with the best of them. I’m not squeamish toward video game violence, and I’m rarely bothered by the setting or themes contained within.
But hearing people cheer at the sight of a man wearing a gas mask, effectively stripped of his humanity, staring down ominously at his foe and brutally striking him with a spiked club was unsettling at the very least. Then, to see tanks tearing apart trenches, mustard gas being ejected, bayonets buried in men’s chests, and heavy artillery colliding with mounted infantry all while a loud dubstep remix of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” blared above the sounds of the battlefield gradually revealed Battlefield’s – and other major shooters outside of the EA pen – transparent, opportunistic glorification of the horrors of war.
Shooters have shamelessly glorified war and played up the unrealistic heroism and grandeur of it for as long as they've existed. World War II and fighting Nazis (sometimes even Nazi zombies) has long been a go-to backdrop for video games. The war in Iraq and our obsession with eradicating terrorism has been a highly acceptable setting for video games, thanks largely in part to post-9/11 nationalism and the supposed heroism of pragmatic characters in popular culture like Jack Bauer. First-person games have covered nearly every era of history and culture, spanning from the dawn of man to imagined future military operations.
But World War I is different from these, because there is no perceptive delineation between good and evil. World War I was essentially a war of old alliances, in which bigger and bigger players successively entered as their smaller allies were placed in harm’s way. It was a war in which the squabbles of the rich and powerful led to the brutal destruction of nearly an entire generation of young adults in Europe. It was not the fascist Nazis of World War II vs. the world. It was not troops versus radical fundamentalists. It was a war painted in many shades of grey, whose ultimate purpose was different for all those involved.
That’s not to say there was no heroism in World War I; it was just on a different scale than many of the other wars in history. The enemy was different based on one’s perception, and soldiers were depowered pawns readily disposed of via brutal tactics.
It’s also an age of nightmarish discovery and advancement in warfare technology, in which soldiers faced enemies with unprecedented abilities. Machine guns, poison gas, tanks, airplane attacks, and heavy artillery emerged from World War I. It was a series of knives and guns being brought to fights and continuously being outmatched, and the result was typically a brutal, bloody barrage of death.
Combat was only half of the horror. Trenches were nightmarish, unsanitary places filled with human waste, dead bodies, and blood. Soldiers who survived the barrage of artillery and machine gun fire through no man’s land between the trenches were likely to die of any number of horrible infectious diseases spread through the trenches and camps. Psychologically, so many were scarred from seeing rampant deaths, terrifying new machines, and facing their own injuries and stress. It was a truly needless and blood-soaked war fueled by convoluted and petty politics.
I can’t help but think of all of this as I watch the trailer, feeling progressively uneasy about its presentation. Visually, it looked stunning. I loved the varied environments, and the onscreen action was exciting to watch.
But I was uncomfortable, struggling to muster the same enthusiasm for it as the rest of the people in the room. Like a sharp rock in a shoe, the feeling of how tonally wrong this was would not leave the pit of my stomach.
Imagine the kill streak you’ll have to get to call in a mustard gas drop. Imagine how excited that one kid in the match will be when they smash up a trench filled with 18-year-old men using a massive, imposing tank. Think of how you’ll be able to walk around with a flamethrower, setting fire to people choking on poisonous gasses and even cooking people alive within vehicles. And worst of all, picture sorting out strategies with your friends while running through trenches that at one point would likely have been filled with a mix of blood, dirt, shrapnel, and intestines.
It’s a glorification of war in its worst form, a gross reduction of one of humanity’s darkest moments into an oh-so-fun video game. And, it’s a great case for how important it is that creators be mindful of the tone and attitude of their works. Can a World War I game be made? Of course. Both Verdun and Valiant Hearts used World War I as their main setting. But their approach to the subject was not presented as a bombastic, exciting action experience. It was somber, more logical, and even commented on the experiences of brutality for the average person involved in the war.
Like any game, there’s a chance Battlefield 1 will be great. Its maps might allow for some awesome multiplayer action, the campaign may be engaging, YouTube will no doubt be flooded with impressive clips and highlight reels from massive online matches, and the Frostbite engine is known for making crisp-looking games with strong visuals.
I’m just not confident gamifying one of the worst wars in history is the best approach for a new Battlefield to take.