Although we now refer to it as World War One, the massive conflict that drew countries across the globe into military action between 1914 and 1918 was at the time (and shortly after) referred to as The Great War, or The War To End All Wars. One of the defining characteristics of the war was the shift in tactics that was required due to the changing technologies available, and that ultimately altered the way in which war was waged.
The all-encompassing nature of the war is what earned it the moniker The World To End All Wars, and it is something alluded to in the introductory gameplay in Battlefield 1 – as well as the fact that war is very much still with us. Even before that, a throwaway line as the game opens says that you are not expected to survive.
It is there to give a moment of colour, a stroke of paint to set the tone of the conversation the game provokes, yet in execution means that each death you face has a moment of desaturation before it jumps ahead to the next ill-fated soldier.
Once you reach the end of the introduction, you are treated with a cutscene where two sore and battered soldiers face each other through their weapon sights, yet ultimately choose not to kill each other. These two never had a choice on whether they had to go to war, nor whether to kill, and only in their solitude were they able to make a decision themselves.
The first campaign chapter of Battlefield 1 makes similar points about the futility of war, and talks to how the introduction of tanks upped the ante in terms of mobility, yet how similarly unreliable the technology was. We see one way in which they were used, to break through the German lines, or to smash infrastructure in places whose names would most often be preceded by “The Battle of”.
Battlefield 1 perfectly encapsulates the futility of war, and thereby questions its own existence.
Even in an early taste of the game, the game is a collision of two ideas – first, that war is a horrible thing that must be taken seriously, and second, that shooting and blowing up things in a virtual history lesson is fun and cool. Reducing the lesson to either of the two binaries is to engage in a false dichotomy – although there are moments where the deaths might pile and the circumstances feel dire, there are similarly moments of rising to meet a lethal obstacle and surpassing the challenge it presents.
The story that Battlefield 1 tells in the single player campaign presents the attitudes and atmosphere that were a constant during World War One, with even the characters casting a pallor over the glorification of battle, such as with the Australian character Bishop questioning the presence of his understudy Foster.
The tone echoes that of the psychologically brilliant Spec Ops: The Line, yet Battlefield 1 also marries this message to a explosive, violent multiplayer mode. Taken on their own, the War Stories of Battlefield 1 perform a duty – casting light on a point of history that isn’t nearly as looked at as the major confrontation that arose almost two decades later, yet the changes to warfare and the devaluation of the lives of soldiers that began in The Great War echo through, even to this day.
In a strange way, it is the gameplay itself that provides a lesson beyond the cutscenes or title cards. It is great that we relate to the characters of Battlefield 1 as real people, whether truly historic or simply inspired by the true participants, but it’s in the moments of namelessness or statistics that the game tells it right.
When a textbook charge in the style of cinematic heroism results in being cut down and an epitaph displays, it’s closer to what that war was like.
When the once conventional tactics of a straight-forward attack are superseded by a stealthy assault that fells the opposing force without so much as a gunshot, Battlefield 1 begins to tell the lesson of how this war changed the world.
When Bishop grabs Foster by the neck and forces him to look at the preeminence of wasteful death over ideations of heroism and glory, then Battlefield 1 has something worth saying.
Wrapping it up in two seemingly opposed ideas may seem like a bout of cognitive dissonance, but a surprising degree of harmony exists between the two. Battlefield 1 is unlikely to be the last game to teach us something of ourselves, nor to marry two concepts that might seem incongruous, but for now the lesson holds merit in form and function, at least for now.