German battle cries and the pounding of artillery let me know the enemy are coming. An officer tells me to hold the line, and by God I will. The Harlem Hellfighters never lost a trench in the real Great War, and I don’t plan to break that winning streak in the virtual one.
I keep firing until I run out of bullets, but more enemy soldiers keep streaming in. I pull my pistol and stage a heroic last stand before the world turns black. But instead of respawning, I see the name and age of the soldier who just died. Forrest Washington was 19, the same age I was when I joined the army.
There’s no time to process as I’m thrust into the role of a nearby machine gunner. By now the Germans and Americans are fighting hand to hand in the trenches, and it’s tough to tell friend from foe. I hesitate, afraid to hit my own men. That moment of doubt ends with me being burned alive with a flame thrower.
Over the next several minutes I am pummeled with gruesome death after death. As a tank driver, I briefly rally the defenders before taking a direct hit from an artillery shell. During a gas attack, I choke and struggle to put on my mask right before I’m bayoneted. By the end, I’ve given up all hope of victory or even survival. I’m just desperately trying to find some cover to stay alive for a few more seconds.
The opening screen of Battlefield 1 warned me that I wouldn’t survive. What I hadn’t expected was such a gut punch from a mainstream shooter. I don’t feel excited at finishing the level or even frustrated at how often I died without a chance. I just sit there quietly, contemplating how so many real-life soldiers perished fighting over a few yards of poisoned earth. So many good men and women lost in a war started over extreme nationalism and ethnic hatred.
As I continue to play the single-player campaign for the next few hours, that underlying feeling of loss and sorrow never goes away. But at the same time, I feel a sense of hope. After spending years being turned off by the over-the-top power fantasies that the industry normally cranks out, I’m grateful to find a game that says something interesting about war and the women and men who fight.
There’s a soldier in all of us.
I honestly wasn’t expecting the Battlefield campaign to be so thought-provoking. After all, the new Call of Duty has abandoned any pretense of realism, setting its campaign in a dystopian far future. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with pure entertainment – I’ve long been a Call of Duty fan and love space operas like Mass Effect and Halo – but Call of Duty’s catchphrase “There’s a soldier in all of us” has always rubbed me the wrong way. At least the Battlefield 1 story reminds players that real soldiers don’t benefit from power armor or respawn points.
Instead of focusing on one roguishly handsome super soldier, the campaign tells the stories of several everyday men and women trying to survive a pointless war. In “Through Mud and Blood,” we see a young private named Danny Edwards and his tank crew try to escape after being trapped behind enemy lines at the battle of Cambrai. There’s no Cortana telling Danny how the overall Allied advance is going. He’s scared and alone in a mist-shrouded forest, just doing the best he can to avoid German patrols and guide his damaged tank back to safety.
The hero of “The Runner” is the exact opposite of Edwards. Frederick Bishop is a grizzled Australian vet called out of retirement to lead the charge at Gallipoli. The young soldiers under his command are eager to find glory, but instead find their British commanders are all too happy to throw their lives away in futile offensives. Bishop exudes “I’m too old for this sh*t” cynicism, and through his eyes we see the pointlessness of the entire conflict. And yet he fights on to save the lives of the next generation.
“Nothing is Written” focuses on Lawrence of Arabia’s small band of freedom fighters, but the main character is a Bedouin woman named Zara Ghufran. While the chapter is a rather straightforward story about stopping an armored Ottoman train, it still recognizes that Lawrence wouldn’t have gotten far without the women and Muslims fighting along his side.
I won’t go into too many details about the other two stories, so as to avoid spoilers. But I will say that the story “Avanti Savoia” made me weepy. Danny’s story reminded me of my own time as a scared young private in a combat zone, and Bishop’s tale reminded me of both the pride and frustration of being a sergeant in charge of kids barely out of high school. But “Avanti Savoia” is told from the perspective of an old man showing photos to his grown daughter years after the war. When I got home from Basic, my own father took out his own box of photos from Vietnam. First, he told me about the time he had his helmet shot off in a firefight, and then he talked about holding a dying friend in his arms. It was one of the few times I’ve ever seen my dad cry.
Who Lives, Who Dies
Battlefield 1’s storytelling doesn’t quite reach the same level as classic Great War books like All Quiet on the Western Front or movies like Lawrence of Arabia and The Blue Max. At heart, Battlefield is still a military shooter, which means that some of the storylines end with the hero fighting dozens of enemies in a climatic showdown. Also, the game could have done more than it did to move beyond the standard tale of white guys fighting for the winning side. The true story of the Harlem Hellfighters is so amazing that they easily deserve their own expansion pack, like the French and Russians will be getting. And I really would have loved a chance to play as a German soldier fighting on the doomed side.
But this is still one of the rare games that is able to capture both the feelings of pride and loss I feel as a vet. There are no perfect endings where you save the world, get the girl, and head back to the base cantina for beers and medals with your battle buddies (well, all your buddies except your wise-cracking sidekick who dies for dramatic effect). Despite all the heroics and sacrifices of soldiers like Bishop, the Gallipoli campaign remains a disaster. Danny’s storyline takes place in the final days of the war when thousands die for no real gain. And of course, Zara’s dreams of freedom and independence are crushed after the war. To paraphrase the musical about another tragic American war hero, in real war we have no control who lives or dies. Unlike most AAA games, Battlefield is willing to acknowledge that fact.
But if game designers want to tell the story of vets and war survivors, I want to see it done well. Battlefield makes me hopeful that we will see more games that are not afraid to look at the loss and sorrow that underscore courage and sacrifice. I want to continue to see games that truly celebrate the contributions of women, LGBTQ individuals and people of color to the cause of freedom. But most of all, I want to see games that take a hard look at the reasons why we send our troops into harm’s way – games that encourage us to stand up and not let our leaders make the same mistakes that led to one of the bloodiest and most pointless conflicts in history.
It’s the least we can do for the soldiers who sacrificed for all of us.