Battlefield 1 is an anti-war message trapped in a best-selling shooter

One of the most iconic moments in the WWII film Saving Private Ryan occurs near the end, when sniper Private Daniel Jackson strikes down soldier after soldier from a clocktower post. His scope settles on the turret of a German Tiger tank, which slowly glides upward until it meets his eye. In that moment, Jackson understands he is going to die, turns to warn his comrade, and disappears into a ball of fire.

I experienced almost the same scenario while playing EA’s Battlefield 1. I was aiming down the scope of a Russian 1895 Marksman rifle and squaring it on an enemy artillery cannon operator from the second story of a half-destroyed building. I landed one shot, only to discover it missed its mark. As I scrambled to reload my weapon, I saw the cannon slowly swing toward my location. I tried to fire off two more shots, but the gun’s shield protected the soldier. In resignation, I turned to my roommate and said, “I think he’s got me.” A moment later, the entire building was engulfed in an explosion and my screen filled with the blurred out colors of the sky.

Battlefield 1, set not during WWII but the global conflict more than two decades prior, is one of the most realistic first-person shooter games ever created. Every component, from the groundbreaking graphics to the sheer complexity of the maps, is in service of making players feel as if they’re experiencing a harrowing part of history — playing not the stars, but the forgotten extras of a Steven Spielberg film. Instead of shamelessly milking historical bloodshed, the development team has taken a different route with Battlefield 1. They made a game that is at once exhilarating and terrifying in almost equal measure — in effect, an anti-war game where the disposability of human life is treated not as a side effect of the gameplay, but as a core message it’s trying to convey.

Spielberg’s masterpiece is about a different war, but the message communicated is similar. The level of intensity experienced in modern ground combat in the first half of the 20th century was unrivaled, so unbelievable in its horror that it has since inspired some of the most affecting pieces of media ever made. To even remotely come close to what it was like to experience that firsthand is a daunting task. Battlefield 1 comes closer to accomplishing this than any other video game.

You can praise many things about Battlefield 1. It is gorgeous, from the awe-inspiring skyscapes over the Venetian Alps to the sweeping sandstorms of the Ottoman-controlled Sinai Peninsula. It is visceral. Each second of a firefight is a pulse pounding exercise in controlled chaos, forcing you to make sense of dozens of onscreen stimuli simply to stay alive.

But its greatest success is balancing a game that turns killing into a reward — with its kill counters, leveling system, and upgradable firearm cache — with an overall anti-war tone. Sure, it feels good to strike down an enemy, landing a clean headshot or choice grenade throw. But Battlefield 1 goes to great lengths to constantly remind you of the dehumanizing aspects of war and the absurdity of the front lines it’s simulating.

Battlefield 1 gets its message across using more than just story. The game’s story mode has a purposeful message, not dissimilar from a Hollywood movie, that makes clear its stance on how war devalues human life, scars people forever, and forges unimaginable bonds between survivors. But we’ve seen that kind of single-player campaign before.

Instead, the game is an anti-war title primarily through its aesthetics: the sights, sounds, and overall tone of helplessness created on the ground of its massive multiplayer matches. It recreates the battlefield in the truest and most raw sense of the word. And only when you have as many as 64 human beings coexisting, as Battlefield 1’s best multiplayer game modes feature, in an elaborate and war-torn setting do you experience the bewilderment of seeing tanks, planes, horses, and men clashing in concert.

The best example of this is the game's bayonet charge. While cartoony and ludicrously gory contemporaries like Gears of War feature chainsaw rifles cleaving enemies in two, Battlefield 1 uses a guttural, primal scream to indicate you’re charging at the enemy with the tip of a rifle spear. Your character sounds conflicted, simultaneously tormented by the thought of running a sharp object into the throat of an unsuspecting enemy soldier and also requiring an adrenaline rush to overcome the fear. There are even multiple versions of the bayonet scream, each one with a subtly different inflection. This turns one of the game’s most violent and brutal activities into an appropriately unsettling affair.

The bayonet charge is just one subtle touch in the overall grisly recreations. I distinctly recall rounding the corner of a bombed-out city street in a recent match only to see three enemies rushing at me. I immediately fired off a few rounds and retreated back around the corner before tossing a grenade. I notched one kill, but two of my fellow teammates went down in front of my eyes. I decided my only hope here was to bayonet charge and hope I took one of them by surprise.

So I rounded the corner at full-speed, my voice mid-scream, and approached the first of the two enemy soldiers. In a flash, he’s blown sideways by a mortar shell seemingly from nowhere, and yet I didn’t stop charging. I sunk my bayonet into the third and final enemy and came out of the artillery haze unscathed. I was left shell shocked, thinking, “What the hell just happened?,” in a way that meant I stood still for a second too long. I was shot down from across the plaza and that particular gunfight concluded.

These scenes happen with regularity in Battlefield 1. Each one reinforces the idea that no matter how good you are at the game, there are some aspects of the fight you cannot control. It could be an inescapable shower of grenades from a war plane, each one lighting up with a glaring red glow before igniting the ground beneath your feet. Or it could be the fruitless few seconds before a tank manages to compensate for your running speed before blowing up your half of the block. I have yet to play a match in which I don’t reflect on how ugly the game’s core activity can be, or how truly disturbing it is to have a simulation of war at this level of fidelity.

It’s easy to dwell on this dissonance typical of first-person shooters. “The game’s attitude toward its historical subject matter is at once grave and frivolous. Is it historical reenactment ... or is it mindless virtual violence?” writes Vox’s Peter Suderman. “You kill and kill and kill and kill, just like in World War I, when more than 17 million people died, only this time it’s supposed to be entertaining. To be honest, it is a lot of fun. But I’m not quite sure I enjoyed it.”

This is a common, and yet particularly persuasive, perspective on both war games and shooters in general. In Mafia III, my colleague Chris Plante writes that the shooter genre, which forces players to interact mostly by gunning people down, undermines its attempts to comment on race relations and American life. “From the first moment we are Clay, he is a ruthless killer motivated less often by social cause than greed and revenge,” Plante writes. “Mafia III isn’t, on its purest level, a game about race. It’s a game about killing and controlling people.”

Every single shooter game glorifies violence in some respect. It can be the in-game progression and rewards systems, the polished television advertising and YouTube trailers, or the intricate and gruesome ways in which you can take human life. EA’s social team even waltzed right into PR disaster this past weekend, using the hashtag #justWWIthings to conflate vicious murder with casual weekend outings.

But I’d argue Battlefield 1 as a whole is one of the first games of its kind that constantly reinforces the horrors of war and the act of pulling a trigger, and in doing so touches on a cornerstone of real-world conflict. Throughout history, and to do this day, soldiers are taught to be desensitized to violence, to savor the heroics of victory, and to demonize the enemy. A recent episode of techno-dystopian TV series Black Mirror even imagines a future where neural implants physically transform human combatants into vampire-like monsters. This visual trick is designed to make it psychologically easier for soldiers to pull the trigger.

In Battlefield 1, you’re constantly reminded of the timeless fallacies soldiers are told about war, the contradictions that become all too obvious in the heat of battle. Even the game’s opening tagline tells us that WWI “ended nothing” but “changed the world.” Of course, a game that tried to perform this thematic exercise without the inherent entertainment value of a shooter wouldn’t be a best-selling franchise for one of the world's largest developers.

But perhaps the only way to make a successful war game is to force your players — in between the thrill of the fight — to remember and imagine what it must have really been like to be that nameless soldier on that battlefield. Often, as you duck for cover in Battlefield 1, you find yourself beside another human player on your team, valiantly standing tall and firing their weapon amid the chaos. And just as often, you’ll find that player take a bullet to the skull in front of your eyes, blood rising in a sporadic arc and their helmet somersaulting through the air to rest at your boots.

The game makes clear that it could've just as easily been you, and yet the only way to win is to stand up yourself and start pulling the trigger.


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November 23, 2016 at 11:40 PM

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