A First-Person Shooter Set in WWI Is Maaaybe Not the Best Idea
People tend to grow reverential when talking about the First World War. Many see it as the epitome of wanton cruelty, a brutal and pointless stalemate that killed some 16 million people and gave rise to the worst excesses of modern warfare. This war to end all wars, more than almost any other modern conflict, is difficult to separate from the horrors it inflicted.
That’s a big reason why you don’t see World War I as a setting for a mainstream first-person shooter. But Electronic Arts wants to give it a try with Battlefield 1. This might sound like an exciting new frontier for the genre, but there’s a reason WW1 has long been no-man’s land for developers: It was a quagmire of death and disease that turned strategy into slaughter, with no handy narrative of heroism to layer gameplay atop.
More Harrowing Than Heroic
The modern military-shooter found its muse in World War II; the Battlefield and Call of Duty franchises started there. Our collective memory paints it as a heroic war, one waged by good people against genuine evil. As a result, games set during WWII, even at their darkest, tend to feature clearly drawn lines of morality and objectives that reward bravery. A just war offers a high-action playground: Fight nobly, defeat evil, return home a hero.
Granted, most shooters aren’t serious war stories, and don’t have to be. The cultural conversation is big enough for entertainment-driven stories that nod toward the horror of war without accurately depicting it. You can debate the merits of certain pieces of culture as they relate to war, but playing a game like Battlefield is not necessarily bad. If nothing else, it makes you feel strong in a world where all too often very little does. That’s OK.
World War I, though, grew from a complex web of old-world alliances. It offers no clear-cut narrative of heroism or villainy, just squabbling dynasties vying for their own interests in a particularly brutal war. And it gave rise to new ways of killing as aircraft, tanks, poison gas and other weapons fundamentally transformed combat. Cavalry charges and advancing lines of infantry were ineffective against this new technology, which cut men down in hailstorms of bullets and bombs.
To adapt this brutal reality, the armies of Europe’s Western Front embraced trench warfare, creating vast networks of tunnels to protect men from machine gun nests and artillery barrages. A war of attrition gave way to stalemate. The focus shifted from taking and holding territory to simply draining the enemy’s resources—and will. It was a war of exhaustion.
It also was a war of disease. Poor nutrition, atrocious sanitation, and primitive medical facilities made soliders far more susceptible to diseases like typhus, pneumonia, and tuberculosis than battlefield injuries, even as the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide.
None of this makes for a big-budget blockbuster game. These first-person shooters seek to empower players, to offer them clear objectives and a palpable sense of progress. Yet the Great War was deeply disempowering to the individual soldier, and disproved the notion that modernity would bring peace. What do you do with that if you’re a game designer trying to craft escapist entertainment? That explains why you haven’t seen any major franchises spend any time there. Those few games that have broached the topic tend to be strategy games or dogfighting simulators, a surprising number of which feature Snoopy. A shooter faithful to the reality of World War 1 would be claustrophobic, tactically dense, and brutal—much more Resident Evil than Saving Private Ryan.
Don’t expect Battlefield 1 to follow that route. The single-player could try, although the mechanical language of the series would need a serious revision to truly support it. But Battlefield is primarily a multiplayer franchise that relies on the push and pull of large, explosive battles to make sense of itself. As such, you’ll probably see it take the imagery of World War I—the weapons, the uniforms, the dirt—and leave the rest behind. Based on the trailer, set to dubstep squeals and The White Stripes, expect a lot of dogfighting, the one heroic myth of that war. And horses. And death by gunfire, not the Spanish flu.