Lest We Forget: World War I in Videogames

As an Australian I grew up with two portrayals of the first World War. One was the story of Gallipoli, memorialized on ANZAC Day every year. Our teachers, exaggerating slightly, turned it into a story of Australian lives sacrificed pointlessly in service of empire, the old colonial masters sipping tea on a beach while doomed young Australians absorbed bullets for them like in the movie with Mel Gibson. The second portrayal was Blackadder Goes Forth, repeated regularly on late-night TV, an English comedy that depicted the war as pure absurdity. Somewhere between those two is how I think of the war to this day, an event both awful and ridiculous.

That makes me skeptical about Battlefield I. Even in its storyline mode, will a first-person shooter be able to capture the enormity of what happened with half the nuance of a sitcom from the 1980s? World War I has become a symbol of industrialized war and the way it eradicated almost an entire generation of men, but I imagine the designers of Battlefield I have other worries than symbolism. They’re probably busy balancing its multiplayer side, finding ways to help players realise that just because they’re holding a rifle doesn’t mean they can snipe across a map, that zeppelins won’t burst into flame if you plink away at them from the ground.

That’s fine. They don’t need to worry about making a game that portrays World War I with the sombreness it deserves, because other games have already been doing that for years.

WWI Medic is an arcade-style game by Dwarf Fortress creators Bay 12. You play a tiny pixel medic who shuffles along a line of soldiers, ducking into a crawl when bombs threaten to fall, patching up your men when they wave blood-soaked arms for aid. Occasionally a bugle sounds and soldiers charge into no man’s land, dying faster than you or the opposing medic you compete against can possibly save them. Even if you “win” there’s always another no man’s land waiting: WWI Medic doesn’t end until you fall, joining the piles of injured men waving for help that will never arrive.

It’s simple, yet it’s hard not to be affected by its mountains of bodies. It’s easy to romanticise wars full of dramatic charges but artillery and machine guns changed that forever. Running toward the foe stopped being a grand gesture and became a futile one. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme British soldiers didn’t even run, having been ordered to walk toward the enemy position because their commanders believed artillery barrages had already wiped the Germans out. They had not, and when the German survivors took to their machine guns thousands were killed.

The only part of World War I that’s been successfully romanticized was happening far above that, with fighter aces in biplanes distant enough from all the death and horror that it could be abstracted, turned into the backdrop of adventure stories like the early Biggles books. Blackadder found humor in this distinction, portraying Squadron Commander Lord Flashheart (played by Rik Mayall) as an arrogant jerk nonetheless idolized by the conscripted men. Crash landing in the trenches he orders, “Let’s dig out your best booze and talk about me till the car comes!”

Video games set during World War I are as likely as Biggles to show dogfighting as a glamorous national adventure. Blue Max begins with a patriotic rendition of ‘Rue Britannia’ before takeoff, while Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol has chirpy, grinning pilots who are only captured or injured when they crash, never killed. When games get closer to the ground they inevitably get closer to reality.

Warfare: 1917

Warfare: 1917

Warfare: 1917, a browser game by ConArtist, turns trench warfare into a strategy game of pure attrition. Each unit’s on a cooldown timer, meaning you have to send them off one at a time before waiting for the next. Only when they reach trenches do they stop, allowing you to clump them together before pushing them out. You inevitably need to because only three units can fit in each trench and there’s always another squad coming off cooldown behind them.

Sometimes you throw men into the meatgrinder of barbed wire and mustard gas to pointlessly die so you can make room in a trench for a unit who have slightly better guns. Victory comes at the cost of uncountable dead. When you reach the final win-screen it offsets your triumph with newspaper headlines like “Public Unsure Going To War Justified” and “Returning Servicemen To Be Given No Care”.

Word War I inspires developers to teach something about the futility of war in a way that other conflicts don’t. This seems especially true in the work of European studios closest to the conflict. German studio Blue Byte Software approached their 1993 strategy game History Line: 1914-1918 with characteristic seriousness – between missions it summarizes months of history, using newspapers from the era and detailed maps.

It’s almost stereotypically German, both in its straight face and careful avoidance of nationalism. In Germany they no longer sing the first two verses of their national anthem because of the unfortunate connotations of “Deutschland uber alles,” skipping straight to a less controversial third verse about unity, justice, and freedom. Even though History Line: 1914-1918 lets you choose between controlling French or German troops it’s essentially unwinnable as the Germans, their final mission designed to be impossible because anything else would be both unhistorical and disrespectful.

Valiant Hearts

Valiant Hearts

Where History Line is grave, Valiant Hearts: The Great War by French studio Ubisoft Montpellier is whimsical and cartoonish, an adventure game drawn in clear-line style with a cute dog who helps you solve puzzles. Aimed at children, it allows you to defeat a German officer by playing a pipe organ and dodge artillery by swerving a car in time with jaunty music.

But even Valiant Hearts has reminders of the war’s cost, whether through characters dying or educational notes about conditions in POW camps. In English-speaking countries this kind of contrast was seen as a clash but French games are closer to Japanese ones, where contrasting one tone with a jarring one is de rigeur. Like the meme with Drake dressed in a suit and in sportswear they seem to say: “Get you a man who can do both.”

But with World War I as their subject, even British games can’t help becoming earnest at odd moments. Hogs Of War, created by Sheffield’s Gremlin Interactive before they were bought by Infogrames Europe, is an example. Its version of the war is fought by anthropomorphic pigs in competition for a resource called “swill” but even a game so pointedly ridiculous occasionally becomes political. At the end of the game General I. P. Grimly (coincidentally voiced by Rik Mayall) declares: “So long as politicians can create a pointless argument some where in the world there will be a pointless war for us to fight.”

Likewise, the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth took a sharp turn into affecting tragedy. Even comedians find it hard to laugh at a subject this grim. Unlike World War II, which inspires heroic yarns where Indiana Jones and Captain America punch caricatured Nazis, World War I remains inseparable in the popular imagination from All Quiet On The Western Front, from young men trapped on barbed wire and mechanical warfare’s grim triumph over old-fashioned generals whose orders condemned millions to death.

Maybe Battlefield I will be the game that breaks that chain, glorifying combat as much as its trailer does without even bothering to spit out the occasional solemn “war is hell” quote on its loading screens. But perhaps even a big-budget shooter won’t be able to apply gloss to a war so horrific. It doesn’t matter, because whichever way it turns out we’ll always have WWI Medic and Warfare: 1917 and all the rest to remind us that even video games, for all their bombast and violence, can be respectful when the subject demands it.