Battlefield 1’s development could have never happened. In its early conceptual stages, the game faced what EA CFO Blake Jorgensen called some “concerns”, over whether players even knew that World War I existed.
Speaking at a corporate conference earlier this week, Jorgensen said the team had some initial doubts that their younger audience would have any historical context for the game’s early-20th century setting. Aside from how problematic that statement is taken alone – and I’ll let David Mitchell help explain why – Battlefield 1 also faced early difficulties, because EA Studios head Patrick Söderlund didn’t think that trench warfare would be “fun”.
That changed once the publisher was convinced they could do more from a gameplay perspective, given the swath of technology changes and varied types of warfare that were used over the course of the conflict.
Now, it’s pretty common knowledge that history, particularly WWII, was once a cornerstone for shooter settings, so bringing Battlefield back into the past is not necessarily surprising. But it does raise some new questions about how the subject matter is going to be approached – or whether or it should be.
WWI has a reputation for being particularly horrific in its combat, as much for the tactics of exhaustion, mostly famously used on the Western Front, as for the innovations in technology (chemical warfare, flamethrowers and artillery, to name a few) that made the fighting more bloody and costly in lives.
At some point, it may be worth considering if its in good taste chasing after this kind of setting in the name of “fun”. It’s been something that most historical shooters haven’t done well, especially with WWII. The gaming record here speaks to somewhat sanitizing its subject matter by absolute omission of ideas like the Holocaust or dropping the Atomic bomb on Japan. Just as long as you avoid something like that, it’s considered fine.
Maybe that’s the problem. It’s one thing to tell a war story about a particular experience, particularly if youre trying to capture the humanity or drama or tragedy of its history. That’s why war films exist. It isn’t typically how games operate, outside of the Heart of Darkness mode of something like Far Cry 2 or Spec Ops: The Line (whose marketing was still pretty bad, in those terms).
In general big triple-A titles like Battlefield are not about losing or death or capturing the horror of a situation, they’re about winning. If modern war titles have gotten away with slightly fictionalizing topical warzones, how is using any aspect of history deemed off-limits? If you’re a publisher, how do you even draw that line?
It’s true that depending on what army you were a part of or what theater you were in, WWI wasn’t necessarily as deadly as it might’ve been elsewhere. (British soldiers in the trenches, for example, had a high rate of survival).
But given the general tone of games from major companies, Battlefield’s own history and what’s already been shown from the game, it’s doubtful that Battlefield 1s campaign’s collection of characters will be put in many situations that aren’t explosive or deemed justified in one way or another (to say nothing of multiplayer, which effective serves to de-contextualize the setting almost entirely). While I don’t think the developers would intentionally or outright be disrespectful of history, it’s also hard to see this Battlefield getting portrayed in any other context than a game.
WWI was fought because of the messy entanglements of politics; against the often clear-cut notions of game morality, that alone makes the whole thing seem like maybe it should’ve been thought through a bit before pulling the trigger.