The History Fueling the War in 'Battlefield 1'

Can a military shooter incorporate the complicated narrative of World War I?

EA Games, DICE

When it was announced that Battlefield 1 would take place during World War I, there was some hesitation. While it’s a novel setting, historically, World War I lacks the gloried narrative of World War II. The trailer in turn looked as if it was turning a global tragedy into an action film. There’s real history there and real loss.

DICE seems to have taken this into consideration when crafting their epic WWI military shooter, and have incorporated plenty of real-life history into their fictionalization. The game seems to have at least seriously considered its setting as a narrative backdrop.

Nicholas Bashore, one of our writers focusing on games, has been playing Battlefield 1 pretty extensively recently, so we decided to tackle the tricky subject together.

MATT KIM: Is there anything about the game’s choice of historical setting that stood out to you?

NICHOLAS BASHORE: Going into Battlefield 1, I expected the true historical context to be ingrained in the single-player campaign. Instead of going the traditional route, DICE ended up building the narrative across several different “War Stories” that contain the dark, gritty tales of conflict from a few theaters of World War I. They didn’t work to tell a large, epic story through fictionalization — they worked to showcase the massive scale and cost of the Great War, and that certainly surprised me.

Storm of Steel

MATT: I think that’s the best way to approach any war story. Showing multiple perspectives avoids overarching narratives like “This war was good” and “This war was bad”. WWI also has the shadow of the Industrial Revolution to deal with, which completely changed everything for the soldiers.

What are some of these “episodes” that stood out to you?

NICHOLAS: Out of the six War Stories present in Battlefield 1, the opening act — “Storm of Steel” — was the one that stuck with me the most. As you mentioned, the Industrial Revolution brought about many new weapons we didn’t know how to use yet. This led to massive casualties for every nation as they continued to test new vehicles, such as tanks, and learned how to effectively use artillery without killing their own troops. “Storm of Steel” brings all of that into perspective immediately, serving as a haunting opening to Battlefield 1’s take on WWI.

When you first start the mission as a member of the US 369th Infantry, you’re greeted with a screen that tells you, “What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive,” before you start mowing down German soldiers pushing against your position.

Quickly, I ran out of ammunition and swapped to my pistol, which also ran dry — but the Germans kept coming. It didn’t stop until eventually; my character was killed. Following that, I played as another fighting on a different part of the line, who was overwhelmed with more German troops and killed. Then, I pushed through the entire line as a tank gunner, only to be destroyed by a field gun. From there, I pushed through the line as a soldier and successfully took it with my men, then looked to the sky as artillery shells rained down on my position and blacked out my screen.

What haunted me the most was looking around on the battlefield during the opening. Men sat behind rubble crying and shaking, and soldiers threw down their weapons, walking straight into gunfire to end the hell they lived in. These men went through this every single day, and I cant even begin to imagine what that was like.

Battlefield 1

MATT: The actual advancements in engineering, artillery, and chemical processes left soldiers and military leaders completely unprepared for what to expect in battle, compared to conflicts just decades earlier. Imagine fighting with swords and rifles for most of your training, and suddenly encountering chemical weapons for the first time. “Storm of Steel” is a pretty apt title considering the speed and brutality of combat was at a pace never encountered before. It’s interesting Battlefield 1 incorporated this hectic pace as an actual storytelling mechanic. I think that’s a far more effective way at conveying the insanity soldiers faced for the very first time in history.

The 369th U.S. Infantry is a unique choice given that, in WWI, the regiment consisted of African Americans and Puerto Ricans, a first for a U.S. regiment. Prior to that, minorities had to enlist with foreign Allies like France to fight in the war. Their story, like all things in war, is complicated by the real-world social ills that befell many racial minorities at the time. From what you played, it sounds like Battlefield 1 captures both the terrifying tone of war and unique historical perspective. Are there more characters and moments that will suggest socio-historical context? Maybe more real-world characters or historical counterparts?

NICHOLAS: While Battlefield 1 does capture the horrors of combat, it also has stories that focus on the soldiers in the war too. Five of the six War Stories follow a specific individual through their experience in World War I, as well as the heroic actions they participated in. Take “Nothing is Written,” for example, which focuses on a member of the Bedouin rebels: Zara Ghufran.

Throughout this story, you work with Lawrence of Arabia to strike at the Ottoman Empire and their armored train wreaking havoc on those who resist their rule. While this isn’t a direct representation of how it played out, I’m sure it’s related to his attack on the railway near Mudawara in 1917 where T.E. Lawrence participated personally.

T.E. Lawrence

MATT: Despite his nickname as Lawrence of Arabia, T. E. Lawrence was just one of the many British officers in the Arab territories working together to fight against the Ottoman Empire, who joined with the Central Powers of the German Empire and Austria-Hungary. Like all things in war, Lawrence’s motives in Arabia had everything to do with strategic and political motivations. Still, as one of the few glorified figures to come out of the war, his first-hand account, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, captivated readers and offered a war adventure when many other writers wrote solely of horrors (see: All Quiet on the Western Front by German WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque). The breaking up of the Ottoman Empire was also a seismic event in colonial and Middle Eastern history.

All in all, it sounds like Battlefield 1 largely succeeds in having its cake and eating it too. It’s good to know that an exciting military shooter can also provide a well thought out story that incorporates all aspects of war, and not just a black-and-white narrative.

NICHOLAS: Agreed! That type of narrative has been present in military shooters for far too long too, just telling you to shoot down waves of enemies because they’re bad without any additional information. I think Battlefield 1 provides a rare look into what types of stories a shooter is capable of telling, provided they focus less on the shooting and more on the people behind the guns. After all, stories are all about character, right?

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