For historical shooters, World War I has almost always been avoided. Games have instead regularly focused on the likes of World War II for mayhem and carnage, until Battlefield 1 came along and showed us more of the war’s grey area.
There was no clear good or bad side in the famed conflict but instead shades of gray. The war was the result of shifting, entangled imperial powers. It’s hard to make a fun game about millions of soldiers marching to their death in the trenches. Battlefield 1 opted for attempting it anyways, raising some concern, especially when EA promoted an action-packed trailer set to Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes.
Now that Battlefield 1 is in our hands, the game clearly values fun over providing a realistic telling of World War I battles, and that’s fine, as long as players don’t come away from the game thinking that war is a grand, jolly adventure. But the game is also a little more complex than that, offering subtle yet powerful reminders that war has a heavy cost.
No other moment in the game does that better than the pigeon scene, which actually circulated in promo videos before the game even launched. The moment gets off to an intense start, when a British tank is trapped under enemy fire, unable to gain traction on the muddied earth. A deafened soldier releases a carrier pigeon, revealing the enemy’s position, as well as their tank’s, despite the impassioned pleas of one of your fellows.
As the bird soars into the sky, you’re suddenly given control, guiding the pigeon to its destination. The shriek of artillery is distant now, replaced by peaceful piano. Yet, as you look around you, you can see the destruction the war has wreaked on the world. A plane crashes before you, villages lie in ruin, the soil is upturned and muddy, entire swathes of forest and field scorched. Eventually, the message is delivered, and the British forces target their German enemies, potentially sacrificing their comrades in doing so.
It’s an interesting departure for a military shooter, where generally the story moves forward based on enemies you take out or locations you capture before cutscenes take over to do the heavy lifting. The pigeon scene changes things up — there is no one else to interact with. It’s just you, flying as a bird over the mass chaos. The pigeon is quietly removed from everything, almost unaware, and it makes the entire conflict feel utterly pointless and tragic before quickly plunging you back into the thick of things. It’s beautifully poignant. People are giving their lives, on both sides, for a conflict that seems both endless and useless.
It’s true that video games often portray war in a problematic light that highlights excitement while forgetting the real human suffering involved. But Battlefield 1 shows us that, even briefly, a game can take a step back and comment on the message it’s trying to tell. The pigeon moment does this exceptionally well, cementing this brief scene as one of the game’s most memorable.