Talking About the First World War

This week has seen the 100th anniversary of the Great War, that huge bloody turf fight between the great European powers and their respective empires (and Japan), which cost millions of lives, toppled kings and set the stage for an even bigger, bloodier conflict twenty-odd years later. Being someone with an interest in history, and given the nature of the dates, I found myself looking through a few of the books I have on the First World War where I came across my old copy of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. It is a book that, in my very humble opinion, is one of the greatest pieces of antiwar fiction ever written and should be required reading in every school on the planet. It also got me thinking about video games. Because that is how my mind works. Heads up, there are spoilers coming for the book and a few games.

There is a lot that can be said about the novel and its depiction of the cold, brutal, boring reality of the First World War, and it makes for a definite contrast with the depictions of conflict in most games. Remarque’s scenes of rat-killing, delousing, the joy of extra rations and the mind-numbing luck involved in not having an artillery shell land on your head are far removed from the canyon gliding in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the saving of priceless art from scorched-earth-inclined Nazis in the original Medal of Honour, or essentially using a crashing satellite as a missile in Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Yes, those are more extreme examples of tonal difference than I could have used. But damn it, I’m making a point!

Tone and context are a big part of the difference (to be clear, I’m going to use both terms very broadly in the next few paragraphs) and often a big part of the problem. The need for games ‘to be fun’ is something that often at best creates a level of cognitive dissonance between what the narrative (again, using the term broadly) is trying to achieve and the gameplay. When talking about Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (I’d argue the highpoint of the series single-player campaign-wise), you can discuss how it is a stark statement about the nature of contemporary conflict, placing you in the centre of a US intervention in an unnamed Middle Eastern country and brutal civil war in the former Soviet Union, then punctuating acts of traditional movie heroism (saving a downed, female helicopter pilot and stopping nuclear missiles) with a good dose of futility (achieving the objective but failing to escape). Or you can talk about how much fun it was blasting terrorists from an AC-130 gunship and sneaking through Pripyat, next to Chernobyl, dodging or sniping enemy patrols. Medal of Honour: Allied Assault in one level drops the player character into the bloody battle for Omaha beach ala the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Of course you also single-handedly scuttle a u-boat and destroy a dangerous prototype ‘radar detector’, and end the game by destroying a German facility with a name that translates literally to ‘Fort Pain.’ The recently released adventure(?) game Valiant Hearts: The Great War (which I haven’t played yet but am planning to) is one of those very rare games actually set in the First World War (which is why I’m mentioning it), and has received high praise for its gut-wrenching story and characters. But it is not without criticism, because of tonal inconsistency (the villain is a caricature of an evil German baron, German flame-thrower tanks that didn’t exist, etc.) in the name of gameplay.

These are just a few examples and the issue of tone is well known in the industry and community, something that is effectively de-constructed in critical darling Spec Ops: The Line, which itself follows Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. But the reason we haven’t really seen a gaming equivalent of All Quiet on the Western Front is not just problems with tone, it is also context.

To be blunt, the Germans lost the First World War. Yes, yes, I know the whole ‘everybody lost’ cliché, and generally agree, but for all their losses and the massive, senseless cost for no real gain the remaining Entente powers could at least claim that the Germans broke first, that the Germans surrendered. It was Germany that had to disarm, cede territory, pay reparations and bear the guilt of starting the war in the first place. That is what is most striking about the book, the defeatism. Remarque wrote the book after the war was lost, knew why it was lost, knew that all the heroic sacrifice was ultimately meaningless, and knew the sense of isolation from the generation before that had proudly sent them to the mud and blood, and the generation after that would grow up in peace without being able to understand just how senseless it all was. The final chapter is of a man sitting in a garden hoping beyond hope not for news of a victory but for an end, any end, that he might survive and live a life beyond the numb violence he has known so long. Ultimately it is fool’s hope, as we learn in the final two paragraphs when we are told Paul Baumer, our narrator through the whole ordeal, succumbed to his wounds on an ordinary day on the front with nothing new to report.

If you’ll excuse the language, how the flying fuck do you turn that into gameplay? Games from the survival and horror genres probably come closest, unsurprisingly, but even then the objective based gameplay (kill x amount of zombies, sneak from point a to point b, find shelter for the night, avoid monster while looking for clues etc.) and the consequence of action or inaction gives the player a sense of control over their circumstances and survival (even in situations where defeat is inevitable) Baumer never felt he had. His life is controlled by the army, his survival is dictated entirely by chance, even his decision to join the army before being conscripted is forced by the expectations of society and figures of authority.

Maybe that old arcade game Missile Command did it best, a simple game about holding off wave after wave of nuclear warheads until, inevitably, your launchers and the cities you are meant to protect are destroyed. It is not a game you can win, only prolong. (I won’t go into to much more detail since the folks at Extra Credits already have). But while it makes for an incredibly powerful statement about nuclear warfare it might be harder for some to apply it to conventional conflicts. Perhaps we’ll see it in the upcoming title This War of Mine, which will be about civilians, non-combatants, surviving a war zone. It’s something that needs to be done, a question that needs to answered if it hasn’t already, because getting it right matters.

I suppose I need to now say why this matters. Well, there are two reasons I can think of.

The first is that I firmly believe that games are a narrative medium with an incredible power to deliver story and message, and this is a story worth telling and re-telling.

The second is that my younger brother doesn’t read a lot. Until recently he’s spent almost all his free time in two ways, playing soccer or playing video games. Over the past month I’ve forced him to start reading, buying him books and denying him access to the Xbox unless he reads at least a little every day, but I don’t think I’ll get him reading Remarque’s novel any time soon. The same goes for a lot of his friends, whose interest lay in sports and blockbusters, as I imagine has been the case since the invention of language. Thing is though, a lot of these kids are playing some very smart games. Bioshock Infinite dealt with class, racism, nationalism and religious fundamentalism within a smart science fiction setting of parallel universes and infinite possibility (hence the title). Red Dead Redemption is a story about the death of the frontier and an end to the mythical west beneath the inevitable, brutal march of progress. My brother’s played both of these games, and he’s asked questions about some of the topics portrayed in them. If we’re going to educate this generation about the horrors of the Great War, the wastefulness, and make them understand why it should never be repeated, it may as well be through a medium they’ll actually pay attention to.

There we are. I’ll post something more fun next week.

3 thoughts on “Talking About the First World War

  1. realitytheorem

    I honestly really love finding someone who sees games as a viable source of disseminating history. Especially since personally I believe that simulation and active engagement creates a personal attachment, and re-living, even if it is through simulation, something that happened can allow a person to locate themselves in the historical past.

    Though I have to say, sometimes I get a bit disappointed when the narrative gets lost in the gameplay, or when it completely takes over a game (AC III, I am looking at you). The other day I was reading an article on how World War based games were more prolific in the US, since they diverted attention away from military intervention in the contemporary world, though I wonder how far that is true.

    I’m really looking forward to playing ‘This War of Mine’ though. ^-^ It’s gritty, and hard. But it is an untold story in the video game world, and like you said, it needs to be told.


    1. Agreed about looking forward to ‘this war of mine’, though I worry that we might be placing expectations too high. Here’s hoping it works.

      Interesting comment about World War games redirecting attention away from intervention. I’ve read the opposite, that the World Wars are popular subjects because they are arguably the only interventions that were successful. It’s an interesting perspective either way.


  2. Pingback: Keeping faith in Dragon Age: Inquisition, Part Four: Reflecting on the story and why it matters | The Long and Short of it

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