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Playing With History: 11-11 Memories Retold And The Human Cost Of WWI

Painting a picture of the Great War.

11-11 Memories Retold is an incredibly ambitious game. If creating a videogame with precise historical accuracy and a compelling World War 1 narrative that focus on the personal stories and not the overarching war weren’t challenging enough, the combined forces of DigixArt, Aardman Animation and Bandai Namco decided to create an entirely new graphical style to go with it. 11-11 Memories Retold is like a painting brought to life.

Yes, there’s a 3D engine beating at its heart but it is one that views the world as if from the perspective of a modernist painter. The environment is painted onto the screen as the protagonist explores their surroundings. You can even see the application of individual brush strokes as a vivid scene of arresting beauty is constructed right before your eyes. It is utterly unlike anything I have seen in a videogame before, and it’s one of the things we discussed when speaking to Yoan Fanise, the game director from DigixArt, and Dan Effergan, the group creative director of Aardman Animation.

“World War 1, for me, is the perfect playground to talk about humans,” Yoan told us. “We are exactly the same and we don’t know why we fight together. This is something very interesting.” For many videogames, the player challenge comes from killing before they are killed. A successful online gaming bout can be summed up as such: did I kill more times than I was killed? Yet, for a narrative, character driven WW1 experience, Yoan wanted the player to consider something else entirely: “Will I be able to shoot someone? We always think about the fear of being killed but we don’t think about the other fear, of shooting someone. That is even more traumatic.”

This is an entirely valid point, particularly concerning the Great War and the vast number of casualties were caused by indirect means, such as artillery shells and gas attacks. Whilst a horrific number of soldiers were killed by direct fire, it was a much smaller percentage in comparison. Throughout the most well known conflicts of the twentieth century, the majority of soldiers never fired their weapon or used them to cause direct harm. In Vietnam it is estimated that out of a squad of ten American soldiers, only three used their firearm. In WW2 only 15-20% of allied soldiers fired directly at the enemy. It’s in our evolutionary biology; to ensure the continuing survival of our species, killing people is hard for most of us to do.

In order to make the killing of other people justifiable, many videogames – and other media – seek to make the moral choice simpler. The ‘good guys’ are completely virtuous, while the ‘baddies’ have no redeeming qualities at all. They are portrayed, by their behaviour and actions, to be less than human and therefore it’s OK to kill them. There are correlations that can be seen in WW1 itself; to encourage soldier’s to view their opponents as the ‘other’ and to dehumanise them, propaganda was used. British posters would often depict ‘the Hun’ as grey eyed, blood soaked psychopaths.

One famous poster portrays the enemy as an ape, with a scantily clad maiden grasped in one hairy paw and carrying a blood soaked bat with ‘culture’ inscribed upon it in the other. The team behind 11-11 Memories Retold want to avoid this reduction of the complexities behind the people who fought and died in the Great War, to turn them into caricatures. “Something we should be cautious of as creators,” Dan explained, “is not taking that simplistic view and reapplying it to the real world again and again and again, because then you help everyone believe the world is that simple.”

It most certainly is not that simple. And it is this intention that is at the heart of 11-11, as it seeks to represent its two protagonists as individuals – as human – despite each residing on opposing sides of the conflict. Harry is a Canadian soldier and Kurt is a German Engineer, yet despite the ideological differences of the nations they are a part of, the overarching narrative will ask them to find their common ground. This led me to think, is there a moral responsibility for a developer, particularly when dealing with historical events, to be accurate and fair in their portrayal?

Yoan responded, “I think we have a responsibility to do that because we are the creators of games so have this power to tell something. I think we should think about that. Not saying it’s just entertainment, so we don’t care and its more easy in terms of scenario to have a good guy and a bad guy.”

“I don’t think that everything has to deal with complex moral choices,” Dan added, “but as long as the whole breadth of the medium includes some of that, I think we’re taking steps in the right way.” So, part of the challenge with the game is to be truthful and authentic, the other is to ensure that the world is as historically accurate as possible.

How did the team go about achieving this? “I really wanted to have a balanced point of view” Yoan tells me, “so that’s why we worked with two historians. One is a German, Rob Schaefer, and one is British, Peter Doyle.” The level of detail is astounding, even going so far as to recreate period music that would be heard in the trenches – both the more advanced German trenches and the rather more rough and ready British variants (interesting fact – some German trenches were so well established there were even doorbells outside soldier’s quarters).

Yoan explains that, upon approaching an enemy trench – not only will they be speaking in their native language, but also you’ll be able to hear the music that they are listening to. Music acts as a unifier; many times a song being sung by one nation’s soldier will be instantly recognised by another. These, and other accounts taken from a plethora of letters, diary entries and documents taken from the period form the bedrock of the historical accuracy.

Then there are those visuals. For Yoan, the art style creates an intense experience; “The initial intention was to have something as violent as the emotion you could feel. There’s no graphic violence, I don’t like graphic violence. For me it removes something when you have blood and stuff. It’s not the same kind of emotion. You don’t think about the guy and let’s say his family. If he dies who will be sad? It makes him more about being an animal and that for me removes some of the emotion. We don’t have violence, but we have a lot of psychological intensity.”

To achieve these results has not been easy though. “There’s some beautiful parts of it that work,” Dan told us, “and then you swing ninety degrees and it looks awful. We’re constantly fighting to get all this stuff to work.” He goes on, “We have constantly uncovered more and more technical and conceptual problems we have to deal with. It’s been fun. They’re the best kind of projects I think!”

Having emerged from the ‘Games for Change’ initiative, it’s clear that there are some lofty goals to the positive cultural effect that 11-11 Memories Retold can have on society. Dan believes that it will allow gamers to connect with “people who were involved in the conflict and appreciate that it was a hard, complex, murky set of choices that humans with real lives were taking.” Ultimately he hopes that it will “help colour in some of the grey between the black and white that is out there.”

I’ll let Yoan wrap things up: “This is an act of remembering. I hope that some countries and some young people that aren’t interested in this history, without knowing, they will learn something and may be touched by something. If we achieve that, we get some curiosity from young people who don’t care at all about World War 1, then we will have succeeded in commemorating the war.”


Many thanks to both Yoan Fanise and Dan Effergon for their time. You can find out even more about 11-11 Memories Retold here as well as keep up to date with updates on twitter.

11-11 Memories Retold is coming to PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on the 9th of November 2018.

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