World War 1 is a woefully underexplored historical event in video games. More often than not, games based on the two World Wars merely provide a different setting for the player to run around and shoot people in the head. In my opinion, Digixart and Aardman Studios are to be congratulated for attempting to look at the people that fought in the war, their relationships, emotions and intentions, rather than to simply fixate on the fighting. 11–11 : Memories Retold may have its flaws, but it also has ambition, integrity and historical authenticity.
The most distinctive feature of 11–11, and the aspect that has certainly garnered the most attention during its development, has been its visual style. The game is, to all intents and purposes, a 3D engine that constructs every frame of every second using millions of individual brush strokes, capturing the style of an impressionist painter. The effect of this is startling, managing to be both atmospheric and, in places, strikingly beautiful.
Open locations in particular benefit from this oil painted aesthetic, a war cemetery in the summer sunlight, swathes of bright red poppies growing from the devastated land of the Somme, the Paris skyline bathed in blue sky, all look astonishing. The game engine manages to bring to life this interactive painting and achieves the strange sense of looking through a painted surface into a 3D world.
That’s not to say there aren’t issues with this distinctive art style. Whilst open outdoor locations look resplendent, interior spaces – such as a trench or a tunnel – are far less successful. At these moments, in close quarters with limited lighting, the game resembles a title from the PlayStation 1 era. There are also issues with being able to identify objects to interact with.
For example, whilst trapped in a poison gas filled trench I was tasked with finding a gas mask for a German solider, but despite my best efforts the mask remained defiantly unfound – I simply couldn’t distinguish it from the game environment. In another, I could hear the cries of an injured soldier trapped under the metal skeleton of a fallen zeppelin, but could I find him? Could I heck. The game attempts to remedy this by using a solid white marker to identify objects, but the help this provided was often inconsistent.
Fortunately, a tight and pacey narrative saw me through these frustrations. The game follows two men as they attempt to survive the Western Front; Harry, a Canadian photographer, and Kurt, a German engineer. Both join the war effort for their own reasons, Harry to impress a girl and Kurt to find his missing son, and set against the vast canvas of a World War, the story is refreshingly, and perhaps necessarily, intimate and personal. Harry and Kurt are pulled from conflict to conflict, their stories eventually intertwining. I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns here, but I found the conclusion to their tale both powerful and affecting.
The developers resist the temptation of being overly heavy handed in trying to get an emotional response from the player. Instead they let the incredible orchestral score and excellent vocal performances of Elijah Wood and Sebastian Koch do the work. Wood is excellent, infusing Harry with an infectious naïve optimism, but it’s Koch who truly excels; Kurt is eminently believable as the obsessed father who journeys too far into the darkness of war and his own soul to find his son.
It’s the game mechanics that see’s 11 -11 falter, however. The majority of the game is spent exploring the environment and interacting with its occupants, be that soldiers at the front line or civilians in Paris. At these moments the game is at its best, thanks to a level of historical authenticity that makes the game world one to relish. With neither Kurt or Harry being combatants, the player doesn’t take part in any fighting, though both protagonists must survive through the violent conflict of several battles.
Harry is tasked with taking photographs and it is these that prove the most satisfying diversion for the player. Harry can take photos of anyone and everything, and with a graphics engine that can look so beautiful, this is a great deal of fun. Kurt fare’s less well in his role as an engineer. He is tasked with fixing radios, which amounts to little more than moving some wires and twiddling a dial – surely the early 20th century equivalent of turning it off and on again? – and fetching items to assist other soldiers. Dictating the content of the letters to his loved ones is surprisingly thought provoking and helps to invest the player in his character arc. Do you tell the truth or make things sound more hopeful than they are?
One interesting addition provides Harry and Kurt with pets – a pigeon and a cat, respectively – but the use of these critters is under-explored and rather forgettable as a consequence. There’s some minigames to bulk out the content, some of these are entertaining diversions – such as playing cards or steering a ship around mines – others are borderline atrocious. Harry has the misfortune to be saddled with a terrible QTE driven ‘stage performance’ that really should have been cut from the game.
The story is said and done in about seven hours. There’s some replayability thanks to multiple endings and different choices that can be made but this is mostly a strictly linear experience – despite the promises to the contrary that the game makes. The initial suggestions that the wording you choose in Kurt’s frequent letters to his daughter or the photographs that Harry sends to his sweetheart will have an effect on the relationships with their loved one’s proves unfounded.
There are also collectibles to be found in the game world and these prove a double-edged sword. On the plus side the historical information they unlock is well written, thoroughly researched, concise and interesting. It’s the collecting of the collectables that proves their undoing. This is primarily because trying to find tiny spinning pieces of paper in an oil painting is a tedious endeavour, but the game also tasks you with attempting to do this in ridiculous circumstances. Running around no-man’s land mid-battle, trying to find a piece of paper hidden behind a tree trunk undoes much of the drama and tension in the story.
There’s so much that I like about 11–11 Memories Retold; the wonderful story, exceptional vocal performances and, for the most part, a beautiful and refreshingly unique art style. These elements all delight, yet they are let down by some poor minigames and underdeveloped gameplay mechanics. Despite these issues though, I was compelled to see this story to its conclusion, thanks to some smart plotting and a narrative that zips along like the very best page-turning novel.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4
Also available on Xbox One and PC