100 years ago, the world was wracked with war. It was a war that took a terrible toll, with the millions of dead, the millions of further wounded, and the tens of millions who died after the war during the 1918 flu pandemic. It’s no surprise that those who survived were dubbed the Lost Generation.
As DICE moved away from the era of fictionalised wars and back to the reality of World War 1, it gave them an opportunity. Eric Holmes, Design Director on Single Player, said, “I think that we looked at the subject matter and we looked at the sort of variety and diversity we wanted to cover and we wanted to be grounded. We didn’t want to tell some story about super commandos.
“I’ll use a ridiculous example, but Duke Nukem is out at the far end of the spectrum, as the tough guy that just blasts through everything, and we wanted to go to the other end of the spectrum and be about somebody who’s real. What would that mean for all the different concepts we have for different types of gameplay. So it really leapt out of that.”
In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty games of old, as you shift from one protagonist to another. These stories aren’t interwoven, they stand on their own, only linked by the global conflict in which they take place, and while you might be taking part in some of the major military actions of the way, you’re just one person. An important cog within the machine, but a cog nonetheless.
“We want to treat it with a lot of respect,” Jamie explained, “and it’s also what we want people to be thinking about. They don’t think, “What would it be like to be the guy to change the course of the Western Front? and then went to Italy and did this thing?” You don’t think about that, you think what it would be like to be somebody in the trenches? What would it be like to be somebody who flies in one of these planes?”
“And you’re not trying to win the war,” Eric chipped in, “you’re just trying to make it home.”
“Exactly,” Jamie continued. “There’s nothing you can do about the war – it’s just ongoing in the background – but what you’re worried about is you and the guys next to you, what’s going to happen to you in the next hour?”
Having played the prologue, Storm of Steel, a couple of times, it stands out to me as one of the most effective meaningful moments in recent first person shooters. It illustrates the death and destruction of the Western Front like nothing else that I can think of, but it’s also a one off. After that, each story focusses on a single person.
When I asked them why it wasn’t something they decided to lean on more often, Jamie explained, “I think the prologue has a slightly different function, though we are, I think, making a bit of a comment about what WW1 was. People have a lot of preconceptions about what WW1 was: they think mud, they think trenches, they think Western Front. It’s important for us to realise what that is; I don’t think we can sidestep that that’s what the war was for a lot of different people.
“So rather than sidestepping it, we want to lean into it. We want to say ‘OK, yes, it was really horrible, and here it is. This is what this thing could have been like.’ We want people to be a little bit shocked, we wanted people to feel a bit confused by what’s happening, and then, like you say, to feel the churn. But we’re also looking to establish humanity within that as well.
“You hear a lot of those stories of Christmas Day football matches, sharing smokes between trenches. It’s looking to that thing too. You know, these were people, at the end of the day.”
There’s a more personal angle to each of these stories, with Through Mud and Blood focusing on a single tank crew, as they fight behind enemy lines, Friends in High Places putting you in a flimsy biplane, when the Germans rule the sky, or as a Bedouin warrior fighting alongside Lawrence of Arabia. The game only spends a short time with each, and that’s opened up interesting avenues for DICE to explore in how they tell these stories.
“It’s different in terms of style,” Eric said. “By going to that anthology format, it means we have to connect with our characters much more quickly. We had to establish them fast and get you into that world – maybe one you don’t know much about? […] I think the thing that was really liberating with this format was that it means not all of our stories have to have happy endings and continue on.
“So we do different things in this format, more like an episode of The Twilight Zone, or something like that, where these characters are just used once. Where does their story take them? How can we make that emotionally profound for you and surprising?”
And within that, they’ve played with different methods of telling the story. One is told by narration over you playing, another is centred more around the dialogue between characters, and there’s even flashbacks looking back on the war from decades later.
However, there’s no stories from the German or Austro-Hungarian side of the war, which in a war where both sides were embroiled in murky greys areas of right and wrong, it feels like it would have been good to see.
“There’s an enormous amount of variety in the stories we do have,” Eric said on the matter, “and there’s also an enormous amount of stories that we would have loved to tell that we haven’t. We can be damned by inclusion and damned by omission, because there were so many things going on across the whole globe.”
Jamie added, “Like Eric says, you are damned by omission as much as anything else. It’s how you represent them, it’s how to talk about people. It is so emotive for so many people, and I know we feel it in Britain, but it’s nothing compared to how France and Germany feel about this sort of stuff, and that’s something that’s been a bit of a revelation for me as well, just how close it is to people.
“It’s funny that it is that close in a war that took place so long ago. That’s the bit that still gets me.”
Thanks to Eric and Jamie for taking the time to talk to us. Battlefield 1 is out this week, starting tomorrow, 18th October, for those pre-ordering the Early Enlister versions of the game, or on 21st October for general release. Keep an eye out for our review a little later today, or catch up on our Battlefield 1 content from the last week here.