When it comes to the First World War, here in Britain, we have a very specific cultural image.The Western Front, an incompressible vast scar across the land, extending from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France. It consists of opposing zig-zagging lines of trenches, with the treacherous crater-strewn expanse of No Man’s Land between them.
From the British trenches a whistle is blown and moments later the first of the distinctive flying-saucer shaped helmets – dubbed the Brodie – rise up from the relative sanctuary of the trench, if by relative sanctuary you mean a rat infested, plague strewn, flee coated, hell pit. Soon the soldier’s have made the precarious clamber up the rickety trench ladders and find themselves walking – not running, crouching or crawling – across No-Man’s land.
All that can be seen before them is a landscape destroyed by the war, barbed wire twists in each direction, ready to snag and tear the skin, crater’s provide cover and yet are also the final resting place for many of their fallen comrades, not a single tree, plant or stem of grass to be seen. Then the rasping sound of the The Maschinengewehr 08 machine gun can be heard from the German trenches, bullets swarm like angry wasps and the killing begins.
It’s a visceral, powerful image and was, in many cases, absolutely true. But it is also not reflective of the entire experience of a soldier fighting in the Great War. Amongst the unimaginable horror, there were moments of humour, compassion, and boredom. Evidence of this can be seen in the near countless examples of soldier’s letters, poems and diary entries that modern historians can analyse.
How then, to recreate the complex and contradictory human experience of being a soldier during WWI in a videogame? DigixArt and Artman have an elegant situation to this problem for 11-11 Memories Retold, to use an art style that is like an impressionist painting – the oils and canvas aesthetic capable of evoking a wide range of emotions. It’s certainly an interesting approach, and one that I enjoyed discussing with Dan Effergan, the group creative director of Aardman Animation.
”It was kind of found as part of the very first conversation,” Dan told me on what led to their decision to pursue a painterly art style. ”Yoan, game director of DigixArt, came over here to visit us, myself and Jake, we were walking around the Aardman Studio and wanted to show him some stuff we’ve done before. One of the pieces was for the Imperial War Museum. It had started this concept of could you use impressionistic paintings of the time to tell this linear narrative? Yoan saw it and was like, ‘That’s it, that’s what we want to do, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do this?’ And that was the seed.”
The team however, didn’t simply settle on an impressionistic art style and be done with it. Instead they tried a variety of painting styles from the early 20th Century; ”Bram, as art director, took it even further. He did these tests that were more futurism and cubism and the stuff that was starting to grow out of the emotive fertile ground that was created from the war and before. So we started playing with some of those and then we bent ourselves back round, partly because of the beauty and the technical restrictions, into this celebration of the art of the time. So it does involve a bit of expressionism, but it does have nods towards other works that were going on during that time.”
A culture or generation’s artistic creations are of great use to historians, as they tell us about how our ancestors perceived the world. In several examples from modern media, such as seen in films or TV, people from the past seem to have the same attitudes, ideological beliefs and perceptions that we do today, they’re just wearing different types of clothes and perhaps have some funny hats. This makes them more relatable to a modern audience, but is hardly historically authentic; our ancestors often saw things in a fundamentally different manner to us.
Impressionist, cubist and futurist paintings demonstrate this and are very much products of the early twentieth century. These paintings provided a great deal of inspiration to Aardman, as Dan told me, ”We wanted to immerse ourselves in the history and build something inspired by that, [and so we also] wanted to immerse ourselves within the art of the period and build something inspired by that. You just want to be true to that period.”
Many of the paintings that came out of the social trauma that was the great war carry a great deal of information about the artist, and perhaps wider societies, mental and emotional state at the time. Is this, I asked Dan, something you have brought into 11-11’s visual style?
”We were going to play on that symbolism and just generally dealing with reality and how we could break that apart,” he said. “Being shell-shocked or emotionally shocked or PTSD moments where reality falls apart a bit, that’s actually were Bram wanted to bring in some of the futurism and the deconstruction of reality. The ideas were easy to discuss compared to the ambition of having to deliver a project in the time we had. I think we’re still holding onto some of those ideas with the hopeful idea of returning to this the next time.”
”There’s some in there,” Dan continued, ”even simple things like the colours to make it feel like a painting, the way you light a scene, is not natural. There’s quite a lot of extreme use so if you switch off all the shaders there’s some very unusual lighting choices that are going on. So, the licks of paint that are around someone’s face are a lick of green when in fact there’s no green light source there. That’s a good example of how we have been able to work within the unusual. I still think there’s ambition and we’re still fighting to push in the more surreal.”
Whoa there, hang on a minute Dan, did you say ”next time?” Are you planning on looking at other historical events through this artistic lens? ”We always talked about this being a brand above and beyond a single moment in history. The thing that would always hold it together would be if you could look at a point in history, or in the future, where you are looking at one thing from two points of view? Can we look at something from multiple points of view and present that to the player?”
An immediate spark of inspiration occurs to me: the events and battles of 1066 recreated in the Bayeux Tapestry. In my mind’s eye I can see the game world being embroidered into existence right before me. Take my money Dan, take it right now!
Many thanks to Dan Effergon for his time. You can check out our recent preview of 11-11 Memories Retold here.
11-11 Memories Retold is coming to PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on the 9th of November 2018.