Last week DICE announced the new Battlefield game, and it already managed to stir up quite a flurry of opinion pieces and sharply worded tweets. Even before the game was officially announced, the leaked materials caused a debate. Even though the trailer is in-engine, it doesn’t show actual gameplay, but that doesn’t stop some people from already making sweeping generalisations about the style and tone of the game.
Slightly more negative opinions I have seen, complained about the seemingly bad-ass and sensational nature of the trailer. Which should be considered inappropriate for a tragic, sombre event such as the First World War. Is it okay to make an entertainment product out of one of the darkest times of humanity? More so because of the way it is shown with such bravado and heroism. Because, let’s be honest, the First World War was mostly mentally crushed young men being miserably stuck in muddy trenches awaiting their inevitable death as they stormed into a rain of bullets or got gruesomely murdered by poison gas.
My first reaction upon noticing the rumours was positive, and when I saw the trailer I was wildly enthusiastic. The originality is praiseworthy and the way it boldly sets itself apart from the sci-fi tones of competitor Call of Duty received well deserved kudos from the internet. Now I read some of the less optimistic reactions and I do see their point. But I think we shouldn’t be to quick to shoot things down so early.
One of the aspects that caught my attention early, was the promotional art of a black soldier in a cloak holding a handgun and some sort of melee weapon. This was part of the leaked material and initially spurred rumours that the new Battlefield would somehow be an alternative history take on World War 1. The truth about this ironic and slightly embarrassing. The man on the image is a member of the Harlem Hellfighters: an American regiment consisting entirely of African Americans. This unit was integrated in the French army because the US didn’t like the idea of black people feeling equal to their white American counterparts. The Harlem Hellfighters were meant to be forgotten; a unit that fought hard and brave during the war were ignored and neglected upon their return. They didn’t receive medals, didn’t get any recognition and died poor and unknown.
It’s jarring that a century later they are still largely unknown, up to a point that people assume a work of fiction about them is probably a case of alternative history. Because that apparently seemed more likely then an actual black guy in the First World War. The melee weapon, by the way, is a trench club; a fairly common tool for that time, used in close combat encounters.
I didn’t know about the Harlem Hellfighters either. But I’m glad I do know. That’s a piece of historic knowledge I already picked up, and the game didn’t even release yet. See, that’s why I am optimistic about this. The reason I love historic games is exactly this; picking up stories and facts about history you didn’t know. Assassin’s Creed, LA Noire, the early Medal of Honor games. They are perfect to learn something in a light hearted, fun way. And I think for people that aren’t as intrigued by history as I am, it goes the same way.
I understand the concerns about the glamorisation of warfare. I also found the pumping rock soundtrack a little jarring, and I have double feelings about the Harlem Hellfighters featured as a DLC pack. I spoke about this before, in one of the first articles I wrote for Gonzo Opera.
My spirit was lifted though, by this interview with lead designer Danny Berlin with Venture Beat. Upon a question if they deliberately chose to put a black character in, Berlin answered the following: “That’s the thing. People don’t know that this was the case. We want to show diversity in the game. That’s been a key goal. You can see in the trailer that there’s a Bedouin woman warrior on a horse. She’s a playable character in the single-player campaign.”
This makes me happy and positive about the intentions of the game makers. Okay, there are always PR and marketing people that will balance on what’s acceptable and good taste in terms of promotion. When Assassin’s Creed Unity was advertised with a ‘guillotine slotmachine’ game on their website, I winced. But the game itself was a respectful piece of fiction against the backdrop of an historical event. I like to think Battlefield 1 will do the same.
People might remember Valiant Hearts, that beautiful little game from Ubisoft that depicted the Great War in picture book style with a heart wrenching story and a focus on small personal experiences rather than spectacular battle and violence. And of course we remember the first games in the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series. Violins, slow trombones, soft singing. A main menu in period appropriate style: typewriter letters, black and white photos. Is it superficial and conservative to expect those in Battlefield 1 too? Would it be considered disrespectful to put in more industrial rock, sleek fonts and a rigid lay-out? I guess we’ll just have to see.