Battlefield 1 tackles First World War, a rare setting in video games

Battlefield 1 takes first-person shooters back in time to the First World War in a genre currently dominated by modern warfare and science fiction settings.

First-person shooter will launch Oct. 21

Battlefield 1 takes first-person shooters back in time to the First World War in a genre currently dominated by modern warfare and science fiction settings. (DICE/Electronic Arts)

Can the horrors of the First World War really serve as a setting for video game fun?

That's the question gamers were faced with when the trailer for Battlefield 1, the latest game in the mega-popular series, and Call of Duty's longtime rival franchise, rejected the industry trend of near-future warfare and threw viewers into the muck of the First World War.

The trailer contained plenty of action. A soldier clobbers a victim in the face with a shovel in the trenches. A heavily armoured tank rolls at full speed toward horsemen brandishing sabres. An unfortunate victim is engulfed by mustard gas as the player throws on a breathing mask.

All of this is punctuated by cannon fire and explosions, set to a dubstep remix of the White Stripes' Seven Nation Army.

Fans gobbled up the trailer, and at the time of writing it's amassed 33 million views and more than 1.6 million likes. (By comparison, the trailer for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, released a day prior, is currently the second most disliked video on YouTube, behind only Justin Bieber's Baby.)

Almost immediately, critics and commentators pondered whether Battlefield 1 was a good idea. Would developer DICE and publisher Electronic Arts accurately recreate the horrors of the war in video game form? Or was the setting simply too horrific for a game focused on action and adrenalin?

'Gameplay is the king'

A mainstream video game set in a war known as the "seminal catastrophe" of modern times, which saw 16 million dead, including 10 million soldiers, caused great unease in some critics.

"World War I ... offers no clear-cut narrative of heroism or villainy, just squabbling dynasties vying for their own interests in a particularly brutal war," wrote Wired's Jake Muncy. "What do you do with that if you're a game designer trying to craft escapist entertainment?"

Battlefield 1's senior producer Aleksander Grondal sees the uncertainty about a new setting as ripe potential for new experiences and a way to differentiate his game from the competition.

Electronic Arts and DICE are promoting varied gameplay featuring airplanes, cavalry and tanks. (DICE/Electronic Arts)

"With regards to history, and telling history, that's not really what our expertise is. Our expertise is about creating experiences that are set in a time period," he told CBC News.

But while his team conducted "extensive amounts of research" to ensure that the depictions of soldiers' uniforms, weaponry and battle scenarios were true to the era, he stressed that "gameplay is always the king here."

The era will let DICE include combat situations of the day not found in games set in the modern era: biplane dogfights, cavalry charges and tank warfare can exist in the same melee, punctuated by brutal and bloody bayonet charges in the trenches.

All of these will exist in the sprawling 64-player multiplayer maps that the Battlefield series is known for.

Few games set in First World War

Compared with the hundreds of titles set in the Second World War, very few games take place in the First World War, except for niche titles in the strategy or flight simulator genres geared more toward history buffs. 

The most notable first-person shooter from that era is probably 2015's Verdun, a multiplayer game set in the trenches. And for a long time, the best-known games set in this period probably starred Snoopy the dog.

The first-person shooter Verdun is a slower-paced take on trench warfare and has its biggest fans in history buffs more concerned with historical accuracy than bombastic set pieces. (Blackmill Games)

That changed with 2014's Valiant Hearts, Ubisoft Montpellier's puzzle-adventure game meant to drive home the human cost of the war, rather than revel in it. Its creative director Yoan Fanise confessed to having mixed feelings when he watched the Battlefield 1 trailer.

"Visually the game looks wonderful. I've studied a lot of the objects and decals [that appear in the trailer] and it's very accurate, as far as I can say. They did a really great job on it," he told CBC News.

But he calls the explosion-laden trailer "a caricature of a video game" full of "wow moments" and little else.

"It glorifies too much the brutality of this war, so I have a kind of awkward vibe with it."

Ubisoft Montpellier's Valiant Hearts spent more time examining the human cost of the First World War instead of revelling in the carnage at the front lines. (Ubisoft Montpellier)

"I think games can be profoundly important for highlighting the complexity and messiness of history in a way that causes us to reflect deeply on it," said Shawn Graham, an associate professor of digital humanities at Carleton University.

Graham, who explores the interplay between games and history, isn't sure whether Battlefield 1 will achieve this when it launches in October — no one does, really, since DICE has so far said very little about what will appear in the game that isn't already in the trailer.

Back to the original question, though — can Battlefield 1 make the First World War fun?

"That's an interesting question," said Grondal after pondering for a moment. "I would say, 'Can we make a game about the First World War that is fun? Yes. You can do that."

(DICE/Electronic Arts)

He's under no illusions that the game will be a straight-up history lesson. But he hopes it will generate interest in a conflict that isn't as regularly visited in popular media.

"We treat the history with great respect, as we have done in our previous historical games, and I will be extremely happy if we can spark an interest in players to find out more about this era, to bring this conflict to light so people can read up about it," he said.


Jonathan Ore

Senior Writer

Jonathan Ore is the Senior Writer for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He's also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the video game industry for CBC News. You can find him on Twitter @Jon_Ore.