Across countless first person shooters, real time strategy and RPG’s, gaming has fought on many of history’s factual or fictional battlefields. WW2 has been heavily visited by the likes of Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and Brothers in Arms, the American Civil War is well trodden ground in strategy games and the Middle East has been a bit of a recurring theme as well. Yet there is one defining period of wartime history which has been relatively ignored by the gaming industry, and I struggle to see why. I am of course talking about The Great War 1914 – 1918, one of the most horrific and devastating scars on the face of mankind’s history on planet Earth. There has been the odd title here and there, and inevitably I have forgotten about a classic that’s still played by millions of people (apologies in advance), but to my mind I can’t think of a single big budget title that has had a really good go at looking at the First World War that isn’t a mod for something else. In fact, the only game I do remember in this setting was one installed on my school’s computers called Battle Of The Somme; you tried to mastermind a storming of the enemy lines, but it was actually not possible to win using any strategy. I think this lack of interest from developers is a shame, but fortunately I have the blueprint for someone to address this.
Firstly, let’s just consider the setting we’d be working with. Prior to 1914, war consisted of going into Africa or India and shooting people who don’t have guns and taking their land. Please don’t think me flippant, but there is a reason that hundreds of thousands queued to enlist when war broke out; genuinely thinking that it would all be over by Christmas. Man could simply not conceive of the horrors that awaited them in the distant fields of France and Belgium, as there had never been anything like it before. Men ceased to be men, and were reduced to nothing but hollow shells completely devoid of any sense of self as they sat ankle deep in the stagnant fetid water that ran through their trenches, feet rotting from their legs and their sanity escaping them. Their poetry which resonates this period in time is made even more poignant by the knowledge that almost all of them met their deaths in such an indignant and tragic manner. This tragedy was made all the more horrific by two commands, unable to come to terms with trench warfare, who resorted to nothing more than just throwing thousands and thousands of men at machine gun posts. I say throwing, what actually happened was that these men were ordered to walk in a line towards snipers, machine gun fire and certain death. That is of course if they had not had their eyes and lungs burnt out by mustard gas beforehand, sometimes even by their own men (a well-known story is of hundreds of German soldiers being caught in their own mustard gas when the wind turned and blew it back towards them). Nine million people fell in the Great War, towns were scoured from history and the countryside became a haunting memorial to the ignorance of man. Bearing all this in mind it is clear that this is not a setting to be taken lightly by a developer, and is perhaps the reason that it has not been fully embraced previously.
Secondly, how would you actually go about transforming this setting into a game? What sort of game is going to do it justice? Unsurprisingly, there is a Half Life 2 mod called WW1 Source which plays out the conflict in first person and that seems to work quite well, although I worry if the first person shooter market is perhaps too focused on constant action to do it justice. I can’t see Call of Duty’s fan base being prepared to endure the slow progressive intricacies trench warfare, and even if it were, the casualty rate was so high how could you keep it interesting hen your character dies over and over again?
Real time strategy I think is out as well, as it would become ‘just another game’ moving pieces about upon a chess board and never really being able to embrace the setting or feel any emotional connection to the characters within it. I am going to suggest a sandbox type game is the best way of doing this, almost like the bastard spawn of ArmA 3 and Red Dead Redemption. This gives you a character to build an affinity with, enough wiggle room to get a story in that doesn’t revolve exclusively around walking towards a machine gun or the holding of a sniper rifle. Also, this would give the opportunity for the developers to add some depth to the game showing off lots of the different sub plots of the war; advances in medicine, surviving artillery strikes (many times soldiers were killed by their own guns, the generals not thinking to check the time they were going to set the guns off would not coincide with their own men charging forward), tunnelling to plant mines and fleeing clouds of gas; the sandbox style third person is made for this setting.
Lastly, and possibly irrelevantly, how do you end it? Do you engineer things so that the player bonds and has an affinity with their character so that, as with so many thousands during the war, when they throw their life away so pointlessly tangled in barbed wire being gunned down that you are upset for their loss? Or do you survive? One of the most eerie and poignant moments of the war was it’s very last; one day, an ordinary day, the heavy artillery guns all fell silent. Men on both sides emerged from their trenches, crossed no man’s land and stood face to face with the men who had tried to been trying to kill them for the past four years, then as one silently turned and returned home. If you think what developers can do with the likes of Bioshock or The Last Of Usto make us feel the way we do, just imagine what they could do with this.
Whilst writing this, I have realised why the First World War does not appear in more games; it is simply too awful. There’s no fun to be had, and unless you’re absolutely spot on with the execution it would be an insult on the memory of those who fell in a way that doesn’t manifest itself in other wartime setting. I honestly think though, if a triple A title was to come out, with a developer prepared to throw a lot of money at doing it right, and if the audience don’t go in expecting the Call of Duty experience, then this idea could result in something truly epic.