Yoan Fanise, the Creative Director of World War I narrative adventure game Valiant Hearts announced this week his team’s new game – 11-11: Memories Retold. The game is set in World War I, with an announcement trailer setting the scene with gorgeous hand-paint graphics and a narrator reading In Flanders Field, a poem written by a soldier during the war. It will be Fanise’s second game at his new studio, DigixArt, and is in collaboration with Japanese publisher Bandai Namco and Wallace and Gromit creator Aardman.
It’s an odd team for sure, but also one of talent and experience. Valiant Hearts was a fantastic, if flawed, treatise on World War I as a machine of destruction, serving as both a tool of fun and education. The argument could be made that Valiant Hearts is the modern evolution of 90’s edutainment games like Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego in how it subtly teaches the player about the time period by immersing them in the environment first and presenting educational texts second.
Nothing is known about 11-11: Memories Retold other than its setting, but already it raises a question: Where are the World War I games?
Battlefield 1 captured widespread attention with its Great War setting in 2016, and the following year’s Wonder Woman used The First World War to give us the first female superhero movie ever. Both catapulted the war into the forefront of cultural discourse for the first time since perhaps the guns fell silent in 1918, yet neither Hollywood nor the games industry capitalized on this new entertainment frontier.
The common objection raised to the World War I setting is trench warfare. When many think of the First World War, they do so in terms of muddy trenches, soldiers waiting until given the order to charge into no man’s land to march in single file and be shot, and old-fashioned, slow firing bolt action rifles. This would especially be a problem in video games, as decades of combat-driven games have trained players to seek fast, fluid, action-packed combat to stay engaged.
While World War I was certainly a dire, deadly slog, the notion that the entire war was fought in trenches and over mere yards worth of land isn’t entirely accurate. The war was fought around the globe, and every theater saw something different.
In the Pacific, Japan captured multiple German colonial islands. In Africa, the Germans fought a guerrilla war against British and French colonies. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire was fighting off a seaborne invasion and a fearsome Russian advance. The Mesopotamian Front saw the beginnings of a Greek Civil War and the invasion of Serbia from three separate nations. The Eastern Front was home to the Brusilov Offensive in 1916, which captured hundreds of mile of land for Russia. The Italian Front was a vertical war, with the Italians and Austro-Hungarians blasting each other atop mountains and within valleys.
Even the infamous Western Front was incredibly mobile at the beginning and the end of the war. Germany almost captured Paris twice, but was completely steamrolled by the end of the war, losing huge chunks of land as they retreated to the Fatherland before eventually surrendering.
New weapons were created and tested almost every day. The tank was first used in the war, it was the first war to see extended air combat, glow sights on weapons were first used, suppressors got their start with spies, poison gas was frequently used, many armies tried tunneling under one another, some soldiers tried using heavy, metal body armor.
Battlefield 1 often took historical liberties, giving the player machine guns and expecting them to fight alone a majority of the game. But it wasn’t that far removed from the history books either. Valiant Hearts proved that World War I could work in a video game, and Battlefield 1 proved it could even work as an action-heavy first-person shooter.
What’s really holding World War I back is the entertainment industries dated view of how media works, or how many signing the checks feels it should work. World War I is a difficult war to understand in terms of why it began, and how it affected the world. There is no traditional “bad guy” like the Nazi’s in World War II. Nobody was fighting for noble reasons like stopping genocide or taking down a brutal regime.
The romantic belief is that the war began with a single bullet. On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the thrown in Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary believed Princip was working for the Serbian government, as the two were long-time enemies of one another.
This caused a chain reaction in which Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, resulting in Russia declaring war on Austria-Hungary, which resulted in Germany declaring war on Russia as the two were allies, resulting in France declaring war on German as they too were allies. To bypass France’s tough border defenses, Germany invaded Belgium, which resulted in Great Britain declaring war on Germany as those two were allies.
Soon, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined with German forming the Central Powers, and Italy, Japan, the United States and countless others joined Britain and France as the Entente. Every one of these nations that joined had done so seeking to expand their borders, thinking it would be a quick and easy war. But the war resulted in nothing but the deaths of millions, the end of monarchies in Europe, the rise of Nazi Germany, and turmoil in the Middle East that persists to this day.
It’s because of this that World War I is so difficult to depict in entertainment. How can you? Movies and video games typically thrive on making the watcher or player the hero, fighting off evil and saving the day! But you can’t even begin to shoehorn such a scenario into the First World War. Instead, any depiction of the conflict requires presenting it more difficult terms: nobody is the hero, the common soldier is merely a pawn, and everyone is suffering for no good reason.
Valiant Hearts remains the greatest depiction of the war by video games. It set the tone that even Battlefield 1, with its blustery explosions and emphasis on run-and-gun multiplayer frolicking, tried to follow.
In the game, you switch between playing an American grunt who volunteered in the French army, a female nurse, a German prisoner of war escapee trying to get back home, and an old Frenchman forced to serve to fill out the ranks of a depleted army. The game did a great job showing as many perspectives from the war as possible, showing what life was like in the war for a black man, a woman, and a German, the latter of which Battlefield 1 rejected despite its claims of showing both sides as equals.
What united three of these characters (besides a cute little dog) was their simple desire for survival. The fourth, the American volunteer, was out for revenge on a German officer who killed his wife. It’s arguably Valiant Heart’s greatest flaw – a Tarantino-esque revenge plot in the middle of an otherwise heartbreaking tale of love and loss. But this seemingly misplaced tangent serves the greater narrative of highlighting the real tragedy of the war. It was fueled by men just like our American volunteer, those driven by revenge and greed.
Yoan Fanise’s masterpiece was a masterclass in how to depict the Great War within the confines of video games. If 11-11: Memories Retold is anything like Valiant Hearts, we’ll hopefully soon see more games return to the trenches. There are a lot of great stories to be told from the war, as long as storytellers are willing to go look for them.