Modern shooter video games are notoriously graphic. So much so, in fact, that cultural observers have wondered for some time how much these death-and-destruction-glorifying titles might desensitize those who play them, especially when it comes to younger gamers.
The new war game Battlefield 1 is a little different when it comes to all that carnage.
The First War of the World
Battlefield 1 takes place on various battlefields during World War I. The Great War, as it's sometimes called due to its previously unprecedented scope, has often been described by historians as one of the one of the most savage, raw, horrific conflicts in the history of the world, one that claimed the lives some 17 million combatants and civilians. And that visceral destruction is exactly what players wade through here.
For the most part, gamers don the helmets of a series of random grunts destined for death. There's no super soldier in the mix, a hero running out fearlessly with indestructible armor that can absorb 20 or 30 rounds. There's no awesome champion holding a Gears of War chainsaw rifle to gut oncoming foes. There's none of that. Instead, you're just another anonymous soldier who can go down in an instant. You're a frightened fellow who runs for any small scrap of cover while bullets zing past and artillery shells blow up comrades in an unending eruption of fire and blood.
In fact, in the opening sequence of this first-person shooter, you jump quickly between battling and dying in the boots of guys like Francis Nottoway, Dean Stevenson and Harry Armstrong: all average 18- and 19-year-old nobodies who perish horribly in the war's heated brutality.
The rest of the game is similar, only stretched out into longer campaigns. You fight as one of the Harlem Hellfighters in France or as a beleaguered tank driver in the Battle of Cambrai or as a wounded Aussi runner in the Gallipoli Campaign. Different names, similarly grim outcomes.
War's Random Terror
Now, that summary of Battlefield 1 might make it sound as if this title was designed simply to torture gamers accustomed to running, gunning heroes packing monstrous firepower. But there's a bigger philosophical point in play here. This intense warfare game is designed to truly communicate an anti-war message. It doesn't just exhilarate; it terrifies in equal measure. It doesn't simply showcase gory bloodshed; it points out the repugnance of human life being ground up like so much hamburger in these massive conflicts.
The game also repeatedly reinforces the idea that no matter how good you are at flicking controller buttons and pulling a trigger, your character can die quickly and unexpectedly—just like in a real war. It might be an inescapable pummeling of artillery fire, a rain of ordinance dropped from a plane flying overhead or just a surprise bullet out of the blue. Players simply can't escape how randomly terrible it all is.
Driving that point home, there's one quick cutscene in which a soldier drags his battered and bloodied body up out of the mud and debris after a devastating battle, only to find an enemy soldier doing the same thing some ten yards away. The two men face each other, alone on a field littered with the corpses of their comrades, and after a few glaring moments they both lower their guns and trudge away, realizing the futility of it all. It's a poignant statement for a shooter.
At the same time, Battlefield 1 has other lessons to impart as well. Its campaign stories talk of the bonds formed between men hammered by the shock and awe of World War I's brutality. It also hints at the fact that horrible situations can actually clarify an individual's character, forcing him to examine his own frailties in the face of someone else's personal sacrifice.
All of that said, however, I must reiterate that this is indeed a vicious high-def affair. Dialogue is rife with vulgar language. And the screaming, bloody fighting is both percussive and gruesome.
Soldiers burst like blood bags when hit with large-caliber rounds. You wield various makes of rifles, machine guns and pistols. You hack at foes with everything from a bayonet to your pack shovel. And the constant intensity of it all is enough to leave you feeling physically battered and emotionally exhausted, even though you've only been tightly gripping a game controller.
And that's one of the major ironies of this game. There are indeed important cautionary messages to absorb in the midst of Battlefield 1's well-crafted gameplay. But there's also a no man's land of destruction to endure while marching through an unrelenting digital depiction of the war to end all wars.