I’ve often believed it to be true that video games can tackle many real world issues in ways that no other art form can. From the plight of war refugees in This War of Mine and Syrian Journey, to being a child living in unimaginable pain in That Dragon, Cancer. Games have the power to make us experience lives other than our own, live in times far from memory and allow us to be the heroes (or villains) we’ve always dreamt of being. However as my uncle Ben always said “With great power comes great responsibility.” A responsibility to treat the subject matter of the game with the respect and dignity it deserves, especially when dealing with one of the bloodiest and most pointless wars in human history, the First World War.

Recently released on Steam after a time on Early Access, Verdun is a multi-player first person shooter set in the trenches of Verdun, during one of the most horrific battles of the first world war. In the battle that last over 9 months, over 300,000 French and German soldiers lost their lives to massive artillery bombardments, gas attacks and almost constant trench fighting. As of yet I haven’t played Verdun, and while it does look like a fairly competent and well put together game, it’s one I don’t think I’ll be playing any time soon. The reason being is I’m unsure that a first person shooter does the historical setting justice.

Would these games have been as popular if they had been set in a more troubling war?

Games are of course no stranger to war. Some of the most popular games on the market are all about it. Some portray the events of real world conflicts, while others create fake ones. Before it’s shift to Modern Warfare, the Call of Duty series was all about World War 2, which at face value is the most uncomplicated war in human history, coming down to “Nazis bad, kill Nazis.” This moral simplicity gave game developers a free pass to do whatever they wanted with the time period, from RTS in the form of Company of Heroes, the blood soaked alt-history tales of BJ Blazkowicz in Wolfenstein and the underrated Saboteur (Seriously, play Saboteur). Would these games have been as popular if they had been set in a more troubling war? Would Company of Heroes be fun to play if it was set during the Falklands war and would BJ’s endless killing spree be as popular if it took place in Kosovo? Doubtful.

So we come to the First World War, a conflict that engulfed Europe for little real reason and helped lay the groundwork for the next global conflict. For the first time war had been truly mechanized, with tanks, artillery and chemical warfare all taking their tentative first steps into the theater of war. Life in the trenches itself was as close to hell on earth as it’s possible to imagine, and remember the men in those trenches (On both sides) weren’t professional soldiers but conscripts, taken from their homes to fight in a war they had no say in. You can see then my issues with having you play as a soldier in such a conflict. From the hours of footage I’ve watched to research, the games weapons and setting appear to be well researched and authentic to the time period. But these nods to authenticity are undermined by the game alerting you to when you kill a foe and awarding points for doing so. These “gamified” elements take the weight from taking a life and make it another game focused on getting a good Kill-Death ratio.

Valiant Hearts

Would this mean that I would swear off any game set in the Great War? Certainly not, but a game in such a time period would need to see the value in preserving life over taking it. Last year we were treated to the wonderful Valiant Hearts by Ubisoft. Valiant Hearts focused on the human tragedy of the war, of families being torn apart, nationalism overtaking reason and the great incompetence of the warmongers in charge. Fighting took a back seat to survival and whenever you did have to fight it was because there was no alternative. The game had it’s flaws however, the games regular boss fights with “Baron Von Dorf” (Guess which side he belongs to) felt needlessly gamey and contrived, but the games heart was in the right place.

It is perhaps an odd criticism of a game to say that the setting doesn’t suit the gameplay. After all, the developers will have spent years creating the game and are probably far more knowledgeable about the subject matter than most. Maybe my reticence to play a shooter in the war is due to my upbringing. Growing up in England, every year the 11th of November is a hallowed day of remembrance. In schools we are taught the lessons of that war, not just in History class but in English, where the poignant verse of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est is drummed into us lest we forget. Forgetting such a tragedy will never be an issue, but remembering it in the wrong way could be. When we see the ruins and trenches of Verdun we shouldn’t see “Kill Zones” or “Spawn Points” but the monuments to wasted life that they are.

 

About The Author

Contributor

All round song and dance man. Best known for his use of expletives, casual quoting of Jeeves & Wooster and his love for all things Timesplitters. Host of the Played Out Podcast and proud victim of five different gypsy curses

Related Posts

  • Is this a European game?

    • Robert Edwards

      I believe it’s developed by Dutch developers Blackmill games. Who in the past have made three Mods for other games set during the Great War, Trench Rats, The Great Trench War and Battlefield 1918.