Simulating WW1 and the Insufficiency of Reality
“It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth
The torn fields of France.”
—Isaac Rosenberg, from Break of Day in the Trenches
Just as every dog has its day, every war has its game. In my fifteen odd years of playing videogames,1 I have participated in the Normandy Landings, the Tet Offensive, the ruin of Rome. I have led soldiers and watched them die, and have myself died, in nearly every conceivable historical conflict there has been, or ever could have been. But I had not, until recently, died in the trenches of the First World War.
In literature and film, there has long been a concern surrounding the representation of the First or “Great” World War: that it is beyond the imagination of those who have not experienced it, as Siegfried Sassoon once bitterly remarked. Its sheer, inhuman violence, its monotone of brown muck and grey iron, and the distant thud and rumble of shells, even its peculiar banality, suggest a very different experience from the easily more “cinematic” detail of the Second World War – with Call of Duty and its hearty cinematic references to A Bridge too Far and The Longest Day. The Great War, represented chiefly in its poems, its incomprehensibly mucky paintings, and its correspondence, is less open to that cinematic engagement – its “entertainment” value almost nothing. It is the war that cannot, at least easily, be simulated.
But that does not mean that there have not been attempts. For the most part, these have been flight sims (like Red Baron 3D) or grand strategy games; titles that evade and back away from representing the realities of the trenches themselves – doing so for a variety of operational, design and other reasons. For Red Baron it is the clean, clearness of the open sky, dodging and dog-fighting far above the twisted world of the trenches below. Playing it, I’m reminded of John McCrae’s In Flander’s Fields:
“and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below”
Its screenshots show a land below of green fields uninterrupted by the war that gouged the life out of them, as if really the war only existed in the air, unawares of what was going on “down below”. There’s even a sort of chirpy resilience to it all.
The First World War retains, beyond all other wars, an anxiety of representation. Unlike WWII, which can be rendered into the Hammer Horror Gothic of Castle Wolfenstein, or else the cinematic on-rails experience of Call of Duty, WWI was a war that had no ready and ostensibly open media to capture and manage its imagery. It had no Hamburger Hill, no Sink the Bismark! It came at a time when the securities of the conventional, Victorian literary and aesthetic imagination were breaking down, and so helped to build and create – even to force – new visual, linguistic and aural methods and modes by which to capture it. In a sense, there cannot be a conventional, cinematic representation of it for precisely this reason ; that it responds only to the unconventional, the decaying, the uncertain. Moreover still, the mechanics of its destruction – the slow and sometimes fast attrition of soldiers, the sudden unbidden death from above, death by creeping gas or buried munition – destruct and resist the conventional mechanics of videogame warfare. It’s why you can’t have Call of Duty: World War One.
Several attempts have been made, however, to bring this “experience of the trenches” to life in gameplay. Expectedly, they draw on a range of visual tropes which, through their repetition, literally constitute how the “Great War” is remembered and articulated in the modern imagination. While resemblances between them – the games and the war they seek to represent — are strong, the mechanics of their conflict are less so. And it is in the mechanics – what we might otherwise call “the experience” — that the war is really defined. The mud shapes how we see it, but its peculiar machinery of death and attrition and thuggery is how we understand its violence.
Verdun is a work in progress, an early-access release on Steam. I want to make it clear that I am not pointing out this game because I think it is somehow “bad”. In fact, it does a remarkable job of rendering the physical environment of the trenches, of recreating its weapons, even its sounds. But looks and familiarity are not everything. Verdun is so good in one respect, but also off piste in another; while it looks and sounds like the war (trenches, Lee Enfield rifles, period uniforms, barbed wire), it is based on a Deathmatch, spawn-and-play cycle that does not really capture how the war was thuggishly fought. Its authenticity is contained in how it looks, but not in how it plays. It is brilliantly perceptive and sensitive to environmental considerations, and so is a worthy contribution to the (relatively small) canon of WWI games. And yet, there are reasons why – as I will argue -, I think there have been more peculiarly appropriate games.
Like Verdun, WW1: Source attempts something very similar. It is a team-based deathmatch taking place in the landscapes , and utilising the weapons of, WW1. It feels a lot like Verdun, though it is perhaps less polished in its presentation. In the case of both games, it represents how the imagery of the war that is drawn from its poetry and photographs and even its occasional reels of film, is enormously compelling. But, at the same time, they are still hamstrung by that old problem – the insufficiency of reality to capture the war. That while Verdun is impressively realistic in one regard, the team decided not to reflect the less dynamic realities of trench warfare – not simply its “over the top” charges, but its barbed-wire clearing parties, its sniping, its midnight raids and the recovery of the dead. That war seems so impossible to represent because its action is so unlike what we know and are used to. Imagine playing a game where you spend an hour of real time standing-to in the morning at the trench lip. Where you must spend four hours repairing trench-works and walls. Where you must carry a tureen of food from the rear lines, along groggy, tight communication trenches to the front, only to be killed by a stray shell which lands, as if from nowhere, at your feet. That is the kind of reality we are, perhaps, not ready for.
So is there a way to make a game – bearing in mind that when we talk about a “game” we’re talking about entertainment, challenge, narrative, etc – that aims to represent the war, but differently? One that acknowledges the limitations of simulation and goes for something else? Well maybe there is.
These other attempts do a somehow weirdly better job, at least conceptually, of capturing the imagination of the war for a variety of reasons. I’m talking about Super Trench Attack and, in a forward-thinking way, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, which hasn’t been released yet (but points in interesting directions). But by way of context and explanation, I’m also talking about Blackadder Goes Forth, and about Oh, What a Lovely War! Partly because I can, but also because, in a very real way, they are excellent models for how to make a game of the war – as something that is entertaining, while also being engaging. While the last two aren’t games, they suggest a way to escape the lures and pitfalls of “realistic simulation” and attempt to engage with the war meaningfully through other modes and imaginations.
Super Trench Attack (STA) is a comic, 2D point and click adventure based on the First World War. But it is based only loosely; in STA, the UK has been invaded by the German army, the front line having shifted to the coasts and fields of England. In its scrappy visuals and irreverent humour – a very bleak, grimy humour at that — it depicts the war with reference to its absurdities and its monotonies, to its cruelty and jagged transformation of representation. It is not pretty or authentic because the war was not pretty or authentic, even to itself. So quickly was the war swallowed up by its own either glamorous, patriotic imagery, or else its black-and-white grained photographs of mud-smashed trenches and trees, that it is almost impossible to say where the war actually is amongst all of this. STA is a little, for this reason, like Blackadder, the British comedy series in which Blackadder, a captain in the British army, confronts with grim humour the atrocities and absurdities of the war:
George: It’s the latest issue of “King & Country”. Oh, damn inspiring stuff; the magazine that tells the Tommies the truth about the war.
Blackadder: Or alternatively, the greatest work of fiction since vows of fidelity were included in the French marriage service.
Its roots are in a cynical re imagining of R.C. Sherrif’s Journey’s End, and in the irreverent black humour of Oh, What a Lovely War! – both of them stage plays. While Journey’s End is much like Verdun (an attempt to convey the close quarters of trench life, to be realistic at least to its environment), STA is like a meeting between Blackadder and Oh, What a Lovely War!
Rather than striving for either visual or narrative accuracy, it attempts instead to represent the war as bleak farce. Soldiers dress in monkey costumes, while you are handed a ludicrously ineffective hand-gun at the start of the game by which you battle through its peculiar, rough levels and strange enemies.
In this sense, the “authentic” titles are not games that simulate WWI at all – in their mechanics, their play-style, even their attention to period detail, they render a war that is both recognisable and yet uncomfortably distant from the object that it seeks to reproduce. The team-based capture the flag and death match modes have a fluidity and activity that the “real” war rarely, if ever, had. While the early war, and the last dregs of 1918, were mobile, its middle years – the trench years that these games seek to recreate – were, as Blackadder put it, the slow fighting over centimetres, the heaviness, the cloying muck and cold. By presenting the war as dynamic and points based, it misses an opportunity to describe and represent the war somehow differently. Moreover still, because the team death match style is so closely associated with other, more cinematic titles and contexts, the effort that has gone into the landscapes seems a let down, less important. Almost as if you’re playing against a backdrop, rather than in a landscape. Valiant Hearts: the Great War, which is still in development, looks like it has taken those anti-realism lessons on with its combination of 2D scroller and romantic adventure game – drawing on a spoofed, cartoon-based graphic style to carry its story. While it aims to tell a meaningful and constructive story about the war, it looks like it might achieve it precisely through the anti-realism realism – crude phrase, I know – that underpins STA and Blackadder.
In 1975, the war was bought back into a searing and complex critical focus with the publication of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. For Fussell, it was and is only manageable to render a response to the war that is ironic, jarred, experimental. A war that demands new forms of representation, that demands the unslick and the unrealistic. The poets and artists we reread and return to are those who located a new system of representation – David Jones in his collaged Modernist envelopments of ancient myth, colloquial chatter and violent, visceral poetry. Or Wilfred Owen who drew away from romanticised, elegiac verse – its tropes of “red wine” and “youth” — to seek out the jarring and the obscure, to use language as a blunt tool to describe blunt times. And so, it is an invitation to use gaming as a jarred and irregular tool of odd representation – like STA, to admit the insufficiency of reality, but not to be put off by it.
But maybe, and here I run the risk of contradicting myself woefully, it is possible for us to play Verdun as one thing, and to read it as another. By that I mean, to take Fussell’s imagination of the war as a war that “extend[ed] itself to hitherto unimagined reaches of suffering and irony”, and to treat it precisely as the “satire of circumstance” that he understood the war to be. On the surface, Verdun and WW1: Source are fluid, team death match games layered over the environments of the trenches. But on another, they’re a kind of a satirical denial, and thus odd affirmation, of the war – I don’t think the developers intended it to be played or “read” this way, but it’s possible that you can see in the easy fluidity of the game, in its active front-lines and capture points, a kind of ironic nod to the fact that the war was not really like this – like the game itself is irony. But perhaps that’s stretching it too far.
Of course, this raises the question about realism across all war games, and not just those that represent WW1. At the same time, I hadn’t wanted to be overly pessimistic and suggest that this war, the First World War, was somehow off limits to developers. I think that there is space for a simulation of the war, one that takes on the attempted realism of Verdun with the angularly odd wit and back-door realism of Super Trench Attack, but that it won’t be found in an FPS or strategy game (at least not in the forms with which we are familiar). Just as the war required and gave birth to new forms of representation, new jarred imaginings of it, it’s also possible that similarly disjointed representations of the war will emerge from both indie developers and AAA studios alike.
At the beginning of this piece I cited a fragment of a poem by Isaac Rosenberg. It is a verse that quips and drips with irony; he is addressing a rat, whose knowledge of the war – its bowel-dark trenches and mud and death – are not unfamiliar at all. He does not sense the fear or pain of the men who he skips past, nose sniffling. Rosenberg asks us to gaze at this rat, and then at those fine limbed “haughty athletes”, the strong and healthy warriors who are not fighting a war of gallant, active heroism, but are dying a death, passive in their “bonds to the whims of murder”. Rosenberg thought this was worthy of comment, and it is; these fine healthy athletes are not, in a crass and jarring irony, suited to this place. So too are the mobilities of team-based tactical shooters not suited to this place. To be representational, however inadequately, there is a need for games to reach beyond conventional and rule-bound mechanics and toward the jarringly unfamiliar, toward the red poppy “a little white with the dust”, toward Paul Nash’s rugged, imbalanced collage of shade and shape and fragment. Toward something just a little more like Super Trench Attack, and a lot less like Counter-Strike.
- That’s the first time I’ve ever actually bothered to calculate that. Wow. I’m old? [↩]