Scarce Heard Amid the Guns Below” 4

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.


Red Baron 3D

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.

WWI: Source

WWI: Source

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

Super Trench Attack

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.

Paul Nash’s jarred and abstract ren­der­ing of the Western Front

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.


  1. That’s the first time I’ve ever actu­al­ly both­ered to cal­cu­late that.  Wow.  I’m old? []

4 thoughts on “Scarce Heard Amid the Guns Below”

  • Jason Hawreliak

    Great arti­cle Owen! I com­plete­ly agree that games don’t exam­ine WWI enough. I think you’re exact­ly right that the nature of WWI war­fare isn’t as inher­ent­ly “ludic” (or lacks the same ludic poten­tial) as WWII com­bat at least in its ide­al­ized form. I’d also say that con­tem­po­rary com­bat isn’t as ludic either, but shoot­ers still rely on that WWII model with its clear­ly delin­eat­ed sides, range of weapons and moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

    Have you played the game Toy Soldiers? If not, it’s a WWI themed game with a neat aes­thet­ic that sort of mixes tower defense with a shoot­er. Unlike WWII games, there’s very lit­tle empha­sis on indi­vid­ual acts of hero­ism; instead, it’s all about the unit dynam­ics. For the most part you switch between play­ing as a gen­er­al plan­ning out unit place­ment, and a sol­dier or pilot doing the fight­ing. You also get a sense of the “luck” involved in WWI com­bat — waves of infantry will come at you and inevitably a few some­how make it through no-man’s land. I actu­al­ly think it does a decent job rep­re­sent­ing WWI com­bat, from what I under­stand of it.

    As for the daily grind and bore­dom of the sol­diers, very few war games are will­ing to take this on, but you’re right that the hor­rors of trench liv­ing are unique. Maybe games aren’t the best form for address­ing that expe­ri­ence… I’m not sure.

    • jazzonthebones

      thanks for read­ing, Jason. You’re right to say that most of the war games we’re play­ing today have those WWII prop­er­ties. That because of this, WWI does­n’t fit into the neat def­i­n­i­tion of “war” that we carry around with us when we watch films or play games like CoD.

      Mainly, I’m inter­est­ed to see WWI games — like I said — do two dif­fer­ent things; either they choose a wierd­ness (Blackadder, Super Trench Attack, Paul Nash), or they take real­ism to its extremes — with the monot­o­ny of place, pace and action. That is where, I sup­pose, war games might become war sim­u­la­tors. Something which Arma and its pre­de­ces­sors at least played with. I’d be inter­est­ed to see that. Does it then become an edu­ca­tion­al tool? I guess that is a big­ger ques­tion about defin­ing “ludic” and games and the enjoy­ment aspect of them. A trench sim­u­la­tor would­n’t be enjoy­able. I’d be fas­ci­nat­ed to see it, though, and to expe­ri­ence it.

      I’m def­i­nite­ly going to look into Toy Soldiers — thanks for the rec­om­men­da­tion.

      again, thanks for read­ing and com­ment­ing!

  • Doug S.

    Is there a way to make a game that’s set in the mid­dle of WWI, but in which you don’t play as either a trench sol­dier or a gen­er­al? Have the war take place around the play­er, rather than involve him/her in it as a par­tic­i­pant. For exam­ple, you could play as a rat that a sol­dier has adopt­ed as a pet, run­ning lit­tle errands for him…

  • TheGreatWarWasGreat

    I am very much inter­est­ed in the first world war and actu­al­ly was very excit­ed about Verdun (and then of course very dis­ap­point­ed when I tried it). I usu­al­ly try to fin­ish an arti­cle before com­ment­ing, but I just had to skip your inter­est­ing analy­sis of games to inter­ject regard­ing your very (and I mean very) lim­it­ed view of the war they called GREAT!

    Here is a sam­ple of all the dif­fer­ent kinds of com­bat & envi­ron­ments one can see in the GREAT war:

    * Mountain war­fare on the Austrian/Italian front (made famous by none other than Earnest Hemingway).

    * Wholesale mas­sacre of the Serbian male pop­u­la­tion (my knowl­edge of Slavic lit­er­a­ture is lim­it­ed but I am sure they remem­ber the near exter­mi­na­tion of their nation).

    *U‑boat war­fare against ship­ping in the Atlantic (the rea­son the US entered the war!).

    *Amphibious land­ing by the Japanese on the German con­ces­sion city in China (imag­ine a German ver­sion of Hong Kong, the bear com­pa­ny they start­ed there is still brew­ing bear today).

    *Bush war­fare in the jun­gles of Africa (an epic fight with a German army cut­off from all sup­port and unde­feat­ed in the field until the end of the war, if that does­n’t say RTS I don’t know what does).

    *Desert war­fare by Arab irreg­u­lars in sup­port of British armies attack­ing the Turks (made famous by the film Lawrence of Arabia, this can be eas­i­ly made into a 3rd per­son stealth/action game).

    All the above and more with­out even men­tion­ing the Russian front.

    If you are only inter­est­ed in the Western front then by all means state that at the start of your arti­cle, but even there you make the mis­take of sum­ming the whole war into the trench­es; the war was much more than that.

    On a side note the most mobile part of the war on the west­ern front was at the start when German divi­sions rushed from the bor­der to a short dis­tance from Paris and not at the end.

    You see the real prob­lem is not games but actu­al­ly a lack of his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge, or maybe even a myopic view of his­to­ry that scarce­ly exceeds navel gaz­ing, reign­ing today in the English speak­ing world.

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