Please note this article includes spoilers for the narrative of Battlefield 1. Proceed with caution.
There are many examples of terrific stories in the FPS genre, the best of which is the BioShock series. However, while the story contains one of the best plot twists in gaming, the gameplay doesn't really complement the narrative. You are a character mowing through enemies by the dozen, all while someone is talking in your ear. You could get the same story just by having the narrator talk to you while a movie is playing on screen.
However, Battlefield 1 does something different. It captivates the player by showing us the humanity of the character. EA DICE does an amazing job of humanizing war and taking you out of the role of "supreme badass," showing you the emotional side to every soldier, something that has rarely been captured in gaming.
Battlefield 1's Story Mode Layout
The story mode in Battlefield 1 is different to nearly every other FPS, in that it is nonlinear. You are not one war hero moving through a single campaign, similar to World War I itself. Rather, you are a myriad of soldiers — or in some cases scoundrels — who are part of distinct nations and military campaigns throughout the theater of war. This disruption allows the storytelling to be fluid, with some narratives being first person, some a recounting from a veteran, and some even being possibly untrue. As with all good stories, however, they capture the audience and drive them forward ceaselessly.
As mentioned, the campaign is not singular; Battlefield 1 follows the story of six different soldiers spread across the various battlefields of WWI. The game opens with a poignant message about the war and its survivors, and proceeds to discuss the likelihood of survival for a soldier in front-line combat. You are not expected to survive the first mission.
Right away you're given a different viewpoint than most war-based FPSs will give you — that of someone on the losing end of a firefight. The player is able to pick one of five war stories that follow a single soldier through a military campaign, and these stories are all meant to offer a glimpse of that particular campaign's type of warfare.
Through Mud And Blood
The first war story I chose to undertake was similar to the narrative of World War II drama Fury, starring Brad Pitt and Shia Labeouf.
In Battlefield 1, a young British driver is attached to a WWI landship (read: tank) crew, and their first mission is to drive through German fortifications until they reach, and capture, a French village. As with most plans in wartime, the attack quickly falters, and soon the tank is isolated, behind enemy lines, in a forest filled with traps specifically meant to destroy tanks. Sound familiar?
Eventually the tank makes it clear, but not without casualties. There is a heroic last stand, and only the driver and one other crew member make it out. But while all this is occurring, the driver is changing. He reflects on his life back in Britain, and eventually realizes that he is no longer the same man, made all the more apparent when he removes his white driving gloves, now completely blood soaked.
This particular narrative was the closest to what I would deem an interactive movie. The storytelling and drama are reminiscent of a script, but the player is still in the driver's seat, literally and figuratively in this case.
Something to keep in mind about WWI was that it occurred from 1914–1918, a time when the world was just beginning to develop radio as a means of effectively communicating over great distances. Prior to that, and in the middle of a battlefield, there were two ways to get messages delivered: by carrier pigeon, or you would deliver it yourself.
"The Runner" campaign follows an Australian soldier through the experience of undertaking such a role. The campaign story notably has you dodging artillery strikes — both Turkish and British troops — as you try to deliver messages between command posts. The story revolves around the protagonist, a rugged veteran, trying to keep a green recruit alive by volunteering for these missions, and saving the rookie a number of times from near-death experiences. This rapid development of a father-son relationship is catalyzed by the constant threat of death raining down from the sky, and a looming Turkish castle, heavily fortified.
Ultimately, the veteran sacrifices his life in a desperate attempt to buy time for his rookie to escape, by single-handedly assaulting the castle, knowing full well that British artillery was about the blow the entire area out of existence. The last shot of the campaign is of Frank Bishop, the veteran, looking out from the courtyard at the bay, filled with British ships, as they begin bombarding. He smiles, knowing his rookie has made it.
This particular story differs from the majority of other wartime FPSs as it demonstrates that not all heroes are survivors, and that sometimes to save your fellow soldier, you need to be willing to sacrifice your own life.
Nothing Is Written
The third war story focuses on one of the more controversial campaigns and heroes (depending who you talk to) of WWI. The campaign follows the guerrilla warfare of Lawrence of Arabia and his Bedouin tribe as they fight against the much better-equipped Ottoman Empire in Arabia. While the gamer does not play as Lawrence himself, they assume the role of his right hand, a Bedouin warrior who excels at this particular brand of warfare. While most FPSs have missions where the hero is stuck behind enemy lines, in this particular case there are no such clear boundaries; you are outnumbered and outgunned in every sense of the word. Yet against all odds, in this particular mission you are able to overcome those odds and knock the Ottomans back a step.
The fourth war story is where the developers started to deviate from the more traditional types of storytelling. In "Avanti Savoia," the first cutscene isn't of a field camp, or the beginning of an assault — it's of a man, sitting at his desk, looking at pictures from the war. He is joined by his granddaughter, who asks him to tell his story.
This man's story is of his brother's final mission in the Italian army, while the protagonist is a member of the Arditi, an elite Italian unit whose motto is along the lines of "Victory or Death." The protagonist's brother is a member of the regular infantry. While assaulting a heavily defended Austro-Hungarian fort, everything goes to hell and the assault falters, all while the protagonist is narrating to his granddaughter.
At this point, the protagonist begins a nearly one-man assault on the fort, and as he describes his mission — to look for his brother who he believes is dead — his granddaughter gasps in disbelieve.
As the protagonist assaults and eventually succeeds in capturing the fort, he desperately searches for his lost brother, with the player hearing this survivor describe this scene to his family.
Ultimately, just as the protagonist is giving up on the hope that his brother survived, he is found dead, just outside the fort walls, and finally the player knows that the story being told was about the death of the protagonist's brother, not the victorious assault on the fort.
Friends In High Places
The final war story has one of the most interesting twists, especially for a AAA game.
"Friends in High Places" tells the story of an American scoundrel who wants to fly a British plane. It opens with the protagonist stealing a plane from an earl in the Royal Air Force, and impersonating said pilot so that his co-pilot doesn't become suspicious.
While their first training mission goes well, resulting in the scoundrel finding out about a large German weapons depot, the second mission isn't such a success. Carrying out an assault the depot they discovered during the first mission, the plane is shot down in No Man's Land, a stretch of ground between the French and German trenches, where anything moving will be shot.
While the protagonist was able to jump out of his plane and land behind enemy lines, his co-pilot was not so lucky. As the protagonist is making his way through, he comes across the downed plane, with the co-pilot injured but alive. The protagonist is faced with a decision: Escape on his own, or try to save the co-pilot. As the scoundrel plans to leave, his co-pilot demands that he either be saved, or the scoundrel kills him himself. At which point the protagonist picks up a 2x4 and is about to kill the co-pilot before he has a change of heart.
After rescuing the co-pilot, the scoundrel is eventually arrested and will be court-martialed for stealing the plane. However, before he is sentenced, the Germans attack. Ultimately, after a daring rescue, and seemingly saving London from destruction by bombers, the protagonist climbs out of the River Thames and looks at the camera. He begins to say that while he is a hero, others might tell a different story. One in which he didn't save his co-pilot, but rather killed him, and instead of saving London he simply slipped away and worked his way through Western Europe.
This introduction of a potential deviation of the story, one in which the player can't trust the storyteller, particularly stuck with me the most, because it is one of the more difficult storytelling techniques to execute. By forcing the player to call into question the validity of the story, the gamer typically goes through the entirety of the story in their head, solidifying it in their minds.
While the gameplay in Battlefield 1 will be familiar to those who have played an EA DICE game before, the storytelling is radically different. Most of the narratives are tales that capture the attention of the player in ways games of the FPS genre typically do not. Battlefield 1 shows that war is hell, and the survivors are not necessarily the lucky ones.
I hope this review of the story mode will speak to the players who have thus far neglected it, and convince them to give it a second chance to enjoy the experience and the diverse styles of storytelling.
What is your experience with Battlefield 1 so far? Answer in the comments section below.