Battlefield 1 and multiplayer narrative

Upon the release of Battlefield 1, the lastest in DICE’s long series of large-scale multiplayer shooters, the addition of Operations to its suite of game modes was noted but not overstated. Reviews saw it as a diverting new way of playing, which was not a huge amount more than a fusing of existing modes.

Far more was made of the game’s for once decent singleplayer campaign, or mini-campaigns, which sought to at least acknowledge the fact that the Great War, in which Battlefield 1 is set, witnessed some true horrors in the field of war. Since the game’s release, there has been a mild backlash to praise of the campaign, focussing on the dissonance between its sombre tone and the random, often silly and always murderous reality of the long-lasting multiplayer arena.

However, in doing so, it hasn’t been acknowledged that DICE have made real efforts in this sphere, with Operations standing as the key evidence. They chose a setting which demands respect, or at the least a sense of remembrance that war in reality does not equate to endlessly respawning soldiers fighting in the same patch of land for 25-30 minutes. Thus, their showpiece game mode demands that the player be willing to invest anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours in a potentially endless seeming battle to push through large swathes of territory on the attack, or repel seemingly endless waves of enemies in a desperate and retreating defence.

The game’s campaign tried to focus on the knowledge that every soldier in the War had a life to return to or leave behind, and this scope of narrative is clearly impossible and impractical in a multiplayer setting – enjoyment and expediency being key variables defining shooters’ success. However, by focussing on long, drawn-out battles, Battlefield 1 does more than the vast majority of mainstream multiplayer games to invest its players in their role in the battle, and to dwell on the nature of these conflicts. The set-up voiceovers feature soldiers voicing their fears and hopes about the battles, before the concluding narration places the fight in context – inevitably showcasing its futility. In between, players have been killed dozens of times each, and wielded horrifying power to inflict the same on others.

It is nonsense to claim that this succeeds wholesale – indeed it is questionable whether full success is even possible in large-scale multiplayer, but the rush of triumph or disappointment when a 90 minute battle ends in a narrow defeat in the streets of Amiens, or a last-gasp victory in the hellscape of Verdun, is more potent than most of Battlefield 1‘s peers can claim. Other games have tried to insert narrative into competitive multiplayer, from Titanfall‘s misguided lack of campaign, to Overwatch‘s creeping and subtle exposition, but for DICE to have placed the thematic focus of their mission in the very game mode they wish players to play, in its mechanics and construction, is a canny and forward-thinking piece of design.

The futility of the war, and the reduction of its soldiers to numbers shunted around by outdated and disconnected generals – this is manifest in Operations, as one team throws itself against defences with an ever-ticking reduction in respawns. Meanwhile, the defending nation knows, or believes, that the men will never run out, so long as they can weather the storm. And, when the enormous assault, or entrenched defence is complete, finally – another battle. Another location, another barely necessary strategic aim. Another hour-long, 90-minute-long ordeal. Operations is a bravura piece of multiplayer narrativisation, and DICE should be lauded for it.

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