How a US publisher and a Swedish developer handled a sacrosanct Australian story.
By Luke Reilly
November 11, which actually rolled around late last week, was Armistice Day. In 2016 it marked 98 years since the signing of the armistice which ended the First World War. It famously came into effect at 11am in Paris on November 11, 1918; the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It’s well-known history, and November 11 is commemorated in a host of countries around the globe. In the US November 11 is Veterans Day, a federal holiday acknowledging those who have served in the US military. In the UK Armistice Day is commemorated on the nearest Sunday as Remembrance Sunday and is marked with a national service and a march at The Cenotaph in Whitehall. In Canada November 11 is Remembrance Day and is a federal statutory holiday in six of its 10 provinces.
November 11 is recognised in Australia, too, but its commemoration is much more modest. It’s not a public holiday and the nation doesn’t grind to a solemn halt. For that we have Anzac Day on April 25, which we share with New Zealand.
For those overseas unfamiliar with it, Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand, originally to honour soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire in 1915. It now commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who have served and died in war and on operational service.
The story of the ANZACs at Gallipoli is, for better or worse, a fascinating part of the Australian identity. But while you can’t get through kindergarten here without becoming well-versed in ANZAC facts, myths, and everything in between, it’s not something I expected an American video game publisher and Swedish video game developer to even be aware of.
It turns out I wasn’t giving either of them quite enough credit.
We want to hear it.
When EA confirmed its Battlefield series would be using the First World War as the backdrop for its 2016 instalment I absently wondered whether Australia might get a nod in the game, in some capacity. But it’s not something I ultimately gave much thought to. Sure, we can get the Socceroos and the Matildas in FIFA but, if EA can’t see fit to squeeze a single antipodean automobile into Need for Speed these days, what hope did we really have of a cameo in Battlefield 1?
Then, in the lead up to the game’s release, it was revealed that one of the segments of Battlefield 1’s fragmented, anthology-style single-player mode would indeed be set at Gallipoli and feature a story based on the ANZAC campaign. It’s called The Runner.
Battlefield 1 now had a hook I felt I couldn’t pass up.
Suddenly I was extremely interested. Competitive multiplayer shooters just aren’t my bag in the slightest, but Battlefield 1 now had a hook I felt I couldn’t pass up.
Yet I remained cautious. How would DICE handle it? It’s probably no coincidence DICE chose to tell a story about a pair of ANZAC runners considering the 1981 Australian war drama Gallipoli (directed by Peter Weir and starring Mel Gibson) was about a pair of runners, and is probably the most noteworthy attention the ANZAC story has had at an international level.
But could DICE tackle their own take with the required reverence? Because as chilled as we are for a nation where our spiders eat our snakes, there really isn’t any room for error when it comes to Anzac Day. Even the word ‘Anzac’ is so heavily protected that if you put the word ‘cookie’ after it (instead of ‘biscuit’ or ‘slice’) the government will eat you.
DICE, despite my apprehension, did a good job. Yes, the tale itself is a brief one in the scheme of the whole Battlefield 1 package. Yes, the moment to moment gameplay is polished and engaging but not especially memorable. And yes, at times it’s a ridiculous hodgepodge of anachronistic weapons and entirely unrealistic scenarios. What DICE did, however, is nail the little things.
First and foremost, DICE cast someone who could deliver a convincing performance with Australian television actor Peter O’Brien. To rely instead on a fudged Australian accent would’ve been a disastrous miscalculation on DICE’s part. At the very least we should be thankful the responsibility of casting grizzled ANZAC runner Frederick Bishop wasn’t left to the producers of Skylanders Academy.
Just as importantly, however, the script seemed to hit all the right notes. A casual jibe at the Kiwis. A resigned dig at the Poms. Swearing in every second sentence. At some points DICE dialled the down under-ness up to 11, and still I never really found myself cringing. At least, not at the dialogue (giving the Turks flamethrowers was pushing it; I don’t remember those from history class).
Now, there have been some very valid concerns raised regarding Anzac Day in Australia over the years, particularly regarding the danger of it being trivialised by commercial opportunists looking for a quick buck or by public officials looking to drum up some superficial support. The risk of turning what’s supposed to be a very sober reflection on a century of horrible, horrible sacrifice into a wild national party seems to grow greater every year, too. There’s also a distinct difference between earnest observation and excessive glorification and Australian supermarket chains, newspaper publishers, and politicians alike usually aren’t great at understanding the difference.
There is, however, no denying its importance to many Australians. 2015 marked 100 years since the Gallipoli landings and it was the first year I would take my own young children to a dawn service, which are held all over the country every Anzac Day. It’s only six kilometres to the usual site of the nearest service from my house on the semi-rural fringe of Sydney. We hit stationary traffic after just a single kilometre. It was eerie; like trying to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night only to find your entire family and several of your neighbours lined up at the door already.
Ahead of us was a line of taillights stretching all the way off into the darkness and, to our rear, headlights crawled slowly down the hill behind us to join the queue. I’ve never seen as many cars on the road in my town as I did that morning, ever, at any time of day, or any time of year. It’s a sight I’ll actually never forget. Hundreds and hundreds of people – thousands, probably – had taken to the street to begin their day off in a dark, cold, muddy paddock to remember, amongst other things, a horrible, unsuccessful military operation that has come to mean a great deal to Australia’s national identity.
In a decent final touch as The Runner concludes DICE has been careful to highlight soldiers from both sides of the Gallipoli campaign, recognising not only the Australians and New Zealanders, but also the Turks. Despite the fact that the latter were largely faceless for the duration of the three missions themselves, DICE highlights that from the battle emerged the leaders that would go on to spearhead the Turkish War of Independence and found the Republic of Turkey.
Now, certainly some Australians already have a tendency to forget that soldiers from New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, France, India, and Newfoundland also participated in the Battle of Gallipoli, and the slightly romantic narrative of standing fast against the might of the Commonwealth and France on the part of Turkey is a nice diversion from the grim reality of the Armenian Genocide (which began just a day before the Gallipoli invasion and saw an estimated 1.5 million Armenians – men, women, and children – exterminated by the Ottoman government). The Runner’s lens is narrow, and the closing text doesn’t examine these points, but I still believe what DICE did include was ultimately well-intentioned.
In fact, despite regular, hefty doses of artistic license I believe most of what DICE has attempted with Battlefield 1’s solo campaign is well-intentioned. The diversity of the stories it tells alone seems to indicate a real desire to illustrate the depressing breadth of the First World War and the broad group of nations and peoples that found themselves tossed into the fray. I’m actually surprised at how discordant it all seems with the multiplayer, really (which unsurprisingly just turns WWI combat into a sporting contest). It’s also a shame EA’s social media muppets temporarily undermined DICE’s work here with a hopelessly asinine and insensitive Twitter campaign that the publisher was forced to quickly yank. If you missed them they were a series of unfunny memes that trivialised WWI and were especially out-of-sync with Battlefield 1’s bloody, destructive, and deadly opening.
I hope the positive reception for Battlefield 1 encourages more developers to seek inspiration from the past when creating historical action games. For mine, something like Call of Duty is definitely due for it; particularly considering the segmented, multi-national approach is something the series embraced wholeheartedly in the original WWII-based instalments. My favourite Call of Duty games by far are the ones peppered with historical set-pieces, like the assault on Pointe du Hoc, or the defence of Pavlov’s House during the Battle of Stalingrad, or the capture of Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of D-Day. Infinity Ward didn’t invest in tying them all together; the stories just stood alone. DICE has approached Battlefield 1 the same way.
It was nice to see a slouch hat in a AAA shooter.
I can’t say I really mind where the stories come from – the Call of Duty examples above feature heroics from Americans, Russians, and Brits. I just want more of them.
That said, I do remain impressed that DICE and EA chose to prioritise a story I’m intimately familiar with as one of Battlefield 1’s single-player vignettes. I won’t lie; it was nice to see a slouch hat in a AAA shooter.
Now, if only someone could explain to the Need for Speed team what a bloody ute is.
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can find him on Twitter @MrLukeReilly.