Bandai Namcos new video game proves to be one of the most thoughtful and respectful ways to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day.
We always remember one of DICEs anecdotes from making Battlefield 1, when they were discussing the setting with playtesters and discovered that many didnt even realise there had been a First World War. Thats as much a failure of maths as it is history, but it does illustrate how important video games can be in educating those who would otherwise not learn about such things from traditional sources. Especially given how watching a documentary is an entirely passive experience, whereas a game can put you directly in the shoes of those involved.
One way of doing that, of course, is via an action game. And while Battlefield 1 did try not to romanticise the war and its combatants in its story campaigns, the multiplayer modes – the primary part of the game – could not help but turn war into entertainment. But although there are a number of simple action sequences in 11-11 it has no interest in glorifying combat or anything else about the war, except perhaps the basic humanity of its two protagonists.
Its the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War on Sunday, the 11-11 of the title. Thats not the sort of event youd normally expect a video game to commemorate but the work done by developer DigixArt (some of who also worked on Valiant Hearts: The Great War), Aardman (yes, the Wallace & Gromit people), and publisher Bandai Namco is remarkable not only for its respectful handling of the subject matter but that it also goes to such effort to create a distinctive and innovative gameplay experience.
11-11 focuses on two separate characters and starts by following their stories in parallel, beginning with their very different reasons for joining the war. Canadian war photographer Harry, played by Elijah Wood, is pressured into signing up in order to impress a girl, with neither having any real idea of the realities of the war or what he will be expected to do. His motives and personality are in direct contrast to Kurt, a Zeppelin engineer who is fully aware of what hes getting himself into but travels to the front in order to search for his son who is missing in action.
What results is a game roughly in the style of Telltale Games and Life Is Strange but with less emphasis on dialogue choices and more on exploration and simple action sequences – from trying to survive an assault on enemy lines to journeying out into No mans land in order to recover bodies. Despite never firing a shot these scenes are impressively well orchestrated; tense where they need to be but also able to overwhelm the senses when appropriate.
You will not have failed to notice that the game has an extremely unusual art style, that attempts to recreate the style of impressionist painting that was still popular at the time. The developers characterise it as being inside a living painting, where brush strokes are constantly being added and reinforced. There are proper 3D models underneath but the effect can be hard to parse at first, until your eyes settle into the style and you learn to interpret what theyre seeing with more consistency.
The visuals add a purposefully unreal atmosphere to much of the game, with Kurt haunted by dream visions of No mans land and both characters making friends with an animal each, which you can control at certain points. Kurt befriends a cat, which provides useful distractions, while Harry trains a pigeon to fetch at his command – which gains him some notoriety amongst his platoon but ultimately leads to disaster.
The story is slow to build momentum and the pacing seems particularly off given that the game is almost entirely linear for the first two thirds but allows for much more agency towards the end. A more even balance might have been preferable, although the metaphor that by the end the two are beginning to take fuller responsibility for their actions is well conceived.
Considering all the many potholes it couldve fallen into 11-11 manages to navigate its subject matter with impressive skill. It touches on not just the madness and futility of war, and the First World War in particular, but the personal toll it takes on individuals. It also doesnt shy away from some of the abhorrent social attitudes of the time and yet never preaches or points fingers.
The game even manages to avoid too much hand-holding, with relatively subtle sign-posting of the sort that many modern action titles wouldnt dare to limit themselves to. That said, some of the action sequences do seem shoehorned in and the attempts at puzzle-solving are usually so simplistic as to almost ruin the mood.
Some may also be put off by the art style, which at times does seem to overplay its hand, although its major technical failing is the wooden animation – which seems a surprising fault giving Aardmans involvement.
But these are relatively minor faults in a game which is surprisingly assured in terms of presentation, storytelling, and gameplay. 11-11 would be impressive even if it wasnt also navigating such a fraught subject but the fact video games can offer such a thoughtful and respectful commemoration reflects well on the entire medium.
11-11: Memories Retold
In Short: An impressively assured attempt to prove that video games can tackle serious subject matter with respect and a level of insight that only interactivity can provide.
Pros: Impressive storytelling in terms of dialogue, visuals, and a number of memorable action segments. Unique art style is both visually impressive and thematically relevant. Excellent voiceovers and music.
Cons: Uneven pacing in terms of both story and the level of interaction. Some slightly silly action sequences and puzzles. Wooden animation.
Formats: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Developer: DigixArt and Aardman
Release Date: 9th November 2018
Age Rating: 12