In 1917, war is introduced to us through the small talk that flits between two corporals taking a breather—one eager to get back into the fight, to prove his valor, the other reluctant, yet already a medal-designated hero. There are a few moments of verdant beauty before the camera’s eye follows our protagonists, Tom Blake and Will Schofield, into the dusty trenches, where they will be given the mission that will send them traversing across the fields strewn with death.
In Battlefield 1, we are flung right into the midst of war’s hellscape—all mud, blood and fire. We see our death coming, over and over, through iron sights, while we desperately try to repel it. We are not expected to survive, the game tells us, and the title card that accompanies each death of the player character intends to remind us of the brutalizing effect of this war. There are no heroes here, not even survivors—only the war.
This War of Mine opens in the midst of an unnamed city under seige, where a trio of resource-deprived survivors—and in turn us, the players—see little except the violence around them, thrown into stark relief with a graffitied “Fuck the war.” We fumble around a ruined house, unsure of how we’ll make it through the coming days and nights. It is all gray, all echoing bombardment, all crumbling life. The war is ever-present, hope is turning to detritus. As we often helplessly witness our darkening end creeping onto the screen through bleeding characters and empty fridges, we recognize how little we are able to do it stop death’s onslaught.
Despite all three stories weaving through the grimy contours of war, they don’t all have the same perspectives (driven by character or visual design) on the wars they depict, nor the same moralities encoded in these perspectives. What they do share is a discomfiting ability to train our senses on the machinations of war, and the bodies so often flung into them. We see their worlds through their cameras, but who’s holding and directing these cameras? What are these pieces of cinema and gaming showing us—and what are they not?
In his landmark book War and Cinema, Paul Virilio notes that “war can never break free from… spectacle because its very purpose is to produce that spectacle.” He asserts that “the representation of events [has] outstripped the presentation of facts, the image [gaining] sway over the object.” Most disturbingly, Virilio tells us that the eye is now a weapon, and that “war is cinema, and cinema is war.” Looking at—or perhaps more accurately, experiencing—our modern forms of entertainment does little to defy these assertions. Through cinema and video games, the contemporary consumer of images cannot tear themselves away from images of war.
In this capture and captivation of the audience’s eye, the camera is aimed to become a “way of looking, a way of technically aligning ocular perception along an imaginary axis.” This becomes very important when you realize film has a become form of memory (or at least memorial) “where film takes the place of bodies for all eternity.” How we remember war and its outcomes depends significantly on its cinematic perceptions, its gains and losses, its heroes and villains.
The First World War, as seen in 1917 and Battlefield 1, is a visually visceral experience that manages to present a heroic narrative of what historians such as Daniel Todman, writing in The Great War: Myth and Memory, have largely come to consider a pointless war. But this visual narrative is what historian Chris Kempshall calls “authentic lite” in his book, The First World War in Computer Games, defined as “a form of moderate authenticity that captures the spirit of how we believe the war was… an authenticity of technical details; accurate uniforms… accurate weaponry, accurate maps and settings.” What we see may be as “real” as these visual details can be, but it is not inarguably true. This uncertainty is in fact descendant from the forms of photography and cinematography employed from World War I onwards, when the camera was made subservient not to the image but to the demands of the military general—a juxtapositional manipulation of the events of war through the captured image’s reconfiguration of the temporal and spatial dimensions of reality-as-it-occurs. Little is as it seems.
In this “history of rapidly changing fields of perception,” Virilio writes that war appropriates “the immateriality of perceptual fields.” The version of war we see—be it in documentary footage or the cinematized image—does not necessarily reflect the true times and spaces of historical war, but as Kempshall says, “the constructed authenticity of ephemera and emotional context.” Indeed, Virillio contends, “the intensity of automatic weaponry and the capacities of photographic equipment combine to project a final image of the world.” Interestingly, then, perhaps the fictionalized lives of citizens in the Eastern European–inspired city of This War of Mine, where we experience war away from the soldier’s eye and yet are amidst the soldier’s violent shaping of the world, offers a truer representation of war’s vulgarity.
The narrative around war, while still directed along the military tracking shot, is thus metamorphosed into the heroic focus of war cinema, where it is not as much about its heroes’ lives, as their experiences of death—as participant or as witness. As Virilio notes, the eye and weapon become indistinguishable. It is only in the looking away from these crosshairs that we can truly understand the brutality (and often, futility) of the total war of cinema and gaming that we are typically thrown into. Who lives—and who dies—marks the fictions we record.
“The war is the world, and the world is the war”
Be it 1917, Battlefield 1, or This War of Mine, the screen holds nothing but the war. There are references to lives offscreen, in the past or in the future, but in the terrifying present, the war envelops the characters of these artistic works, and through the camera, does the same to us.
The visual focus of 1917 is firmly on its soldier-characters, the camera following their movements through the ruined fields of war, where unseen weapons have transformed the earth. The long-shot technical wizardry of the movie that rarely pans away from the protagonists ostensibly focuses on the human element of war. Director Sam Mendes told NPR that once he “had the idea that [the movie] was two hours of real time, it seemed like the natural thing to do, to lock the audience together with the central characters—in a way that they gradually began to realize, consciously or unconsciously, they couldn’t get out of.”
In attempting to subvert the inherent stasis of WWI trench warfare, 1917’s characters, being messengers, are allowed to cross vast stretches of land, with scattered encounters with the enemy providing the ebbs and flows of arrhythmic movement. In the process, death strikes from the edges of the screen—be it in the offscreen murder of Blake, the sniper hidden in a lone building, or fire-silhouetted enemies giving chase. Sight is a tricky thing here. The movie sets off with English generals using their divine sight—Virilio’s cinematography of aerial reconnaissance—to direct the infantrymen’s mission from afar, while the vast weaponscaped vistas are bewilderingly easy for our protagonists to cross (explained away with scripted convenience), unlike during the war itself. Our eyes are thus led to believe in the heroic vision of these men braving the war to the exclusion of its stifling ocular reality. But WWI was in actuality a “lighting war,” per Virillio, with tracer bullets, flares, and searchlights providing the visible map for soldiers, “in which the enemy was more or less invisible save for the flash and glow of his own guns.” This is why there was an urgent need for accurate sighting tools with ever greater magnification for both filmically recording the war and, more importantly, photographically reconstructing the battlefield that was constantly being disintegrated and reshaped.
So our heroes press on, and we see the war-torn world around them not because this is how the war was really seen, but because the soldiers needed to be the carriers of story. In another interview, this time with Vanity Fair, Mendes said the technical camerawork was “fundamentally an emotional choice,” as he “wanted to travel every step with these men—to breathe every breath with them.” They can see their mission (sometimes explicated with hand motions by other soldiers to direct their journey) and, despite the occasional detour, they propel the camera towards their—and our—destination. The war may be all around and through them, but in 1917, it is subservient to human triumph.
In Battlefield 1, however, the war’s introduction is visual disorientation, courtesy of the first-person view. The weapon-trained eye can barely catch sight of the enemy before it is hit with the graying visual cue that signifies a bullet injury. Military technologies hammer away at human bodies, which fall out of distinct sight as they are subsumed into a homogenous vision of violence. Looking down the iron sights, activated by the player with a trigger pull or button press, becomes the only way to “zoom” into a target and pick them out from the cacophony, before inflicting the weapon on this target. Here, as Virilio writes, “the soldier’s obscene gaze, on his surroundings and on the world… imposes a long term patterning on the chaos of vision, one which prefigures the synoptic machinations of architecture and the cinema screen.” In other words, the soldier-as-actor prefigures a battle-torn landscape through his eye-as-weapon, engraving enemy ruins on the hellscape.
The “Storm of Steel” prologue of Battlefield 1 is not a vision of movement-as-space, but of the sense-blurring futility of war laid bare—“they push, we push,” as the title card says, all over a narrow tract of shelled-out land in France. Before the player can fully grapple with who or what their sight is drawn to, they are attacked, resulting in either scattershot retaliation or death. In the “Through Mud and Blood” chapter of the game’s single-player War Stories, the tank is a far more effective sight-weapon; lumbering and slower than a footsoldier though it may be, the tank also has armor that gives it the time it needs to to line up its shots and inflict magnified destruction. At the same time, its point of view is very much terrestrial, often engulfed in the accompanying chaos.
Towards the end of one early mission, the perspective shifts to that of a homing pigeon, flying from the midst of the battlefield back to friendly lines to deliver artillery coordinates (themselves a geometrification of war). This offers a “dromscopic sketch,” in Virilio’s words, an aerial re-presentation of the battlefield below, a slowing down of the distant chaos, as the pigeon’s eye offers pure, almost serene vision. The landscape over which war laid waste has now been reshaped, and re-embodied in the pigeon’s view of it—the ground is now a transmitter of memory.
Such aerial vision is represented in a more warlike sense in the “Friends in High Places” story, where the pilot Colonel Blackburn accidentally comes across a secret fortified enemy base, going on to lead an attack on the same. Pirouetting midair in dog fights, strafing the ground to attack anti-aircraft guns, and gunning down everything in sight, the player relies on tracer fire to direct their weaponry, and explosions and acrid smoke to assure themselves of a hit on their target. But while the soldiers below can never escape this fire and smoke, the pilot has to merely swoop away from the ruins to move through free space.
The murk of war, the targeted violence, the movement of enemy NPCs into the line of fire to be slaughtered by the character are all softened, however, by “the game’s viewpoint of the war being an entity that forced violence into the hands of men who did not wish to take a life,” as Kempshall notes. Games like Battlefield 1 tend to conflate this apparent helplessness with a pursuit of in-game progress, so “it becomes possible… for the players to inflict a measure of violence onto the world they inhabit.” Despite other attempts at authenticity, the game character still looks out over wide vistas, progressing towards an end goal, as is the nature of the mission in gaming. There is little sense of the tedium, the standing still that made up so many moments of World War I. The war may be a visual onslaught against the player’s senses, but our response is often of greater opposite movement, carrying the game camera into the target area, the “cinema location.” We, too, are weapons.
In This War of Mine, however, the weapons are not ours to wield—as noncombatants, our world is enframed by the visions of war being played out by soldiers elsewhere. In our cutaway view of the player-controlled civilians’ shelter, there is little light, little to offer the camera in terms of excitement. The war is away in the background—ever-present, with smoke and artillery fire looming over us, but never immediate. Yet we are still cloistered in by the stifling spaces of the city, a bullet lurking around the corner. This is, first and foremost, a game of survival (or at least, the illusion of it).
In the daytime, we move around the house, or the onscreen space, by scrolling along two axes. As Mark J.P. Wolf explains, this “implies a large plane of space [in the world], of which only a small rectangle is seen at any given time,” leading to uncertainty over the appearance of danger, other characters, or access to offscreen space. Unlike sweeping visions of war in other mediums, here our sight is limited to the immediate world of the survivor. We only look over the mundane tasks of living: woodwork, cooking, taking a nap. Characters move with the slightly depressed pace of life during war, but the camera’s speed is independent of their movement. As Michal Drozdowski, the creative director of 11 bit studios told The New Yorker, “the primary experience of people in war is usually of lurking and waiting for things to happen.”
At night, the characters turn into scavengers, guards, or just people looking to head to bed. We are presented with Wolf’s “represented” or “mapped spaces,” representations of off-screen spaces, i.e., other houses, schools, supermarkets, and places of replenishment on a schematic map “designed to orient a player or indicate important events occurring in off-screen space.” In this case, these places are where survival supplies might be available.
As we creep through the shelters of others, the visible spaces are those revealed by the scavenger’s eye, a living torchlight evading the eyes of those dwelling—and lurking, in the case of bandits—within. Some of these residents simply shout for help, while others might attempt to chase you out. Then there are those whose vision is death: soldiers, bandits, men of violence whose line of sight you move into. This is, after all, war, and the eye-as-weapon lives on. The only escape is to run, not guns blazing towards the enemy, but to the exit, away from conflict. This War of Mine, then, is something of an anti-war game, where the violent advantage rarely lies with the player-character, the speed of the game dependent on the vision of the enemy more than ours. Unlike 1917 and Battlefield 1, by focusing on the forgotten people of the war—the civilian—This War of Mine inverts the carriers of eye-as-weapon, and while stepping away from the eye of the battle, does not cloak us in complacence. It is just as brutal, but not in the ways cinema and games have allowed war to be before. This is the sheer violence inflicted on us by the weapons not in our hands.
The question remains, however: What do our eyes, our weapons, see after all? What are they made to see?
“Ruined Flesh and Ruined Earth”
The visual leitmotifs of war—ruins, blood, and fire—proliferate onscreen the closer we get to its frontlines. Their overarching presence in wartime, however, permeates life itself. Every surface becomes war’s “recording surface, its film” where “observation and destruction… would merge completely.” 1917’s more serene views of open plains, orchards, and abandoned but intact houses are slight relief from journeys through dusty trenches, muddy fields jagged with barbed wire, and bombed-out towns. The stark grey of the skies are contrasted only with the fiery yellow of flames. The latter visual cues close in on the movie’s protagonists as indicators of the war they might’ve believed they’d left behind, only for it to chase them, the camera following their frenetic runs, close-ups capturing their emotional turbulence. This doesn’t let up until the final shot of the movie, where Schofield, having done his job, rests by a tree as the sun peers out from behind a cloud, a reprieve that neither the movie’s audience, nor its makers, enjoyed until then. It is no wonder then that the Oscars 1917 won—for cinematography, visual effects and sound mixing—were in recognition of its aesthetic language.
This narrative rhythm of cinema, however lyrical it may be, distracts from the overwhelming anxiety of war that the player-characters of Battlefield 1 and This War of Mine constantly face. The two games, despite their inverted viewpoints, acknowledge the same realities—in Virilio’s words, “the half-light [of war is] a perversion of the right to live into a right to die.” This is most starkly depicted in Battlefield 1’s prologue, where the narrative and playable structure of permanent death for each character we play can be read as an aesthetic attempt to engage in “affective friction” that “amplifies, and draws attention to… violent stylistics presented in the game.” With the camera distortions from injury, the slow-motion deaths, the screams of shell-shocked or dying soldiers, and the blinding, murderous fire of flamethrowers, the dark shadows of the battlefield are thrown into stark relief. The game hence presents a form of “reported realism” through hypersaturated audio-visual texture, a densely layered structure of thickly mixed soundtracks, details of gore, and the physicality of war-afflicted movement, all of which combine to give the audience a sense of the blanket sensory overload known to those in the midst of war, albeit only as aesthetic engagement, not as an emulation of those experiences.
Perhaps the most visible, as well as tactile, element of Battlefield 1’s experience of war, though, is mud: the slushy puddles, tank-halting bogs, and rain-formed mudscapes. In the “Avanti Savoia” story, for example, the blue skies and green cliffs quickly turn to a nightmarish series of crests and troughs of muddy stalemate as bombs and rain come pouring down, exacerbating the difficulties of the protagonist Luca Cocchiola’s dazed search for his brother. As Kempshall notes in The First World War in Computer Games, “mud serves as a reference point… of the general horror of the fighting. It becomes synonymous with the open grave or with a cloying almost monstrous force that drags men to their death.” Trenches, sandbags, dirt, and ruins of Battlefield’s famously destructible buildings become environmental mechanisms that restrict the movements of ourselves and our allies, but never really stop us. This imagery then, where “mud and blood mix together to form a wet, sticky and suffocating mess from which there appears to be no escape… [reaches] backwards through time and drags the imagery of [the First World War] into our modern consciousness.” But that is where our visceral experience of the war teeters off. Other than moments in “Through Mud and Blood” where the player-controlled tank is mired in the mud (largely for purposes of the story), we sprint across the land, always on the lookout for the next kill.
This War of Mine, manages to make war a miserable slog, but not through the aesthetics of movement. Through its visual representation of a city under siege for some years, almost monochrome and barebones in visual fidelity, the game focuses on what it considers most important: the survival of the civilian. The walls outside the dilapidated shelter are crumbling, the streets are deserted, the soundtrack is guttural and hopeless, interspersed with sounds of bombing. These spaces are designed to create “a perpetual sense of war and despair.”
Kacper Kwiatkowski, one of the game’s designers, writes in his essay “Civilian Casualties: Shifting Perspective in This War of Mine,” that the goal of developer 11 bit studios was to make the city feel real while keeping its sociocultural experience universal, using subtle aesthetic touches mostly inspired by Eastern Europe (including Poland) and the Balkans in the architecture and the names of the characters. The “spectacle” of war is not in its battles, but of the noncombatants’ daily lives, and therefore restricted to those slices of shelter and the city in which “the conflict… transforms into a mission performed in the space of the landscape determined by strategic places for survival.” This message of survival is delivered through character dialogue and other nonverbal implicit cues, with the developers deciding the game did not need to include every form of explicit violence (such as sexual violence or killing of children) to have an impact. The constant concern, fear, and low-level anxiety that a player can sense from the civilians is instead conveyed through the game’s visual aesthetics, such as the changing facial expressions of a player portrait, the decay of their diary, or the color tone of the screen when tough decisions must be made.
The result is what Kristian A. Bjørkelo calls “transgressive realism”: game experiences that feel real through their ability to disturb our emotional complacency, make us uncomfortable so we reflect in ways that entertainment media normally do not allow us to. This War of Mine uses social realism “to transport the player to a warzone so that they can experience it as a civilian would.” The disrepair of our environment, the injury, sickness, exhaustion, or depression of the characters slowing them down, all come in dealing with the bleak and brutal realities of war—grief, violence, and survival. As the player-character, I steal from others who themselves are just trying to get by, I am shot while attempting to make my escape from one scavenging location, I am infuriated by nightly raids that injure and depress my people while I do the same elsewhere, and finally, I murder an old couple in cold blood—because I had to survive, I tell myself. I was reduced to desperation. Through all of this, however, I as the player remain in a safe environment; I am only interacting with the outcomes of war from behind the screen. It is this dissonance that is transgressive; a certain guilt takes hold, a survivor’s guilt within myself, as the people whose fates I was entrusted with lie dead.
This War of Mine may follow the same visual templates as 1917 and Battlefield 1, but its rules of play are designed to denude war of its heroic glories. War’s aesthetics of gloom and doom persist through time and across mediums, but in a seemingly simple inversion of war cinema and gaming (1917 and Battlefield 1) where the player inflicts violence on the other, the aesthetics of the anti-war game (This War of Mine) are used to describe the othered’s experiences of survival in the face of such extraordinary violence.
“All art is like death”
In war films and war games, vision and aesthetics come together to produce an ideological perception of war; Virilio posits that in the “cinema-cathedrals of the military state,” the excited masses discover the “enlightened” truth of the world, accepting the world thus projected as reality because the cinema allows that interpretation in its space for “silent reading,” separated from spaces for debate or rebuttals. Gaming, while more interactive, offers little textual context other than what is allowed on screen. This solidifies cinematic and gamified memory for most consumers, save some who may have deeper knowledge of historical events.
Artistic records of war thus have to grapple with the perceptions of wartime realities and myth. In direct historical extrapolations such as in 1917 and Battlefield 1, where the general audience knows of the dual brutality and boredom of WWI, these mediums choose to nod to these themes through technical, locational, and broad narrative choices without going for authentic detailing. We catch glimpses of narrow trenches with bodies pressed against each other, caught on barbed wire, blind charges under monstrous artillery fire (as seen in 1917’s now-famous climactic sequence), but they are constructed to convince the audience this world is authentic, while simultaneously constructing an ideologized narrative.
The most evident example of this is the valorization of individual soldiers’ stories in 1917 and Battlefield 1 (with hints of humanist sentiment). These soldiers are shown to be capable of tipping the balance of the war in their side’s favor through their actions in very particular aspects of the battle. But in his essay “Playing with Toy Soldiers from Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming,” military historian Andrew Wackerfuss notes, “in a war of industrialized attrition, combatants quickly learned that their individual actions rarely influenced the outcome of battle, which instead resolved for impersonal, material, and industrial reasons.”
In 1917, Schofield and Blake, whether through choice or circumstance, are assigned to ferry messages that would literally save thousands of lives, and therefore resolve to complete their mission no matter what. Blake’s connection the task is made more personal by a fraternal bond to the company of soldiers they set out to save. Battlefield 1, meanwhile, cycles through six stories that follow the journeys of a different Allied soldiers through major battles, men who often single-handedly leave their marks on seemingly unwinnable fights.
As Kempshall notes, however, this sort of problematic “us versus them” narrative comes from a reframing of World War I in the tropes of World War II games, with clean good-versus-evil ideological lines drawn between the Allied and Central powers, the latter of whose perspective we never see in either work. Blake, for example, is murdered for no discernable reason by the German soldier whose life he’d just saved, the good Englishman slayed by the immoral German. In order to meet Western cultural preconceptions of how war must be depicted, then, the makers of gaming and cinema tend toward Whiggish historical memories, where victory is both military and moral.
The concessions that popular entertainment makes to the true tragedies of war, however, come from their attempts to foster empathy for soldiers and their victims, forcing them to question their own actions afterwards with narrative moments that land an emotional punch. In times of war, brotherhood is portrayed as paramount. The outcomes of a war that may not truly have legitimate motives is thus questioned along lines of its futility, its hubris, its death and destruction, if not its imperialism. Blake dies of being a good person.
Games, in particular, take advantage of their ability to design interactive immersion such that they can evoke an emotional response from the plater. Luca’s brother in “Avanti Savoia,” Frederick Bishop in “The Runner,” Townsend in “Through Mud and Blood”—having played as or with these characters, their deaths come as heroes. But these deaths are not framed as moral rejections of war, only a shift in moral perspective.
In contrast, This War of Mine questions if war can be valorized at all. The game does decontextualize the conflict and steps away from political questions (itself arguably a compromise) to borrow from historical memories of war—specifically, the siege of Sarajevo—and its implications for the linear, uninterrupted flow of modern life. But the broader issue it seeks to deal with is the purely moral: the survival of the person. Pawel Miechowski, a senior writer at 11 bit studios, mentions that they wanted to “create a different kind of dramatic experience, something closer to tragedy.”
Even as the machineries of war hammer away at moral and communitarian defenses as much as at civilian senses and bodies, the player tries to be a hero. We try to avoid inflicting further violence on the liminal spaces of survival in the battered city—but rarely with success. This War of Mine does encourage the fostering of a community in the house the game characters inhabit, as well as mechanisms to enable neighborhood solidarity. The common tragedies and the fact that the only chance to survive is acting for the benefit of the common good complicate the moral narratives around survival and killing present in other artistic mediums that engage with war. But the brutal truth the game seeks to interrogate is how much of the moral narrative is in the eyes of someone who does not direct death, when the eyes-as-weapons, be they distant or intimate, care little for life.
The ideology of war is never as simple as cinema and gaming typically present—but its makers do try to find a moral and emotional core for the stories they tell. With the omnipresence of visual media becoming so many carriers of ideological memory, how successful they are in these missions becomes a question of vital importance for both our past and present.
Speaking to the Eyes
In the latter half of 1917, Corporal Schofield takes shelter from an enemy soldier in a barely lit basement, and comes across a young woman and a baby hiding. He accepts help from the woman for his injury, feeds the baby some milk from his canister, and is then determined to be on his way despite the woman imploring him to stay. The camera follows Schofield out, out into fiery ruins, and once more we are taken along on his heroic journey being chased by Germans and fighting to survive. The woman and infant, the only noncombatants we see in the entire movie, are soon forgotten, by us and the movie’s relentless visual propulsion forward and into war. Their only purpose, it seemed, was to aid the soldier on his way.
I thought about that pair again when my group of survivors in This War of Mine didn’t make it past day 17. The final biographical cards wove their tragic stories, ordinary lives caught in extraordinary circumstance, failing to extricate themselves from it. They were never in a position to extricate themselves from war—that was the job of the soldier. The soldier who shot one of my survivors on sight, lethally wounding her. The soldier who looses sniper fire over my head. The soldier who had taken over the city in which we were fighting for scraps. I wondered if the woman from 1917 could get a card too.
War is an inescapable part of human history, as well as our present. It is inevitable, then, that our art attempts to narrate war’s reality. Cinema and gaming have today brought war closer to our eyes than ever before, engulfing our visual technologies in military technologies. But war in these mediums is constructed, an ephemerally real facsimile playing out on screen. And so humanity—soldier and civilian—is forever tied to the perception of war in these mediums. The stories we choose to tell ourselves cannot just be considered stories, then. They are life itself, and its makers are the gods of seeing. We can only hope they are merciful and just, that they allow our eyes to see—to truly, clearly see.
Header image credit: Battlefield 1, EA
Prem Sylvester is a writer from India who turns into words the ideas that pique his curiosity. He is keen on exploring the intersections of media, technology, culture, and society. His work has appeared in national media platforms like The Wire, The Hindu and The News Minute, as well as in literary journals such as Parentheses Journal, After the Pause, and The Shore.