Culture

‘Battlefield V’ Is Making World War II Uncomfortable Again

Battlefield V

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For anyone who plays video games regularly, there’s a good chance they know their way around Omaha Beach. They know the dimensions of the beach, the location of German gun emplacements and the sight of their comrades being cut to pieces by a lethal onslaught of bullets. They know they can take cover behind huge iron crosses (known as ‘czech hedgehogs’) that the Germans placed on the beach as anti-vehicle defences.

When they finally get to the grassy bank at the front of the beach, they know that long thin explosive charges (known as ‘bangalores’) will be needed to clear enemy bunkers. They know it all. Even before they get off the boats, they know they will watch a soldier next to them vomit from fear or see the men ahead of them be killed immediately after landing.

Jumping from Allied boats onto French soil on 6th June 1944 has become as familiar as Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road or defeating Ganon in The Legend Of Zelda. The exploding sand and deafening noise of the Normandy landings of World War II have been depicted in countless video games, typically as an exciting opening mission to set the player on the path to fighting the Germans and liberating Europe from the occupation of the Nazis. It’s an adrenaline-fueled experience of righteous victory and thrilling heroics. In video games, D-Day is awesome.

D-Day is nowhere to be seen in Battlefield V. In its single-player ‘War Stories’ campaign, missions are broken up in an anthology style to focus on lesser-known conflicts during World War II that took place in other parts of the world.

A mother/daughter relationship lies at the heart of ‘Nordlys’, a tale of sabotage set in the Norwegian mountains. Having been occupied by the German army for three years, the hydroelectric plant in Telemark, Norway is in the process of developing deuterium oxide (‘heavy water’) for the ultimate purpose of developing nuclear weapons for Hitler’s Third Reich. A resistance force of Norwegian commandos successfully destroyed the facility in 1943 which the British government later regarded as the ‘most successful act of sabotage in all of World War II’.

‘Nordlys’, like the rest of Battlefield V’s war stories, portrays real-life events via fictional characters. The parental bond that Astrid has for her saboteur daughter Solveig helps ground a story in relatable emotion to tell a tale most people around the world are unfamiliar with. The experienced Astrid and brash Solveig are equally dedicated to their mission and each other. In a matter of hours, this tale of brave resistance and parental sacrifice not only rings true but also feels fresh and original. Especially when told through the eyes of two defiant women surrounded by male soldiers.

As we know from our personal history of video game achievements, D-Day was a decisive victory for the Allies. As a devastating blow in the German war machine, the invasion that started Operation Overlord proved to be a roaring success and in the months that followed, millions of troops flowed into France. In addition to the defeat of the Nazis, D-Day resulted in further events that are not as well-regarded in our history books.

The liberation of Normandy caused almost 40,000 French civilian deaths, half of which occurred in pre-invasion Allied bombings. Once the towns of France were reduced to rubble, the Allied soldiers moved in. As the history books tell us, they were welcomed with open arms with wine, song and the widespread affection of local French women. Throughout movies and television, the image of startled and happy American and British soldiers being set upon by grateful and promiscuous village girls is commonplace. But after four years of German occupation and the destruction of their homes by Allied bombings, the citizens of Normandy remember the events following D-Day differently.

After the Allied soldiers set themselves up in the ruins of French cities, hundreds of cases of sexual assault were reported. Between D-Day and the end of the war, it is estimated that US servicemen alone committed over 3,500 rapes of civilian women throughout France. Residents called the liberating troops a “regime of terror, imposed by bandits in uniform”. One month before the war ended in 1945, the mayor of the town of Le Havre wrote to the regional US commander pleading for them to set up brothels out of town as a deterrent for the soldiers. His request was refused.

In ‘Tirailleur’, the player takes the role of Deme Cisse – a member of the Senegalese Tirailleurs, a contingent of the Free French Army. Eager to fight alongside his friend and veteran soldier Idrissa, they arrive at their deployment barracks and are unexpectedly given menial tasks due to the colour of their skin while the white soldiers head to the front line.

When Deme is eventually given the chance to fight, he is fuelled by anger and bravado. He and Idrissa join the rest of the Tirailleurs (which means ‘skirmishers’) to successfully storm anti-aircraft guns and a German-occupied chateau. Although heavy casualties are suffered, Deme feels proud to have proven his worth as a soldier fighting against the Nazis and is congratulated by his squad captain. A celebratory photo of the troops is taken which, much to Deme’s disappointment, is later doctored by the army to remove any black soldiers from the image.

A total of 153 soldiers were disciplined for the widespread sexual assault of French women in the months after D-Day. This was in direct response to Supreme Allied Commander (and future US President) Dwight Eisenhower giving his commanders orders to take action against any crimes committed by Allied forces including “rape, murder, assault, robbery etc”.

But a disproportionate amount of troops who were blamed were African-Americans. Of the 29 soldiers that were court-martialed and executed by the US army, 25 were black. Often the accusations against them were based on flimsy evidence and guesswork while white soldiers received lighter sentences thanks to their combat status.

German tank commander Peter Mueller is the protagonist of ‘The Last Tiger’, the final war story in Battlefield V. Mueller is idolised by the tank crew’s new recruit Schroder, a young soldier who is fanatical in his commitment to the Nazi regime.

Enveloping a tale about human nature within a campaign told from the ‘enemy’ side of World War II is a risky choice for a game developer.

Set in the spring of 1945, Mueller witnesses the slow but definite destruction of the Third Reich as he and his squad defend the Rhine-Ruhr region of Germany. In addition to the impending end of the war, Mueller’s faith in his homeland is shaken by seeing his former comrades hung from lamp posts by the Germans as punishment for desertion. Being told lies by his own army that they will prevail regardless of the overwhelming Allied invasion and that they care for their loyal troops, the reality of Mueller’s situation speaks louder to him than any propaganda.

He gradually realises that where he has arrived at the tail end of the war is not somewhere he wishes to be as the German war effort reveals itself to be hollow. As he sees his homeland being eaten from within, he has to deal with Schroder’s maniacal beliefs, hundreds of Allied troops and the eventual awakening from the bed of lies which had been sold to him.

It is perhaps the most surprising story in Battlefield V. Enveloping a tale about human nature within a campaign told from the ‘enemy’ side of World War II is a risky choice for a game developer. It’s never really been done before but Mueller’s rejection of toxic ideology has value. It shows the crumbling doctrine of the Third Reich and the fools who clung to its failings to the very end and beyond. It dawns on Mueller that he’s possibly on the wrong side of history after witnessing the lies of commanders convincing their misguided young men to fight.

Military propaganda leading up to D-Day did everything it could to get eager young cadets to sign up for the Allied forces, including selling them on an erotic adventure. Life Magazine had military accounts describing the untouched land of France as a “tremendous brothel” while the Stars and Stripes newspaper included French phrases for Allied soldiers to use such as “You are very pretty” and “Are your parents home?”.

In the past, the idea of a World War II video game that doesn’t feature a D-Day mission was a tough sell.

In September 1944, Major General Charles Gerhardt, the commanding officer of the Omaha Beach infantry division, set up a single brothel for his soldiers outside a French village. Its doors were closed after only five hours as to not appear to condone prostitution for “mothers and sweethearts” back home. The eventual revelation that over 14,000 rapes were committed by Allied soldiers throughout France, Germany and the United Kingdom was not something to be talked about until well after victory against Adolf Hitler, if at all.

These events are difficult to accept, even after seventy years. Thanks to entertainment, World War II has always been painted as a heroic battle, rather than the senseless slaughter of World War I. The Allied forces freed the world from Hitler’s iron grasp and ended the war but the cost will be felt for generations.

Video games like to explore the same aspects of World War II. They’re mostly American stories, told again and again about the same conflicts. But DICE are Swedish developers. In Battlefield V, they chose to highlight parts of the war which are mostly unknown to an audience. The stories of defiant resistance by Norwegian commandos, the inherent discrimination suffered in France and the rejection of poisonous ideals in Germany are told from a fresh perspective. Also, none of the campaigns are in English as they don’t concern people who speak it. The characters all speak their native languages and the missions are subtitled.

In the past, the idea of a World War II video game that doesn’t feature a D-Day mission was a tough sell. But what Battlefield V does is attempt to paint a more complete picture of a war known to most of the modern world only through the Normandy landings. It doesn’t simply rehash the same depiction of World War II with prettier graphics, it deconstructs what the deadliest military conflict in history meant to other people and other countries who lived through it just like the soldiers on Omaha Beach. It does it through relatable, engaging characters and clever writing which strikes an empathetic tone to anyone living in the current climate of the 21st century.

Three percent of the world’s population were killed during World War II. That’s like if one person died every second for about three years. No matter the amount of time that has passed, that’s not something which should make anyone feel at ease. Storming the beaches of Normandy has always proven exciting and fun in video games but this medium of entertainment allows developers to go further and tell other stories that are as personal and devastating as the war itself.

Early in the story of ‘Nordlys’, a German lieutenant talks about childhood stories of monsters in the woods of Norway. He finds the country that they’ve occupied both beautiful and unsettling. While the Allied victory against Nazi Germany was a clear rebuke of a campaign of hatred designed for fearful and angry men, Battlefield V takes us out of our comfort zone of what we previously thought to be the accepted representation of a conflict and opens the door for an audience to examine it differently. Which is how every war should be analysed for future generations. Failing that, humans repeat their horrors and liberating forces become monsters themselves.