Why World War I Usually Gets The Shaft In Gaming (Until Now)

Why World War I Usually Gets the Shaft in Gaming (Until Now)

In the last 30 years, there have been (by my count) 59 games, mods, or betas featuring a setting from World War I, otherwise called The Great War. World War II, otherwise called the Second World War, boasts something like 257 of the same.

Ubisoft Montpellier announced last week that it would be doing its part to close the gap with a stylish Ubi-Art title (redundant, I know) called Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Although it reportedly focuses on the doomed love affair between a French maid and a German soldier during World War I, Valiant Hearts' real star is what looks like a stout German Shepherd. Players will control five different characters whose stories all intersect with the dog, notably the lovesick German soldier and the father of the French maid. And yes, there's an American, so there will be explosions in tow.

What struck me and other game journalists about this clever-looking title, though, was the decision to set it in World War I. According to Ubisoft Montpellier, the story pulls directly from war letters belonging to an old relative of one of the developers, so I can understand how the sentimental component, as well as the familiarity, strikes enough of a chord to prompt game development. If that's what it takes, then, where are all the other letters, and where are all the other World War I games?

For a war that's remembered with a Great moniker, it does see curiously little interest from the game development community, to say nothing of the motion picture industry. I've got a few ideas why that might be - some regarding practicality, other circumstance. Specifically, I'm comparing the dearth of WWI games to the abundance of WWII games; Korea and Vietnam are another question for another time.

Why are there so few World War I games?

Why World War I Usually Gets the Shaft in Gaming (Until Now)

1. Relative to WWII, it's old. And age bears many implications, like fewer records (paper and video), fewer artifacts, and fewer surviving veterans (zero in the States). With less information to go on, the guesswork starts piling up, and a developer making a traditional historic military shooter is left grasping for detail.

That's not to say that WWI battles are a mystery; West Point has us covered there. But game designers know that their battle is won and lost in canteen bullet holes, discarded German ammo crates used as makeshift cribs, and, of course, faithful rescue dogs. WWI accounts don't flesh out those details as readily as the annals of WWII memoirs.

Valiant Hearts seems to be avoiding this problem by just using the details provided (from the letters and historical records) and filling out the rest with a human drama. Between the source material and the art style, the weight of historical accuracy doesn't seem to rest so heavily on its shoulders.

Why World War I Usually Gets the Shaft in Gaming (Until Now)

2. Trench warfare was a desperate waiting game. The modern countries of 1914 were churning their way through a second Industrial Revolution at the beginning of WWI, a movement that found its way into the business of making war. Notably, WWI was marked by plane-to-plane combat, long-distance artillery fire, machine gun penetration, submarine warfare, and chlorine gas attacks. Infantry tactics and equipment hadn't yet evolved to match, so tactics on almost every front devolved into digging ditches, hunkering down, and sometimes charging into a wall of bullets and barbed wire.

From the humanitarian perspective, trench warfare is incredibly depressing. I can't imagine playing a game with that much unresolved tension, only released in a suicidal, frontal assault. Game designers probably see the same kinds of problems. If nothing else, it doesn't sound like fun, and military shooters haven't crossed the experiential gap boldly enough to take on the challenge that trench warfare presents.

Why World War I Usually Gets the Shaft in Gaming (Until Now)

3. Past behaviour is an indicator of future performance. That is, out of the 59 games, betas, and mods featuring a WWI setting, none have a Metascore exceeding 81. Even then, Paradox Interactive was one of the only companies with strategy games (Victoria II) in this ring, and they account for two of the four scores I found that were 80 or above. It's worth mentioning because if producers want to avoid risk, then the WWI game market is only for steely production houses and exceptionally careful developers.

Strategy games have so far been the only genre to find real success in a WWI setting. The roster is littered with aerial combat games, mostly revolving around the Red Baron, and only a handful of shooters make the list. One promising WWI FPS, The Trench 1916, was in development up until sometime last year, at which point development either went into stealth mode or halted altogether. It's safe to say that Call of Duty won't explore The Battle of the Somme anytime soon.

Why World War I Usually Gets the Shaft in Gaming (Until Now)

4. The top-level narrative for WWI is complex. For Americans, WWII is a no-brainer; Pearl Harbor was attacked, the death camps revealed Nazi atrocities, and Hitler can't speak without yelling. Classic villainy that calls for classic heroism.

WWI began when an Austro-Hungarian Archduke was assassinated and Austria-Hungary intentionally overreacted, allegedly, because of industrial interests in Serbia, Russia's ally. Germany jumped in as an ally of Austria-Hungary, and then they did the France dance and the battle lines were drawn. America didn't even enter the war until it's final two years, and it entered because Germany was talking smack about America to Mexico and the UK was like, "Step OFF. Here's a telegram."

It's hard to see the great humanitarian plight between the political posturing, especially from the perspective of a world where Austria-Hungary no longer exists as a sovereign nation. On top of that, the victory at the Treaty of Versailles lacks the momentous uproar of a march on Berlin and an Allied flag flying from the top of the Reichstag.

It's not that WWI puts the "Wuh" in War - it's still the fifth most deadly armed conflict the world has ever seen, and it defined a generation of patriots and ex-patriots who would go on to give us the Thunderbird, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the King Kong ride at Universal Studios. From the macro perspective, though, it's a tougher sell than "save the world from certain evil."

What do you think? Why has WWI gotten the shaft in gaming and WWII gotten the spotlight?


    I think the main reason WW1 gets shafted is because WW2 had a whole lot of cool toys ware as WW1 is seen more as sitting in a trench hoping an artillery shell does not ruin your day broken up with a few suicide runs over no mans land.

    I think it is a pity.......if I ever have a few tens of millions of dollars to throw away in games publishing I will try and remedy that, but until then I guess its Call of duty:whatever.

      Yeah, but Korea gets the shaft too, and it had nicer toys than WWII...

        I'm sure once the Korean war is over....then maybe we will see games made about the war.

    I think an obvious reason we are suddenly seeing a WWI game is the 100 year anniversary. You can be sure that, along with a few WWI games, we will see a whole lot of new fiction and non-fiction books, movies and documentaries. This is all especially relevant in countries where WWI is integral to some sort of birth-of-a-nation myth.

    Interesting article but I do get a little sick of reading articles that assume the reader is American, phrases like " For Americans, WWII is a no-brainer" and " America didn’t even enter the war until it’s final two years," I don't blame the author he is obviously American and is writing for an American audience, it is just that there don't seem to be any perspectives on the internet that are not American, especially when the subject is history . WW1 is such an important part of Australian history, much of what we call the Australian character and our national mythos came out of WW1. In cultural terms WW1 is a little analogous to the American war of independents. I just find it grating when Americans who don't really know much about it lecture on it .
    ok whinge done.

    Last edited 15/09/13 3:30 pm

      Most war games are made by Americans, so when they choose a war to base their game on, they are going to consider the American perspective.

        Absolutely, and I wouldn't expect or want them to make a game or movie for that matter that is not from their perspective, My comment is not about hating on America I love American culture and history , I am just saying when it comes to culture in general American perspectives seem to drown out all else. I just think it is a little sad that I know more about American history than the history of my own country and I have never even studied American history.

          You mean you know more about what the american government wants the world to know about their history, not what actually happened. Or that they had a couple of thousand military casualties at pearl harbour, and then annihilated more than 400 thousand Japanese civilians, Mutilated, poisoned and destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands more in retaliation.
          A game made from any other perspective would be boring, because if the other side starts to win, America just fights dirty or packs up and goes home leaving the country they unfairly attacked in ruins

        is there any australian devs that would make an aussie perspective WWI. something like band of brothers style. we dont need a multiplayer element but a campaign co-op would be interesting

    one of the best and most twisted and disturbing depictions of World War 1 was in the original 'The Darkness'. It was as far as you could get from historical realism, but conveyed the absurd horror and uselessness of the whole conflict. It was a touch of genius on the part of the original comics to use WW1 to describe Jackie Estacado's ancestry, because to a lot of Americans WW1 is a lot more distant, weird, and hard to understand than the more familiar heroes and villains of WW2. So the played on that weirdness and twisted an already ugly conflict into something truly bizarre and hideous.

    I rather America not do any more war related stuff else we get stuff like U-571 and not movies like Das Boot.

    Fun Fact: The director of U-571 said that Das Boot was false because the sailors weren't nazi enough not knowing that the Reich-marine, Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe didn't allow soldiers with political associations and not until they end of the war did nazi members join the reserves. However paramilitary organisation such as the SS well we all know what they did.

    So anything involving the WW1 subject will be on how the Americans won the war and not the coup they overthrew the monarchy. And that all the German soldiers were all evil nazi's despite the party not appearing until after the war, and by god they will probably throw Hitler in there so the Americans can shoot at him. Taking credit for what the British and French did, yea of course because Americans dont know history.

    Mount and Blade Napoleonic wars showed how to do great line battle era game, and if there is anything to base a good WW1 shooter off it would be that.

      I'm amused by the director of U-571 calling anything false...

    Metacritic is a flawed system to go by, especially when it comes to older games. Off the top of my head I can think of two WW1 games that scored well over 81 in every mag they appeared in -- Cinemaware's Wings and Microprose's Knights Of The Sky. Bullfrog's expansion disk to Powermonger (set during WW1) was also well received.

    More recently, the opening level of Call of Juarez's sequel proved that a WW1 FPS can definitely work in terms of gameplay mechanics (it was set during the American Civil War but the infantry weapons were similar).

    I also dispute that the politics behind WW1 are too stuffy and complicated to make a compelling game narrative -- if done right, it's basically Game of Thrones with tanks! (It's even got its own Cersei-like scheming temptress in Mata Hari)

    The main reason for this is that Nazi's are history's greatest villains. Any other war you go back through there can be confusing layers to it that make a good guys versus bad guys scenario a lot more murky. Everyone hates Nazis and this why making a game about being a victor against something that history tells us is inherently evil is cause for the popularity in games. No other time in anything close to recent history, or probably ever, did the world unite against a force that was across the board thought to be such a threat to the goodness of humanity.

    The well might be dry for originality but it overflows for the lazy developer wanting an easy set up of who's a goodie and who's a baddie.

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