Here's a nightmare I've actually had: I'm a soldier in a war, and no one's told me what to do. Bullets are whizzing overhead and death could arrive at any moment. Everyone around me seems to know what they're doing, but not me. I shouldn't be here. I'm just some guy. I sit there, paralysed, waiting to die.
Battlefield 1's competitive multiplayer recreates that nightmare with remarkable precision. It's one of the most jarring, exhilarating, and terrifying video games I've played in a long time.
Before last week, I hadn't played a Battlefield game in over a decade. My return to competitive first-person shooters has been driven by Destiny and Overwatch, two bright, fantastical games where the characters are all superheroes. I was intrigued by BF1, so I downloaded it and started playing over the weekend. I was unprepared for what I was getting into.
My first few games were absurdly stressful. A nightmare. At any given moment, mortar fire could explode overhead. Buildings cracked and crumbled. Dust and fog and poison gas billowed through the air. It was impossible to see what was in front of me.
I would spawn in with no idea what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go. I'd usually be gunned down in seconds, falling dead while screams and gunfire echoed around me. My colleague Heather Alexandra was our squad commander, confidently issuing orders and relaying tips and advice as she fought her way onward. None of it stuck. I was overwhelmed.
In the days since then I've grown much more capable, but that base-level nightmare feeling has yet to fully dissipate. Time and again I'm struck by how aggressively this video game simulates the disorienting dirge of warfare.
A couple weeks ago, Heather wrote about how, in her view, BF1's multiplayer undercuts its dramatic, reverent single-player story campaign. The story missions effectively capture the horror of the Great War, she wrote, "but when multiplayer is added to the mix, there's a fundamental tension that cannot be reconciled." She elaborated:
The multiplayer entirely undermines this message. Levelling up to get new weapons, nailing amazing headshots, and winning yet another control point round are all experiences meant to be engaging but ultimately frivolous. Count to ten and you'll respawn for another life. Lose a round, but in the next the map resets as if nothing was lost. Everything is consequence-free. War is a game.
After a week with the game, I feel differently. To me, Battlefield 1 multiplayer is anything but frivolous, and even manages to abstractly recreate the chaos of war in a way that would be nearly impossible in a linear, scripted story. The truths it communicates are basic ones, and almost all of them aren't specific to World War 1. But they're also things I've rarely been shown by a video game.
My perspective is doubtless shaped by the fact that I've barely played Battlefield 1's single-player story campaign. After completing the terrific, much-talked-about first story mission, I switched over to multiplayer. I've finished a couple more story missions since then and I'm sure I'll play more, but I'm actually enjoying the perspective I've gained by sticking to multiplayer.
The twist in that first mission is a clever one: the characters you're controlling aren't meant to survive. You hop into and out of the boots of a handful of soldiers attempting to hold off a German assault. Each time you die, you're thrown into a new body on a new front of the same battle. It's an effective way to capture the human cost of war in a video game while avoiding the narrative record-scratch of video game death and resurrection.
That first story mission has informed the way I view Battlefield multiplayer. As far as I'm concerned, each time I die, my character died for good. Each time I respawn, I'm a new soldier, fed back into the meat grinder. The only Battlefield narrative I've known involves running wild-eyed into battle, cowering in the mud, and dying an unceremonious, shitty death.
Some of BF1's multiplayer systems reinforce this way of viewing the game. For example, you can't really customise your soldier's look. You can change his guns or equipment, but unlike a lot of other multiplayer shooters, you can't name him Harambe, or make him look like Drake, or dress him up in a special hat and a hot pink vest. The lack of options anonymizes your character, which helps it feel like you could be controlling anyone. The guy I'm playing now might as well be someone unrelated to the guy I was playing before I last died.
Several of BF1's most popular modes keep score with a ticket system that's distinct from other multiplayer shooters. Attacking teams have a limited pool of respawn tickets, and each time a player dies, they spend a ticket to spawn back in. Run out of tickets and your team will lose the round. You're not just scoring points for kills; the game is subtly telling you that each death is a loss. There are only so many soldiers to fuel each battle.
Like a soldier on the Dardanelles in 1915, I also often have very little sense of the larger conflict around me. Sometimes I lean into that and actively avoid focusing on anything but my marching orders. I know I'm supposed to go and take point Charlie. I know that if I survive that, I'll wait for new orders from my squad leader. But when my side wins or loses, it often comes as a surprise. All at once, a "You Won" screen pops up and the battle is over. That feeling of detachment from big-picture strategy is mostly due to the fact that Battlefield 1's user interface is bad and the game does a poor job explaining itself to players. It's not a conscious attempt to simulate the tunnel vision of a WW1 infantryman, but it gets the job done.
My experience with Battlefield 1 has also been shaped by the fact that I'm not very good. I spend each game wide-eyed and creeping my way forward, hoping to get the drop on someone before I inevitably get killed. I haven't learned the best routes or the safest tactics, and I haven't unlocked the best guns. My games are not an endless string of death-defying killing sprees and close-shave escapes. Almost every time I spawn, it's a matter of minutes — sometimes seconds — until I'm horribly slaughtered.
Seventeen million soldiers were killed during World War 1. It's an unfathomable number, but I still think about it as I play. Electronic Arts crassly compared their beta user numbers to enlistment numbers from the actual war, but I say why not go one further: How many players had to die in-game before we eclipsed the number of deaths in the war itself? How fast did that happen? What's the death toll at now, and how many deaths' worth of World War 1s have we collectively fought? (Don't hold your breath for EA to tweet that one out.)
For all its grimness, Battlefield 1 still contains plenty of enjoyable video game nonsense. We run highlight clips every day of the ridiculous shit that can happen in this game, and you can only be killed by NAUGHTY-MUFF69 (real name) so many times before the illusion falters a little. Hell, my soldiers all roll into battle with the same stupid custom arm-patch, ready to rub it in the faces of their vanquished foes.
None of that diminishes the game's moment-to-moment ferocity, nor the panic I feel when I'm pinned down and frantically looking for an escape. Most of my deaths are the saddest kind of war story: Not about the hero or the great sacrifice, but about a pointless death that no one noticed.
Once upon a time, a soldier ran into the trenches and got blown up by a mortar that wasn't even aimed at him.
This soldier tried to crawl out to an injured comrade and died before he could reach him.
This soldier got separated from his squad and was stabbed to death from behind.
This soldier stuck his head out of a foxhole and was immediately killed by a sniper.
This soldier brought down three enemy infantrymen before a fourth one got off a lucky shot.
This soldier choked to death on gas.
I've died those deaths and more, but if you squint your eyes they might as well be true stories. The way the game anonymizes and abstracts death only echoes our own removal from World War 1 itself. A lot of people died, we think. For many of us, particularly Americans, that's as far as World War 1 goes. But one hundred years ago, this shit really happened. Those very deaths, over and over again; 17 million times.
For all the historical horror that Battlefield 1 multiplayer so effectively resurrects, I'm still enthralled by it. I wouldn't exactly call it "fun," though it's become more satisfying as I've gotten more proficient. I'm drawn to it because it makes me feel things that few video games have managed: terror and constant danger, and the exhilarating feeling that actual human beings seek to do me harm.
At every moment of every game, there is an unshakeable sense that I'm being hunted by someone I can't see. Not an artificial intelligence, but a real, thinking person. Someone I can outsmart and ambush — or who can outsmart me. That's true of most competitive multiplayer games, but thanks to the immense scale of Battlefield's 64-player maps, it's always possible that there's no one out there at all. It's the uncertainty that gets under my skin. I need only stand up to find out for sure.
Battlefield 1 is at its most vivid when I play by myself. No friends in my party, no chatter to distract me. I make my way through the husk of another war-ruined city, praying I haven't been noticed. I hit the deck before cresting the nearest hill. My view is distorted by smoke and fog, and I can barely see where I'm going. A plane drones by overhead. I hear a horse in the distance. When I die, I won't see it coming. It could happen at any moment. I'm constantly bracing for it.
In a cutscene at the end of that blood-soaked first story mission, two opposing soldiers are left standing. For some reason, neither one fires at the other. They regard one another across the bodies of their fallen comrades and slowly lower their weapons. It's an affecting and well-executed moment, but it rings false.
Battlefield 1's multiplayer has no room for that sort of sentiment or scripted visual poetry. It hews to a harsher truth. In this war, you kill everyone you can until someone kills you. You're already dead. It's just a matter of when.