The opening of Battlefield 1 is a brutal, visceral sequence, very much unlike the introduction to other games in the franchise, or most military shooters. Speaking with Lars Gustavsson, design director for the game, that was very much intentional. The challenge, as the team saw it, was to try and throw the player in the middle of history, and Gustavsson was kind enough to sit down and talk about how you translate history to a video game.
When did the team make the decision to make a game around this conflict?
That was after Battlefield 4, we all stepped back and started to look at where we go next. Way back, in 2008, a few passionate people had brought up the idea of building a Battlefield game during WWI. We all liked the idea but it never really became the time. We tried to do proper due diligence, and studied all the potential settings for a new game, but WWI always came back to us. And thanks to these advocates of the era, we realized it really fits the concept of Battlefield. This was the dawn of all-out war, which is what Battlefield has always been about. We had to prove to ourselves that we could transfer the gameplay to this era.
The game spans the globe. Where do you start researching the history of World War I?
We were around the world, high up in the Italian Alps, for example. It’s one thing for early games… We did a lot of research, but in terms of the actual realization of it, we settled with the images, and recreating those, while this time around we’ve really tried to capture what it really looked and felt like. We wanted to put you in the shoes of a soldier. We wanted to recrate the world, but also to build a dynamic battle. Distractions play a big part in the game, and we wanted to push it further, so we stepped away from buildings crumbling in a preanimated way. We worked more with terrain destruction so you can use it to make a crater and take cover in it. And at any time the weather can change. Hopefully, it’s a more believeable battlefield.
It seems there’s a burden of history here you and the team struggled with.
Yes, definitely. It was very clear, given the era we were portraying, and now, that this is a living history we’re working with. We had to treat it in a respectful way. A good example is how we stepped back and reworked the concept of the single player campaign. We felt we had to be true to Battlefield, but if you tried to portray everything with one protagonist, you create a cartoon superhero. Instead we decided to split it up into different stories, to allow you to be part of a tank crew, to become a pilot, and not have to blur the lines by adding some artificial superhero, and I feel that really helped us.
How much knowledge of the conflict did you have going in?
For me, I’m not sure if it’s the Swedish school system, really I should blame myself for this, but there’s been a lot of pop culture around World War II, movies, games and books, but World War I has rarely been portrayed in the same way. We realized many of us came with preconceptions of the war, that it was only trench warfare, only the western front, only the British and Germans fighting. It quickly dawned on us that we wanted to tell more of the untold stories. We did day-long sessions talking about the era, getting hammered with information around this era. In the end, it is a game, so we had to portray it through that lens, but at all times we tried to root it in the facts of the era.
Anything you learned, building the game, that surprised you?
One of the facts I hadn’t reflected on was that this was the end to so many empires. The Russian empire, the German empire: That had totally bypassed me, and the impact this era had on the world, too. This era was really where the battle for oil started. This was a world in transition.
The opening in particular is a bit shocking, you’re thrown into battle with an overwhelming sense of pointlessness. What made you choose that for a start?
It goes back to trying to find a balance of this era, and not dodging the fact where it was a war where life expectancy in the front line was short. In those sequences, it can really dawn upon you what it meant in that context. That’s why we went with the different war stories, because it wasn’t a two-sided war, and we wanted to reflect on the fact that this war, that a lot of people, men and women, stood up and did what they thought was the right thing to do, and probably with the same hope and dreams. This became a work of passion and I hope that comes across.
Battlefield 1 is out today on Xbox One, PS4, and PC