This may come as a large surprise to some gamers: Battlefield 1 has one of the best campaign moments of the current generation, if not the first-person war genre itself. The idea of a modern-day FPS that isn’t focused on some deeper meaning, like Spec Ops: The Line, sounds like a pipe dream these days. However, Battlefield 1 truly shines in its second ‘War Story,’ creating a narrative deserving of dissection and analysis.
This article includes spoilers for Battlefield 1’s Campaign.
Throughout the mission called ‘Friends in High Places,’ we are put into the boots of Clyde Blackburn, an American con-man pilot that steals the identity of a member of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. It is made very clear right at the start that we are dealing with a man of dubious merit because he tells us himself. The story opens on a cinematic of Blackburn playing cards against the man he’s about to rob as voice over explains to us that Blackburn is in fact as dishonest as they come. Within moments we’ve seen him lie to one man for his identity and lie to another, his flight partner. This also gives away what Blackburn’s goal is: a shot at test flying the Bristol F2.B. As the game text explains, the Bristol is one of many planes created out of need for innovation in WW1. For a moment, it seems like Blackburn intends to steal the Bristol plane for himself, but is stopped by the co-pilot Wilson.
Wilson is loyal to his cause but very clearly put upon and his mysteriously accented partner isn’t exactly helping that situation, causing Wilson to effectively annoy Blackburn into completing the flying test like normal. If it wasn’t clear yet, this is also how Battlefield 1 trains the player on how plane controls and air combat will work this time around. As a tutorial, things feel naturally inserted instead of breaking the 4th wall to explain how everything is going to work. As gameplay, everything is slick and responsive. Everything feels natural to be learning alongside Blackburn as the game takes players high above the mountain ranges for a gorgeous view.
That view gets broken pretty quickly, though. Blackburn and Wilson stumble upon a group of German pilots in the same area as the flight test. Trailing them leads to a discovery of a massive weapons cache that requires action to cut the resources of the German army in the region. Here, we see more of Blackburn’s character show as he is trying to convince Wilson to join him on the mission. Blackburn is now chasing the possible riches such a find is, but Wilson is terrified of the risks. He makes Blackburn promise to get them both home alive. Since all we’ve seen of the past section is the opposite of the truth, here lies the conflict: is he lying?
We see that put to the test in the next sequence, a set of bomber waves that the player needs to escort to the weapons cache through a massive German defense. Through fighters and anti-air tanks, Wilson and Blackburn bond through battle as evidenced by their dialog. Between the player’s skill, Blackburn and Wilson become a solid combat unit. Naturally, this is also when backlash from the bombing causes the Bristol to go down behind enemy lines. Blackburn manages to eject from the plane, but Wilson is lost with the plane. Players are then forced to guide Blackburn through a German controlled countryside without attracting enough attention to get torn apart by lead from all directions.
These stealth-style missions find their way into several points of the campaign, and they are fantastic. As tense as it might be to be stuck in the middle of a battle, there is something exhilarating about needing to carefully use buildings and sight lines to safely make it to the other side of the battlefield. This section is particularly inspired, giving Blackburn several avenues to safety through bases and caches; but make too much noise and others will come checking. I myself was unable to succeed without hiding in the top sections of barns for a lot longer than I’d like to admit. Eventually Blackburn is able to reach the edge of German territory and comes upon the wreckage of the downed Bristol, and the main conflict arises again.
Because Wilson is still alive and pinned to the wreckage.
All at once, you are given the fulfillment of the foreshadowing of the promise to Wilson and what we’ve told by Blackburn. True to character, Blackburn picks up a piece of wreckage to at least spare Wilson the suffering-until Wilson gives him a reason not to. See, Wilson knew the whole time that Blackburn wasn’t who he said he was. Pretty easy when you don’t bother to fake a British accent. Yet, Wilson went up in the air with Blackburn. For some reason, the poor man still went up in that plane with us. For some reason, this changes Blackburn and he decides to keep his word. This will now bring the player to No Man’s Land, the area between German and British lines. Because now a man is being carried, holding weapons is out. Not one point in this section is a weapon even needed, but there is something terrifying about being in the middle of a FPS game without the shooting. Managing to not get gutted by machine fire, Blackburn and Wilson return to British lines. Once back, Blackburn is arrested after his true identity is found out.
Taken back to London for court martial, Blackburn finds himself caught in the middle of a siege on London by the German forces. With airships descending on the city, Blackburn convinces the recovered Wilson that has returned on the same ship to free him and join the fight. This final battle of the story is the most dogfight focused, pitting players against a far more prepared force. Things play out almost like the climax of an action film; eventually take the pair of pilots from their plane to fighting back on one of the German airships. In the most gratifying sequence, the pair manage to take one of the AA guns on the airship and turn it on the Germans. Through this process, we hear Blackburn shout his name and claiming he is a “stand up guy.” Through the battles with Wilson, Blackburn himself has seen change. He joins a battle for London, a city he has no affection for, for this same reason. In what amounts to a couple of hours of gameplay, the audience has seen what the experience of war can do to change people, and how brotherhood can change them even more. It’s exactly the kind of “light in the darkness” story we often expect from war drama.
That’s when Battlefield 1 tips its hand.
Escaping the airship wreckage, Blackburn’s voice over re-enters to close the story segment with clips from the other missions play: “And that’s my story. A selfish man who risked his own life to save another-and in doing so, was saved himself. Things get mixed up in wartime though and you’ll probably hear other versions. A rogue pilot who stole a plane, who killed his buddy. Then lied, cheated, and murdered his way across half the Western Front-only to escape court martial in the chaos of an air raid. But don’t listen to any of that. What you heard from me is the truth. I wouldn’t tell you if it wasn’t.” In between this, the camera zooms in on Blackburn’s face as the voice over gives way to Blackburn himself saying: “Would I?”
With a single line, the entirety of Battlefield 1 is put into a whole new perspective. The entire campaign is based off of separate stories, intended to be narrated by those that experienced them. In this, gone is the theology of the campaign existing as practice for the multiplayer mode and in its place is a game using wartime experiences to tell stories. Stories swapped between soldiers form the themes of the game itself, but are upended by Blackburn’s story. History is written by the winners, but it is remembered by those who experienced it. Battlefield 1’s focus on the individual gives significant weight regarding the subject matter being adapted while revealing that ultimately it is unable to offer any sort of meditation on war itself. Being the kind of game that it is, the very idea of putting weight on the idea of war is somewhat tricky-it is difficult to do so and make a ‘fun’ game. WW1 is more a facet of history to most who would be Battlefield’s audience and yet that war is not kept at a distance but brought up as close as possible. The very dual nature of a game like Battlefield trying to be respectful and fun reflects Blackburn himself. How honest is too honest? How much extrapolation is disingenuous? Would Blackburn lie to you? The story of ‘Friends in High Places’ doesn’t offer an answer to these questions. In that way, Battlefield 1 just might be the most honest war video game ever made.