Before Electronic Arts’ DICE studio decided to make Battlefield 1 in the setting of World War I, a couple of game developers had to do research for more than two years to figure out if it was viable. It turns out it was, and the years of research have yielded something that is historically accurate, with an emphasis on the Great War’s lesser-known events.
I’ve played the full game — which debuts today on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC — and it does an excellent job balancing both the fun and the historical accuracy.
The burden of walking that line fell on developers such as Aleksander Grøndal, senior producer at DICE. In an interview with GamesBeat, he said that first and foremost EA’s obligation was to stay true to the Battlefield franchise for the sake of fans. But there were plenty of opportunities to mix interesting and little-known parts of World War I’s history with the requirements of the first-person shooter game design at the same time.
The lesser-known, or buried, parts of the war that Battlefield 1 depicts includes a regiment of African American soldiers. The 369th Infantry Regiment was known as the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black unit that served alongside French soldiers. They were Americans, but they wore French uniforms and were treated no different from white soldiers, in contrast to discriminatory treatment in America.
The single-player campaign — known as War Stories — is about Lawrence of Arabia, where the hero is a guerrilla warrior who is a woman. While Bedouin fighter Zara Ghufran is a fictional character, she is based on real women who served in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans.
“We wanted to challenge preconceptions and bring a greater diversity of story,” Grøndal said. “We wanted to explore more than the globe-trotting super soldier. The war was so much more than the Western Front. We knew quite early we wanted to tell personal stories, not about saving the world but how ordinary people behaved in extraordinary situations.”
The Italian Arditi did go into battle with armor in a place that looks very much like the Alps in the game. And the Germans fielded a number of captured British tanks, which kept on breaking down. After digging out these facts, the developers created gameplay situations around them that were fun for gamers. They took some creative liberties, particularly when the soldiers go off on their own, but each story had a kernel of truth.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. And here’s our full review of Battlefield 1.
GamesBeat: I’m always interested in how developers balance historical accuracy in a game like this with entertainment. How did you approach that?
Aleksander Grøndal: Every time we make a game, it’s always a Battlefield game first. That’s important, to stay true to our roots as a franchise. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to be as authentic as we can. We just have to make some choices along the way for the sake of fun. We’ll always take fun over fiction when we have to, but in most cases we don’t have to. We can draw on the source material quite heavily for inspirations to make things fun.
It’s not a documentary by any standard. It’s more about exploring what we find interesting, the opportunities we find to tell stories. We take some creative liberties. In multiplayer, obviously, we allow tanks to exist in battles where tanks never appeared, because it fits better with the Battlefield formula. But everything in the game is era-authentic. We just take some creative liberties with exactly where we put things.
GamesBeat: Did the research process take quite a long time?
Grøndal: That was a significant effort. Particularly because there aren’t any other games that have done this, or very many movies that have taken a wide look at the era. We had to dig deep into finding locations that were interesting, finding stories that we wanted to tell.
We’ve had two guys working on the pitch for a World War I game for years, long before we started working on the game itself. They picked out all the stuff that would be relevant to a Battlefield game: all the hardware, the cool locations, some situations that we could explore and stories we should tell. They had a good framework, a collection of ideas to pick from.
Any time you start on a project like this, where you need to do a lot of research, everyone approaches from a different angle. Some people like to read books. Personally, I like to listen to podcasts and other source material, things like audio lectures, or watch documentaries. We all attacked it from different perspectives. I’m not a particularly big reader, but I’m good at listening.
GamesBeat: I recall you spelled out some of the documentaries you liked, like World War I in Color and Blueprint for Armageddon.
Grøndal: Exactly. Those were really good. Everyone finds their own way. But the good thing is there’s a lot of information out there. It just takes time to find it and gather it. Everyone got used to that after a while. You had to dig a little bit deeper to find the real information out there. We have a pretty substantial library here as well – books of blueprints for the various hardware, how trench systems were built.
What gets us the best result is just going to these locations in the world, though, doing research on the sites to capture the feeling there. There are still some remains in different places. It’s been changed, but we can still get a feeling for it. The hardware is out there, too. Some people still maintain and fly biplanes today. People collect period weapons. We could go and test-fire things and record sounds and see their inner workings. Some people maintain very good YouTube channels that capture that source material in a modern way. Forgotten Weapons is a cool one detailing how different weapons work and how they were used.
GamesBeat: With the different war stories, how did you choose them? Which parts of the war did you want to retell and emphasize?
Grøndal: We needed to look at it from a holistic point of view. We considered both multiplayer and the war stories side by side. We tried to throw as wide a net as possible. We knew quite early that we wanted to tell personal stories – not stories about saving the world, but about how these people lived through this extraordinary situation and how they changed. There was a human element that we wanted to explore more, rather than the sort of globe-trotting super-soldier feeling.
We also wanted to make sure that we challenged your preconceptions about World War I a bit. It was much more than just the western front. The western front was an important part, but not the only part. We wanted to tell stories about places and people that you maybe didn’t know about. Australians and New Zealanders obviously know about Gallipoli, and Italians know about Monte Grappa, but a wider audience doesn’t necessarily know about those battles.
GamesBeat: The idea of the runners at Gallipoli had been done in the movies before. Did that affect your decision as far as whether or not to use that concept?
Grøndal: As much as we wanted to challenge preconceptions about the era, we also wanted a couple of stories to portray some more familiar situations, or more explored settings and situations from World War I. The movies have talked a bit more about Gallipoli, and especially about the western front. We felt it was important to not just show things people hadn’t heard about, because it would seem a little too much like imagination. We needed to have some roots in those preconceptions.
We didn’t want to show too unexpected a version of World War I. We did want to have a little of what people expected as well. There are some expectations that come with the setting, and we wanted to confirm some of them while challenging some of them as well. That’s where a good balance for the overall product lies.
GamesBeat: I imagine gamers are going to want to know about the parting line between real history and what edges toward fiction. At Gallipoli, I suppose a soldier never really got that close to the fort in real life?
Grøndal: The situations are inspired by stories that really happened. That’s where we start to take some creative liberties, to create drama in the specific stories we want to tell. I think about it as a story that’s being told, not history. It’s not exactly what happened, centimeter by centimeter, but it’s our interpretation. Perhaps not to be taken literally.
GamesBeat: In the airplane section, I suppose there wasn’t really any bombing of London.
Grøndal: Actually, that did happen. There were several zeppelin raids over London. They weren’t super successful. It was perhaps a bit more of a terror thing – they scared the population more than they damaged their targets. But the fact that they could bomb London at all scared the English. Figuring out how to bring the zeppelins down took a while. Bullets would pass straight through them. It wasn’t until the British came up with the right combination of normal ammunition and incendiary ammunition that they would actually catch fire, and that was the end of the zeppelins.
What didn’t necessarily happen were all the fighters fighting over London. For gameplay purposes, we wanted it to be about pilots fighting against other pilots.
GamesBeat: The woman in Saudi Arabia, is she based on someone real? Was there a particular reason you chose to have a woman in the role?
Grøndal: All the characters in that story, except for Lawrence, are fictional. But we drew inspiration from real stories for them. There were women among the rebels fighting in that territory.
GamesBeat: That’s another thing I didn’t know. What about the big train, though?
Grondal: There’s no evidence that a train that big was ever used in the desert. But a train like that did travel around the theater quite a lot. Someone made a YouTube video about this, where they followed the path of the train we based it on. It eventually ended up all the way out in China or someplace like that. So it’s inspired by a real armored train that may or may not have ever gone to the desert.
GamesBeat: How about the armored suits that the Italian soldier was wearing?
Grøndal: That was a real group of elite soldiers in the Italian army, and they did wear this sort of armor plating. They were called the Arditi, and they actually fought in that location. That’s based on a real-world example.
GamesBeat: I would have thought that someone could just run around and shoot them in the back.
Grøndal: It’s an interesting era. People were trying out so many different tactics. Some of them were more successful than others. It was an era where a lot of technological advancement happened really fast over the course of four years. Maybe the fastest we’ve seen in modern times. People rode in on horses and rode out on tanks. Mechanized warfare had arrived by the end. It’s a clash between the old and new. We put in a lot of time trying to make sure that we did add as much real detail as we can, so people can start from here and read more about actual events.
GamesBeat: What about the German tanks at Cambrai? Was that imagined at all?
Grøndal: It’s re-imagined, I would say, but there was a tank battle in the very last stages of the war that was the inspiration for the Mud and Blood episode. There was a big offensive where they used tanks, and just a few months later the war ended.
The Germans did have tanks. They built one particular type of tank, the A7V, which was one of the largest tanks. What also happened was, there were a lot of mechanical failures in the British tanks, and the Germans would take them and refuel them and redeploy them as their own. That happened quite a lot on both sides, actually. One of these huge A7Vs was captured by the Australians, and it’s on display in Australia today, I believe. I’m not 100 percent sure. But it was quite common to steal and loot and retool the enemy’s equipment. Some troops were dedicated to doing just that.
GamesBeat: I take it the Harlem Hellfighters were real, at the beginning?
Grondal: Yes, they were very much real.
GamesBeat: As far as environments are concerned, can you go to some of these places and see some of the same views from the game maps?
Grøndal: Yeah, there are quite a few locations where we drew direct inspiration, but some of it has been creatively altered to fit what we wanted to tell. The desert in Nothing is Written, we captured a specific area that we felt was representative, but it’s perhaps not like the exact location where those events took place. It’s in the area, you could say.
The only one that’s really close is the multiplayer map that takes place in the Italian Alps. That one is a pretty close replication of how it looks today, with some creative license again taken for gameplay’s sake.
There’s a feature in the game, the Codex, that you might have seen. It dives a little bit deeper into some of the subject matter. We have some small articles explaining different details. We have about 200 entries or so. Those are the real-world anchors for our somewhat fictional events. It gives context to what you’re seeing, like how the Arditi armor was used. You can do some reading up if you want to dive into the subject matter.
GamesBeat: Do you see it as an opportunity to educate people? Give them a bit more sense of what the war was like?
Grøndal: From my personal point of view, we don’t own the subject matter. It’s not our era to own. But I hope that people will play the game and get interested in reading about the war. Again, I believe it was a period of fundamental change. It helped create the modern world we live in. Piquing people’s interest and getting them to learn—it seems like we’re doing that, by the way, going on what I’ve seen online. People are doing their own research, and I think that’s great. It’s an added bonus.
GamesBeat: The game has an unusual structure in a lot of ways. Soldiers die, especially in the beginning, and you move on to the next story. The characters aren’t reborn. It makes a different statement than a lot of games.
Grondal: I don’t necessarily want to comment on what we’re trying to say there. But you can choose to interpret it as you like.
GamesBeat: There’s the beginning of the Italian story, too, where you talk about this lost generation.
Grøndal: We have nods to many different, I would say–different forces, different happenings across all the different episodes. If you really want to dig into it, there’s more to it than perhaps meets the eye in each situation.
GamesBeat: It’s an interesting balance for me. It’s very respectful of sacrifice, but also trying to be a fun game.
Grøndal: It’s a challenging path to talk. But again, that’s why we always have to lean back into what makes a Battlefield game, at its core. It’s not a documentary. It’s supposed to be a game that people will have fun with first.
GamesBeat: The campaign structure is also very different. It’s more like five campaigns in one. Is that simply because you wanted to tell a variety of stories?
Grøndal: Our thinking behind that—it’s a number of things. We felt like, in Battlefield in general, you don’t just play one soldier in multiplayer. That’s not the way it works. So we wanted a structure that represented that core value of the franchise. You play as many different soldiers and get to experience many different stories. That’s where it started.
We also felt like it’s not necessarily for us to direct you as far as exactly what order you play things in. You have some freedom to play the one about this tank crew, or the one about this fighter pilot. It’s more up to the player to choose how they want to experience the campaign. You have more freedom to engage with the game in the way you’d like.
GamesBeat: I haven’t played the campaign all the way through, but at the end of the Lawrence campaign they mention a battleship. Is that a multiplayer map?
Grøndal: There’s a battleship in multiplayer, yeah. But it’s not in that particular theater of the war. We’re more hinting toward what Lawrence of Arabia did after that episode. He traveled and had more adventures after that. His campaign was pretty significant and very long. So it’s talking about where they headed after the events of our particular story.
GamesBeat: It’s more diverse view of the war than people maybe have been used to. You have women characters, African-American characters.
Grøndal: That goes back to—we wanted to challenge preconceptions a bit as far as what this was all about, who was fighting for who. This was still the age of empires. Empires had colonies and colonial troops in their armies. We wanted to tell a bit of that story and bring that to light, bring some more diversity across the board and tell those stories. Maybe we can help people learn more about this time.
GamesBeat: It seems like one way to extend this might be to come out with downloadable war stories.
Grøndal: Right now we’re focused on bringing more multiplayer content. We haven’t really announced anything outside of that yet. That’s our main focus right now. But I like the idea.
GamesBeat: Russian players might be disappointed right now, since the eastern front wasn’t included.
Grøndal: We haven’t ruled that out yet. We may still get there.