11-11: Memories Retold
PC, PS4, Xbox One
You seldom fire a gun in 11-11: Memories Retold, and when you do, it is always an act with momentous implications, rather than videogames’ customary background pulse of violence. It’s a twofold rebuttal – on the one hand, a reaction to callous industry norms, and on the other, a challenge to the stereotype of the Great War as an event where the significance of the individual death is lost in a maelstrom of slaughter. If DigixArt and Aardman are bucking trends in this regard, however, their portrayal of the months leading up to peace in 1918 is familiar in many respects: an elegant, multiple-perspective narrative game, strewn with collectibles, that uses puzzles to facilitate its exploration of a terrible era.
Fleeting and lightweight, the puzzles are designed to illustrate the characters and setting rather than challenge you, and there are a few that stick in the mind. As German signal officer Kurt, you move a stethoscope receiver to eavesdrop on Allied conversations through tunnel walls; in a tender touch, the same mechanic is used later to check a little girl’s breathing after she falls unconscious. As Canadian war photographer Harry, meanwhile, you photograph scenes of frontline combat at the behest of a gung-ho officer, deciding which sights are most deserving of record. The puzzles are usually perceptible as puzzles, however, as ideas drawn from the history of videogames rather than mementos of the Great War, and many are generic. Among other things, you push crates around to clear routes, and pull levers to activate rope elevators. In this regard, 11-11’ s design feels at odds with its desire to create empathy for a forgotten reality: it’s hard to feel the impact of the shells when you’re embroiled in what is recognisably a fetch quest.
Then again, all this is perhaps to the purpose. Attempts to capture such events will always fall short, as gaps left by fading memories and patchy reportage are filled in by later artists, operating within different circumstances and somewhat at the mercy of their tools. We doubt they were intended as such, but the occasional awkwardness of 11-11’ s puzzles foregrounds its status as interpretation in a way that makes you better able to critique it – to appreciate how a wealth of period research has been chopped and arranged to suit the needs of a commercial artwork. The tension between reality and representation also informs the aesthetic, which eschews the hyperreal “immersiveness” of a Battlefield 1 for a dreamy play of brushstrokes across 3D geometry, inspired by Impressionist art.
Rather than wrapping texture maps around contours, the engine applies each brushstroke in realtime, making choices about thickness and density depending on the camera’s position: rather than fixing the past for contemplation, it suggests a past caught in the act of being fabricated. The results can be mesmerising. At No Man’s Land in Vimy, you roam a confusion of volcanic
colours sliced up by machine-gun bullets, the ground reddening underfoot like broken flesh. Elsewhere, the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower is swallowed by the pinks and violets of a winter sky. There is ugliness, of course, and not just the ‘gritty’, high-fidelity variety beloved of firstperson shooters. Underground areas are featureless smears of brown, and thinner objects shatter with proximity into wriggling ladders of brushstrokes. In an industry that worships at the altar of a realism more useful to graphics cards manufacturers than artists, there is much to be said for such imperfections and how they refuse to let the game’s artificiality disappear.
The plot’s chief means of deconstructing Great War myths is to show you the same events from two sides. Over five to ten hours you alternate between Harry and Kurt’s perspectives – two parallel journeys that eventually intertwine. If the idea of establishing common ground between opposing soldiers is extremely played out, and not helped here by a few hasty twists that strain credibility, the writing is strong enough to lift the game above mawkishness. The protagonists are separated not just by nationality but by age. Kurt is a father, Harry a boy unconsciously in search of one. Kurt entertains few illusions about what war entails, while Harry perceives soldiering to be a glorious adventure.
Each has a tense relationship with people back home. As Kurt, you must choose how honest you want to be in letters to an infant daughter. Harry, similarly, must decide whether wooing his sweetheart with rousing shots of the troops is more important than capturing the war at its worst. Each character has a companion animal who serves as both puzzle prop and an outside perspective on the conflict’s machinations and absurdities. As Kurt’s cat, you dart between Allied and German positions while screams and gunshots erupt behind you. As Harry’s pigeon, you witness the scale of the damage to the geography of France at a time when aerial photography was in its infancy.
If the worst part of war is the waiting, 11-11’ s writing is often strongest when it’s lingering on the mirth, grief and boredom of soldiers before and after the bloodshed. There are scenes aboard troop trains, and football games in POW camps. Harry is treated to a sojourn at the Parisian cabarets, where the loudness of the laughter betrays the agony beneath, while Kurt spends a few days on his farm between tours of duty, slicing bread as he strains to rekindle a sense of home. As a fable about war, the game’s most worthwhile quality is its naïve insistence that everybody you meet has some capacity for kindness, however warped by years of enmity. There are atrocities ahead but few expressions of hate, and many moments of generosity. Everybody is a victim of the whole, struggling for a toehold within a calamity that has taken on a life of its own.
Rather than fixing the past for contemplation, it suggests a past caught in the act of being fabricated