11-11: Mem­o­ries Re­told

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper Aard­man An­i­ma­tions, DigixArt Pub­lisher Bandai Namco For­mat PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Re­lease Out now

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

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