I'd love to think that Battlefield 1 will prove a rare example of a big-budget video game capable of gracefully and respectfully handling difficult subject matter. I'm also aware it's bad form to pass judgement on a game before I've played it. But when executives from EA DICE walk onto the stage at E3, boasting about explosion and destruction effects, describing them as a "hallmark" of the Battlefield series, I find it difficult to believe Battlefield 1 is really interested in the history, significance and human tragedy of the First World War.
The Great War was certainly name dropped during the presentation, but I didn't hear any substantive mention of it. EA's presentation reminded me of Matthew McConaughey's speech after winning the Best Actor Oscar for playing Ron Woodrof in Dallas Buyer's Club. McConaughey didn't talk about Woodrof, the film's subject matter or the struggles of AIDS sufferers in the United States – he talked about himself.
As Battlefield general manager Patrick Bach concluded that, in Battlefield 1, "war has never felt so epic," I got the sinking, but inevitable feeling this game will always be more about DICE and its franchise than World War 1.
Then there's Jamie Foxx and Zac Efron, who looked about as comfortable as I imagine is possible whilst promoting a first-person shooter on the same day as the largest mass-shooting in recent American history. The pair was introduced to help demo Battlefield 1, or more specifically, to demo Battlefield 1's multiplayer. The fact that multiplayer, not single player – and certainly not anything story-related – was chosen to characterise Battlefield 1 tells us something. There's a feeling of detachment that comes as standard with multiplayer, that robs a game of the humanity it may well have in its story-led elements. By focusing on this part of Battlefield, the part it has long been known for, EA DICE draws attention away from having to depict the First World War with tact.
Again, I understand it's premature to judge a game so early, or even at E3 - when seemingly the worst excesses of the entire gaming industry can't help but bubble to its surface - but when making a game about the First World War, who in their right mind would recruit two A-list film stars to endorse it?
It seems backwards that Battlefield 1 is translating World War 1 into a virtual sport, and that its makers are apparently proud of it? Perhaps I'm criticising EA's presentation more articulately than it deserves: when you appear on-stage to discuss a First World War game and start boasting about how people will "engage in some of the biggest battles ever seen" as they "squad up in epic multiplayer matches with up to 64 players", that's just shamefully tasteless.
In short, I don't trust Battlefield 1. I don't trust declarations that DICE cares about the First World War as much as its own spectacle and name. I don't trust the game will make the most of its opportunity to put difficult, adult subject matter into video games, and I don't trust that World War One is anything more to this game than an aesthetic.
We've been here before, with Battlefield: Hardline. That was a game given every opportunity to interact with the real world, to chart thematic ground untouched by mainstream video games and attempt to debate police brutality, the war on drugs and institutional prejudice. Hardline was premised on all those topics, but in the end, either it ignored them entirely or discussed them in the simplest, most ignorant terms, coming across as the work of people who, having seen police shootings on the news, had only one thought: "Cool."
After E3, I find it hard not to see Battlefield 1 in precisely the same way. Its trailers are scored with thumping re-arrangements of Seven Nation Army, and No Limit by Wiz Khalifa; its premium edition, which offers a variety of bonuses and incentives, and was presumably conceived without recalling the amount of enlisted soldiers killed in World War 1, is named the "Early Enlister" pack. At E3, in front of the largest audience this industry can expect, this how video games - even though they're ostensibly undergoing some process of sophistication or maturation - process enormous human tragedy.