In the last thirty years, there have been (by my count) 59 games, mods, or betas featuring a setting from World War I, otherwise called The Great War. World War II, otherwise called the Second World War, boasts something like 257 of the same.
Ubisoft Montpellier announced last week that it would be doing its part to close the gap with a stylish Ubi-Art title (redundant, I know) called Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Although it reportedly focuses on the doomed love affair between a French maid and a German soldier during World War I, Valiant Hearts' real star is what looks like a stout German Shepherd. Players will control five different characters whose stories all intersect with the dog, notably the lovesick German soldier and the father of the French maid. And yes, there's an American, so there will be explosions in tow.
What struck me and other game journalists about this clever-looking title, though, was the decision to set it in World War I. According to Ubisoft Montpellier, the story pulls directly from war letters belonging to an old relative of one of the developers, so I can understand how the sentimental component, as well as the familiarity, strikes enough of a chord to prompt game development. If that's what it takes, then, where are all the other letters, and where are all the other World War I games?
For a war that's remembered with a Great moniker, it does see curiously little interest from the game development community, to say nothing of the motion picture industry. I've got a few ideas why that might be - some regarding practicality, other circumstance. Specifically, I'm comparing the dearth of WWI games to the abundance of WWII games; Korea and Vietnam are another question for another time.
Why are there so few World War I games?
1. Relative to WWII, it's old. And age bears many implications, like fewer records (paper and video), fewer artifacts, and fewer surviving veterans (zero in the States). With less information to go on, the guesswork starts piling up, and a developer making a traditional historic military shooter is left grasping for detail.
That's not to say that WWI battles are a mystery; West Point has us covered there. But game designers know that their battle is won and lost in canteen bullet holes, discarded German ammo crates used as makeshift cribs, and, of course, faithful rescue dogs. WWI accounts don't flesh out those details as readily as the annals of WWII memoirs.
Valiant Hearts seems to be avoiding this problem by just using the details provided (from the letters and historical records) and filling out the rest with a human drama. Between the source material and the art style, the weight of historical accuracy doesn't seem to rest so heavily on its shoulders.
2. Trench warfare was a desperate waiting game. The modern countries of 1914 were churning their way through a second Industrial Revolution at the beginning of WWI, a movement that found its way into the business of making war. Notably, WWI was marked by plane-to-plane combat, long-distance artillery fire, machine gun penetration, submarine warfare, and chlorine gas attacks. Infantry tactics and equipment hadn't yet evolved to match, so tactics on almost every front devolved into digging ditches, hunkering down, and sometimes charging into a wall of bullets and barbed wire.
From the humanitarian perspective, trench warfare is incredibly depressing. I can't imagine playing a game with that much unresolved tension, only released in a suicidal, frontal assault. Game designers probably see the same kinds of problems. If nothing else, it doesn't sound like fun, and military shooters haven't crossed the experiential gap boldly enough to take on the challenge that trench warfare presents.
3. Past behavior is an indicator of future performance. That is, out of the 59 games, betas, and mods featuring a WWI setting, none have a Metascore exceeding 81. Even then, Paradox Interactive was one of the only companies with strategy games (Victoria II) in this ring, and they account for two of the four scores I found that were 80 or above. It's worth mentioning because if producers want to avoid risk, then the WWI game market is only for steely production houses and exceptionally careful developers.
Strategy games have so far been the only genre to find real success in a WWI setting. The roster is littered with aerial combat games, mostly revolving around the Red Baron, and only a handful of shooters make the list. One promising WWI FPS, The Trench 1916, was in development up until sometime last year, at which point development either went into stealth mode or halted altogether. It's safe to say that Call of Duty won't explore The Battle of the Somme anytime soon.
4. The top-level narrative for WWI is complex. For Americans, WWII is a no-brainer; Pearl Harbor was attacked, the death camps revealed Nazi atrocities, and Hitler can't speak without yelling. Classic villainy that calls for classic heroism.
WWI began when an Austro-Hungarian Archduke was assassinated and Austria-Hungary intentionally overreacted, allegedly, because of industrial interests in Serbia, Russia's ally. Germany jumped in as an ally of Austria-Hungary, and then they did the France dance and the battle lines were drawn. America didn't even enter the war until it's final two years, and it entered because Germany was talking smack about America to Mexico and the UK was like, "Step OFF. Here's a telegram."
It's hard to see the great humanitarian plight between the political posturing, especially from the perspective of a world where Austria-Hungary no longer exists as a sovereign nation. On top of that, the victory at the Treaty of Versailles lacks the momentous uproar of a march on Berlin and an Allied flag flying from the top of the Reichstag.
It's not that WWI puts the "Wuh" in War - it's still the fifth most deadly armed conflict the world has ever seen, and it defined a generation of patriots and ex-patriots who would go on to give us the Thunderbird, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and the King Kong ride at Universal Studios. From the macro perspective, though, it's a tougher sell than "save the world from certain evil."
What do you think? Why has WWI gotten the shaft in gaming and WWII gotten the spotlight?