There have been, at a guess, more video games about war than there are stars in the universe and grains of sand on all the worlds beaches multiplied by each other and combined. Granted, most of these have been strategy and action games, using war, often historically “real” war, as a canvas on which to explore game systems built around combat. Ludically speaking, these have tended to fetishise aspects of war while being (I am generalising here) poor at narratively investigating broad-scale systems of violence. Enter 11-11 Memories Retold, the interactive narrative designed by Aardman Animations (yes, they of Wallace & Grommet fame), which sees actual violence relatively rarely and instead depicts most of its story as taking place away from the frontlines, focussing on arguably the less obvious and more personal horrors of war, e.g. illness, starvation, PTSD, loss and disillusionment. I admired the intent at doing something sincere and different and thought it would be worth a go. Alas, I’d be lying if I said it paid off.
We play as two opposing soldiers with intertwined fates: Harry the young Canadian photographer, and Kurt, the German farmer dad, following their stories from enlistment through to the armistice some two years later. The action cuts back and forth between the two characters at will, presenting the narrative in snippets of their lives cut from the many months they spend on and off the frontlines. Each segment is narratively framed by the protagonists addressing loves back home (hence the title “Memories Retold”). Most scenes are completed by the character in question performing some menial task, say finishing a simple fetch-quest or solving a (very) simple environmental puzzle. There’s also the occasional Telltale-ish action/narrative choice to make, to go along with some Telltale-ish quick-time-events.
The mood is about as sombre as you’d probably expect a serious game about World War 1 to be. Tonally, though, it’s all over the place – add some clunky gamification to the mix, and you have an experience that often borders on absurd. “Here, pull this lever that I am very clearly standing next to that I could clearly pull myself, but for some reason, I’ve come and got you to do it” a man pretty much tells Kurt in an early scene. “Now pull this one over here”. There is, throughout, something vaguely ridiculous about the mashing of these game tropes with the depressing subject matter, and there’s a whole layer of self-awareness missing which might have perfunctorily saved face. I could never quite get over how consistently jarring this felt, even while some later scenes (one in which Kurt searches a mass-graveyard for the possible grave of his son comes to mind) stick out as marrying the form, tone and narrative more deftly.
Here and there, you’ll feel like you’re engaging with the scraps of a Ubisoft design booklet – some levels/scenes have card games going on that you can join in on (sometimes you must, as part of the story) in which you’ll play a version of snap simplified to include only aces. It’s a weird concession to making an interactive world that somehow makes it even more brazenly mimetic. There’s also the odd collectible in the form of floating bits of paper littered around most scenes, encouraging you to explore the craggy corridors of your current level even at times that taking time to explore would not make the slightest iota of sense. If you complete a set, you get to read a bit of information about a facet of World War 1. Which, like, fine. But again, it’s a contemporary game trope that feels like it’s been shoehorned in because “this is what games are now”. But the way it makes concessions to codify itself as a “game” is only half the problem; I’m not sure where to begin imagining what a “successful” version of this would look like, or if it could even exist.
In the almost total absence of anything resembling humour, the sombre mood is balanced out with interspersed attempts at whimsy. On the one hand, whimsy is well-facilitated by the impressionism-like painterly art style (which is, by the way, stunning, and probably the strongest part of the game), and there are some sections where you get to play as a cat, which I’m also fine with because, well, at least it’s different. By the final third of the game, though, whimsy eats its way into the plot, completely derailing the sense of realism that we’d taken as part of the contract, creating a tonal mess of a whole different kind.
The writing is competent in a word-by-word sense, and the script is well-voiced by the two leads (Elijah Wood and Sebastian Koch), but I have so many broader issues with it. Largely, it forgoes the maxim, and all the telling gets in the way of the showing, leaving little for us to figure out for ourselves. The character motivations and narrative tensions feel cloying and cliched: Harry goes to war to impress a childhood sweetheart, while Kurt enlists to look for his son, whose regiment sustained heavy casualties. The truth is we’ve all heard these particular stories, if not in games, then in films, books, advertisements, museums, school, culture at large, whatever. I am not by any means a war-history buff, but there was not one angle, tale, moral, setting, even a sliver of background information that surprised me here. The medium doesn’t make the message less known.
And that’s the thing about 11-11 Memories Retold – should I expect to be surprised? Should I rightfully hope to learn something? Should I expect the medium to be used in a new way to make me think about things differently? Is this video game just not for me? Who then, is it for? I’m upset that 11-11 can be both so serious and so inane, so against-the-grain yet so grimly uninventive. I’m bothered by the feeling of myself being bored by this game when its earnestness and thematic content tells me that my entertainment here shouldn’t necessarily be the point. Where is my empathy? Why can’t I think of the poor soldiers, civilians, etc., the people who lived through this? I like that it tries to work against the video game paradigm of glorifying violence; I hate how it gave me the longest five hours of my life in the process. Press “F” for feelings and so on.