“At eleven o’clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible War that has ever scourged mankind.”, David Lloyd George, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, said regarding 11 of November 1918 (11/11)- the day an agreement came into to effect to finally end fighting of the World War I. Today, for many of us separated by age and geographical distance from this significant event, it can be easy to forget, or at least not fully understand, the truly devastating effect it had on the people of that generation. 11-11 Memories Retold takes on the arduous challenge of tackling this disconnect. It handles this very serious subject-matter by contrasting it with a visually beautiful fictional narrative adventure and it is while following two very relatable men from opposing sides that we are reminded not of guns, loss and victory but of friendship, love and loss – the very human effect of war. And while it won’t be for everyone, it succeeds in portraying this in a manner which exemplifies the wonderful power of video games as an important and expressive art form and is therefore definitely worth your consideration.
“….Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow”
From the first few frames to the final moments of 11-11, and now even after a period of time away from the game, the one thing that struck me again and again and will continue to stick with me is the wonderful art direction. Published by Bandai Namco, 11-11 is a joint Aardman and DigixArt Studio production. DigixArt aims to make meaningful games while Aardman is an Oscar-winning animation studio (Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run). And while the game is not in Aardman’s regular style, there is a hand-crafted feel everywhere. The game, rather than depicting a hyper photo-realistic world, chooses to show us the time-period on a canvas. Like an impressionist’s oil painting that is constantly on the move, you are quickly transported to that time. From place to place – an old quaint photography shop in Toronto Canada to an impressive Zepplin factory in Germany to the green-misted and disgusting WWI trenches – the artistic dream-like rendering draws you in. And it is definitely a case where still images do not do justice to the wonderfully artistic vistas in the game.
The wonderfully unique impressionist oil-painting art style and hautingly atmospheric soundtrack combine to contrast and accentuate the game’s powerful stories.
Accompanying this staggeringly beautiful art direction and style is hauntingly beautiful music. Olivier Deriviere composes the soundtrack for 11-11 and the music is performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Pinewood Singers. Across the game, the music plays a central role, dictating the tone and underscoring tragedy or joy. Usually, I don’t even notice these things in such detail, but right from the title screen while the main theme plays the music does an amazing job of building atmosphere. In fact, it is these two factors – the wonderfully unique art style and atmospheric soundtrack – that combine to contrast and accentuate the game’s powerful story.
“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
As is to be expected in this genre, the game is all about the story. The game follows two men, as they join the war in order to deal with matters of the heart: Harry (voiced by Elijah Wood) and Kurt (voiced by Sebastian Koch) – the latter who does a particularly great characterisation. Kurt is a middle-aged engineer. He works in a Zepplin factory, while his young daughter and wife stay home. His son and centre of his world, Max, is enlisted in the German army and soon his military unit goes missing. Compelled as a father, Kurt too enlists and is determined to find his son. Harry is a young photographer’s apprentice working in Toronto, Canada. Spurred on by his not-yet-confessed love for Julia (who is rather taken by men in uniform) and the cajoling of a returning and over-confident war hero, Harry also enlists for the Allies as a war photographer.
The game centres on the choices of these two men. For Harry, deciding who and what to photograph not only develops his character in one way or another but also slowly reveals the terrible truth of war. Kurt, in an effort to find his son, quickly finds himself part of the war machine in a way he did not intend to be. Compiling his letters back home becomes very important and choosing what information to include or exclude not only begins to define his character but once again reveals the sad truths behind life in a war zone. Following their hearts for very different reasons, they both feel compelled to move forward – but by doing so are concerned about the effect moving forward will have on them as people. In the words of Kurt: “I cannot live with doubt. I cannot deal with uncertainty. This is my path.”
The game centres on the choices and stories of these two men as the reality of war really puts their motivations, morality and conscience to the test.
Both men are staunchly not interested in the violence of the war. Because of this and their noble reasons for enlisting (as well as the propaganda they were exposed to prior to becoming involved), the reality of war on the front really puts their morality and conscience to the test. Despite feeling like not every decision carried the same weight, the situations and diversely motivated characters during the story do well in forcing you out of your comfort zone. This discomfort, though not always pleasant to experience as a player, does exactly what it intends to. The game wants to show you that once people had joined a war (voluntarily or otherwise) uncomfortable choices and decisions were forced upon them with no obvious better option available. Dealing with death, loss and terrible conditions in general really affected all involved. Putting you in the role of these men really provides a tiny glimpse of something none of us wants to experience, but should never forget.
“…An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;”
Being an adventure game it does require some action – moving around to explore the world, picking important objects up as well as some light puzzle-solving. Movement sometimes feels a little clunky, but in general, the game design is simple but effective. Puzzles normally follow the same pattern and may, therefore, feel a little repetitive, but I found them to be separated enough to not become overly cumbersome. The addition of dual-characters puzzles in which you must use both characters co-operatively also helps to break up any monotony in this regard. Collectables are hidden throughout the levels, and once a set is collected a non-fictional artwork, image or information from the WWI era becomes viewable. These collectables are completely optional but provide interesting historical information as well as an extra incentive for exploration and replayability. In general, the game ran smoothly but I did run into a small bug that had a few lines of dialogue being repeated for the remainder of the level sequence.
Movement sometimes feels a little clunky, but in general, the game design is simple but effective.
Despite clearly being aimed at a mature audience and dealing with mature themes, the game does not feel overly dark or traumatising. In part, this is due to the wonderful artwork and music mentioned above. However, what I really enjoyed about it is that (at least in my case and my decision tree) it tries to champion the good in people. Without getting into spoilery details, like a cat that makes friends with a bird rather than eating it, it is the fact that neither of these men has any interest in harming another person, that brings them together even when war makes them enemies and language separates them (The language barrier between players is indicated by text appearing in red). And it is this morality that affects the final outcome of the game.
“When it is peace, then we may view again
With new won eyes each other’s truer form”
It is the final decision that proves most important in the end, and after my first run through I can honestly say that despite not being happy with how everything ended I did feel my decisions matched my characters’ story arcs and therefore felt that the conclusion was fair. My initial decision-tree led to a very specific outcome, but you’ll be happy to know that I was able to see around eight different endings varying in a minor or major way to my own depending on the choices you make.
Being a narrative experience it is difficult to say much more without spoiling the experience. This game clearly sets out to transport you to a different time – a time of hideous war. However, it is never about trying to get you to feel engaged in that war (you never even have to fire a gun). Instead, it has been made to tell two very poignant and powerful human stories during a harsh and critical time in human history. Using a beautiful impressionist oil-painting-like world you will instantly feel transported and mesmerised by the beauty. Yet, like many of the men that entered the war with hopes of fame and patriotism only to be hit by the dark reality of war, the game is not shy to reveal that behind this charming exterior there lies a traumatic and heart-wrenching truth. It is in this contradicting place, that you will feel the need to make difficult decisions and ultimately learn more about the time, the people and maybe even a little about yourself.
You will find that despite the darkness there is always the possibility, of light, love, friendship and good. Ultimately, delving into the lives of the two men on opposing sides who enter the war for very human reasons and whose lives are deeply affected by each other and the war itself, is taxing, moving and as a narrative experience, poignant and worthwhile.