With the centenary of the First World War’s conclusion around the corner, the Imperial War Museum proved to be the perfect place to host a press launch.
A sombre silence filled the press room as a soldier, dressed in full British First World War uniform, addressed the audience. His 15-minute monologue set the tone perfectly as he recalled a conversation he had with his granddaughter about serving in the First World War. Surrounding the press room, abstract paintings depicting scenes from the battlefield were on display.
This was the launch of 11-11 Memories Retold – a game which follows the stories of two soldiers on opposing sides of the conflict, during the final two years of the First World War. Harry (Elijah Wood) is a young Canadian Photographer who joins the war effort to seek a new adventure while Kurt (Sebastian Koch) is a German engineer who has enlisted for the sole purpose of finding his son who is missing somewhere on the battlefield.
Bandai Namco are the publisher of this joint development by Aardman Animations and Digixart. Upon initial inspection, it seems strange that Aardman Animations, a studio renowned for their stop-motion animation, announced their involvement in this video game. These doubts about Aardman’s involvement were addressed by Daniel Efergan, Creative Director of Digital at Aardman Animations, who explains, “There are two questions which commonly occur; the first is ‘why are Aardman making a game?’ and the second is ‘why this game?’
“If you come behind the doors of Aardman, hang out with us, you’ll see that we’re a company of storytellers. We make stories quite a lot but what is less apparent is that we hold onto this storytelling so passionately that it sits right at the very top of our mission statement. We obviously love Claymation, stop motion, but not as much as story, not even animation. For us, it’s about constructing universes that people can fall into and create characters that people can relate with and ultimately telling stories that shift people and change people.”
Yoan Fanise, Creative Director of 11-11 Memories Retold, echoed Efergan’s enthusiasm for compelling characters and immersive worlds. He also elaborated on the decision to tell stories from both sides of the conflict, a narrative structure which is uncommon in games of the same genre, “This is something I really wanted from the start, the idea is to show the war from a human perspective and not a nationalist perspective. It was important to talk about both sides because when you read the letters and books of World War One, you discover that they experience exactly the same thing on both sides and assume that it is better on the other side. I would like the gamers to think about what it would feel like to go to war.
“I hope the players would question it a lot and if they had to face someone that they had to kill, would they able to do it? Even in modern warfare, people are going back from any new conflict and they are traumatised in the exactly the same way from 100 years ago.”
Writers Iain Sharkey and Stephen Long, best known for their work with Derren Brown, were tasked with the challenge of creating two unique, yet interwoven, stories as the player experiences war from Harry and Kurt’s perspectives. Intensive research was carried out to ensure that the game’s narrative was a true a reflection of soldier’s experiences within the trenches as Sharkey explains, “We spent our first chunk of time on the game between the Imperial War Museum and the British Library, trying to make sense of the ideas that were there and trying to work out what type of story we wanted to tell with the building blocks that had been provided.”
Painstaking attention to detail was taken during the development process with the team studying a vast array of artefacts recovered from the battlefield, these artefacts appear as a series of collectables which can be found throughout the game. Some of the development team even ventured to the trenches in northern France to gain some first-hand experience and a better understanding of Harry and Kurt’s living conditions.
Narration by Elijah Wood and Sebastian Koch helps to bring Harry and Kurt’s respective thoughts to the forefront of the narrative. Both characters speak about the war from different perspectives, reflecting their unique experiences from within the same conflict as Long notes: “Narration gives you a great sense of intimacy with the characters but also gives you that sense of unification when dealing with those vast periods of time at different locations.
“We realised we needed very specific things from the narrative voices. With Kurt, the German engineer, you hear his voice in a series of letters home from his wife and daughter and that was important for us because we wanted to track his mental state which changes as the game progresses. Harry tells the story from the end of his journey, looking back, which brings a sense of experience which counterpoints his naivety.”
Deep, personal narration was not the only element in the game’s development which created a shift in the status quo from other games of the same genre. In an age where game developers all seem to be competing to create the most true-to-life graphics, 11-11 Memories Retold utilises an art style that is unprecedented from its competitors. With every frame designed to look like a living painting, the painterly effect gives the game an abstract and dream-like look.
This, combined with other influences, assisted Sharkey and Long in understanding the tone which best compliments the game. “Some of the first things we saw were the amazing artwork by the art team, we immediately thought it had a dream-like quality to it and led us down the route of wanting to tell a story which was more of a parable or a fable than a gritty wartime drama in the hopes that it would resonate with more people across the board,” says Sharkey.
“Tonally, a couple of reference points for us were Watership Down or Where the Wind Blows which have a real melancholy and a sense of heart-warming bleakness, which we thought would be a really good thing to pursue for 11-11. We also wanted to instill a sense of adventure into the game. In the early stages we talked about the work of Hergè and the Adventures of Tintin, which had a real-world sense of adventure to it and only now and again steps over into the realms of pure fantasy.”
Those who viewed the 2017 film Loving Vincent will notice similarities in the art style. Works by Van Gogh and Monet’s are cited as sources of inspiration for the art style of this game however, replicating this effect within a video game engine required a large amount of technical trial and error according to Yoan Fanise. “When you try to do something new like this, the painterly effect, it can be very challenging. It looks ugly for a long, long time so you have to make sure that the whole team keeps believing that it can work until the moment when it works.”
Admittedly, the painterly effect does take some time to adjust to. Initially, it also feels unusual to play a game of this genre without being able to shoot. Compelling voice acting, alongside a gripping narrative, serves to keep to keep gamers sufficiently entertained as they follow Harry and Kurt’s respective journey’s. Utilising collectable items keeps the gameplay fresh and encourages the player to replay the campaign upon completion. These collectibles also provide historical facts and information, allowing gamers to learn the deeper context of the scenarios which Harry and Kurt will encounter throughout the campaign.
Even though this is not Aardman’s debut into the world of video games, it is certainly their most poignant and prolific. This game serves as a tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice a centenary ago to ensure our freedom today. Harry and Kurt’s stories are a compilation of letters, memories and souvenirs from soldiers on both sides of the conflict. However you spend the 11th November, one thing is for certain, we will remember them.
11-11 Memories Retold will be released on PC, Xbox One and PS4 on Friday 9th November 2018, priced £24.99
James Dyer attended the launch on behalf of MyM.
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