DICE's Eric Holmes On How Battlefield V's Single-Player Tackles Tone, Accuracy, And The Moral Issues Of WWII Games
I recently had the chance to play a couple of hours of Battlefield V’s single-player campaign, which returns to the “war stories” format of Battlefield 1. For some quick impressions of what these new stories are like, as well as what’s changed this time around, check out the latest episode of New Gameplay Today.
I also had the chance to interview Eric Holmes, the design director behind Battlefield V’s campaign. We had a long chat about how the team at DICE tries to alter the tone of its various war stories while not being disrespectful, how it handles the weighty issues that underline WWII games, and post-release fact-checking, dubious or otherwise.
This interview was transcribed by interns JP Gemborys and Jill Grodt.
With a lot of the war story stuff, obviously you have been shifting with Battlefield 1 and V towards the anthology format. What has been the overall reception to the switch?
The feedback that I’ve seen is very positive, in that people like that there’s diverse – kind of – voices in it. You know, there’s multiple tones and styles. One of the things I was worried about when we were making BF1 was that there would be a favorite one and that there would be a best one and then there would be a worst one and everything would be sorted in between. But one of the things I found, much to my surprise, is that didn’t happen. People had different favorites. And it’s – I guess it’s almost kind of like favorite ice cream kind of a thing where there isn’t a best ice cream and there isn’t a worst one, but there are different ones.
And that was kind of the stand out thing for us. I think it helped us with authenticity as well because then, you know, it’s very unlikely if you took all the events of BF1, like a guy drives a tank through the frontline. Guy’s an ace fighter pilot. Guy is a horsemen with Lawrence of Arabia, guy is a runner in Gallipoli and then lastly he’s an Italian mountaineer. You’re like “who did all that?” No one.
So, I mean, I guess that World War I James Bond could go through all that stuff, but then it starts to feel kind of weird and –
That there’s one person that gets to do everything.
Yeah, so then you’d end up either doing one of two things. You find a way for it to be different people, or you have to find a way to charm your way through that story. It ends up becoming a bit more like Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes or something like that, where I guess it’s like, he can go anywhere and be brilliant with stuff, but he’s a very unusual person. And he’s special.
The other thing that set a lot of the war stories apart were the gameplay elements of, here’s your tank story, here’s your pilot story, and here’s the regular foot soldier story. Is that the approach you are taking to help new players get introduced to how a tank controls, here’s how a plane controls, here’s tackling different objectives. Is that the starting point?
It wasn’t the starting point, no. It is a benefit to the approach that we’ve got in that. Someone can play a tank and not worry about people trying to nail them with dynamite from some corner next to the spawn point. And they’ve got the time to let it breathe and they can feel like they’re in control. But it wasn’t where we started. I think it was more about mapping out, okay, what territory does Battlefield encompass? It’s got planes, it’s got tanks, it’s got foot soldiers of various different types of kits, it’s got these other mechanics it’s introducing; it’s going to these locations, okay. What are some interesting ways to kind of focus on one to three of those things at a time? And, okay, there’s some fantasies that pop out of that. Cool, all right, but that’s one way to kind of map the needs.
And the other way was to go, “Hey, forget all that for a moment. Let’s just throw up interesting stuff we know about World War II or we found as we dug around.” It could be things based off classic maps or experiences you’ve had in like “Hey, that could be a really awesome story about attacking Wake Island, because that was a favorite map. Okay, what do we know about Wake Island? Not much, let’s go and research that. Okay, is there a story there? Probably is.” In this case, we didn’t do anything with Wake Island because we’re not touching that area of the war right now, but you could absolutely see a valid story popping up or something like that.
And then it can kind of come down to shaking [that] down to, “Okay, these are some ideas that we’d like to kind of compile together and they’re complimentary,” and then looking at what [the multiplayer team is] doing and then there’s a bit of horse-trading. “Well, we’d really like to do this Norwegian thing with skiing – is multiplayer going to Norway? Because there’s no point in us doing it if you’re not going to Norway – oh, we do want to go to Norway. Okay, cool, that’s a win, okay let’s cement that one.” And then there were other ideas, which we're like "I'm really passionate about doing this thing! What do you think, multiplayer?" "We're not going to do that." Okay then, there's not much benefit to that then, I'll put that in the vault.
Looking at some of the stuff from Battlefield 1, what were the biggest takeaways from the community in terms of feedback? Like we want more of this, we want you guys to move more in this direction, or here's something we'd like you to do for the next game?
I think people liked the characters from different countries, and that definitely became sticky and led to us go, "Okay can we take that a step further; can we go into languages and try and see if we can go deeper on it. People did like the fact that there were different tones to them. I think it would be kind of a weird set of war stories if it was four funny World War II stories, or four super dark World War II stories. You have to kind of push that stuff around and I think, again that's another thing why people like other ones. Like what's your favorite Marvel movie? There isn't a best one necessarily, but people like different ones for different reasons.
When you're trying to go for those lighter tone stories, what do you see as the limit? How do you balance ideas like, "We want to make sure this isn't like our other stories, but we don't want to make light of the fact that these people are at war?"
I think you're touching on the bones of it there. So if it's kind of a total offering, you want to make sure that, you know, let's say this table represents everything and these four quadrants. The darker this one is, maybe the other one that's lighter needs to be lighter to pull the center of gravity around. The more closed maybe this one is, maybe the more open this one needs to be, because there's an overall kind of sense of how we want to measure where it goes. And people cried at some of the stuff in Battlefield 1. They found it very emotionally powerful. And I know I definitely laughed at a bunch of the stuff in Battlefield 1, and I've watched a bunch of streamers that play it too and watch how they react, so that's an interesting new world with Battlefield 1, getting to watch people play the game online.
We don't want to be disrespectful to the people who fought the war. That is an absolute line for me. I think it's about respecting the events, and then exploring what it would be like to fight there and then trying to find a way to realize that in a way which is compelling within that offering. So, for example, the most outrageous one in this game is definitely “Under No Flag,” and the reason that can be outrageous is the people who fought in the [Long Range Desert Group] and the SAS and the [Special Boat Service] were outrageous, and if you go and read up on those people, there's amazing stories of these people doing incredible, daring feats.
A good one is a bunch of SBS guys land on a beach, they're walking up and some Italian soldiers spot them and shout at them, and they just wave back. And one of them shouts "Hello!" in Italian, and the soldiers wave back and they go back to their canoes and they leave. There's cases of them going into bases and getting caught in spotlights, and then just waving at people or walking away. And then people don't know what to do. They were like, "He can't be an enemy; there's no one around here. Plus, he didn't shoot at me."
Another good one, is SAS guys who went into an air base, blew up all these Stukas and then went and hid behind a hill. The next day, the Germans fly in all their replacement planes. The next day, they walk back in, blow up all those ones and then leave. So these guys are really, really cheeky characters who are very independently-minded and larger than life. It was easy to get inspired by these people and then, "How do we realize that?" I think Mason is a really interesting character along those lines; he's just he's so much larger than life. It feels appropriate for him.
One of the war stories is coming post-launch. Are you planning to change anything up for that last one. Do some stuff that maybe you weren't able to do in the campaign proper?
I don't think so. I think that the reason we've pushed the date in the first place was to make everything as good as it can be. We really want to make these things shine, and push for quality. So it's not like – I'll be ridiculous for a second; this is intentionally ridiculous – but it's not like we're trying to sneak swastikas in after the launch because they weren't allowed before or something like that. It's just that we want to make everything good.
It feels like there's going to be a lot of post-launch content. Do you feel like you guys have enough there to satisfy people at launch versus over the course of time post-launch?
That's a tricky one, because I'm only allowed to talk about what we're showing here today. I think that the Tides of War will be a really interesting offering for people. And I think part of what Tides of War will be, will also be a relationship with the players, seeing what they want to have and then hopefully delivering that. But in terms of talking about future war stories type content, I can't talk about that today, unfortunately.
How malleable is the post-launch content to community feedback? How much are you looking to change your approach to post-launch content based on what players say after they get their hands on the game?
That's not really my department, unfortunately. But we want to have a strong relationship with our players. And we want to give people what they want. We'd be stupid to not give them what they want, right? But so, as to how much control - any particular forum or medium has - I could not tell you.
How much do you look at the stories that might have inspired a lot of these narratives and how they happened in real life versus altering those things to fit the game?
I think we tried to leverage stuff wherever possible. I’d love to give you an example if I can think of one. I know one we found, but ultimately didn’t do. It was great, and I would have loved to have done it. There is an interview with a surviving SAS member, which was beautiful. He was a super young guy – I think he was 21 or something – and he was a navigator. So, he would drive the jeeps at night over the desert with no features. He would navigate, I think, by the stars. I think he was in the same car with David Stirling – who was the founder of the SAS. Stirling was complaining to him saying, “How close are we to the objective? We should be here by now!” The guy just literally stopped the jeep and said, “Well, I think we should be here.” And as he stopped the jeep, all the lights came on in the runway in front of them and then a plane came in and landed. That was like a movie moment, it was incredible.
So, we tried to find anecdotes like that, as we go, that we can leverage and realize because they’re often so much better than what you can make up. If someone also says, “That’s bull****, that never happened,” you can say it did, and it was him, and it was here. That’s kind of a beautiful thing when you think about it.
The campaign I was playing through before we started was the French campaign, "Tirailleur," which – beyond the cultural aspects – there is a racial undertone, even in that first cutscene. They were talking about how things were different for them here as black soldiers. How do you look at these racial issues during World War II and also think about the climate under which this game is going to release?
I’ll start with some fairly recent history. If you go and you search former President Francois Hollande, he, two years ago, granted citizenship to 28 Tirailleurs – surviving soldiers today. There is a national apology as part of their national discussion. They erased these soldiers from history. Many of the Tirailleurs were promised that they would have citizenship and they would have full pay, and they would have full pension, and they got screwed out of almost all of it. Before France was completely taken back, many of them were shipped out of the country and then they were told they were only going to get a fraction of the pension because it’s worth more than you need in your country.
There was at least one very significant revolt in which a bunch of people were killed. There were surviving ones that stayed in France but weren’t granted citizenship. So, there’s a whole national issue there in France which is officially acknowledged but it feels like only recently has reached more of a mass awareness. So, it’s not only historical, but it’s also kind of contemporary in its nature right now.
Is that something that you are looking to actively do? Find allegories between what was going on in World War II and what’s going on today?
I’m not sure if I should speak about that. If people find things in the stories that make them think about stuff, that’s good. I do love that people will go off and research things. They’ll go and look on Wikipedia. We saw a lot of cases after World War I in Battlefield I where we even had teachers reaching out to DICE saying, “We’re really happy you guys made this game. People are suddenly much more interested in history and they’re taking books out of libraries about this war.” That’s a great thing.
Did you get a lot of “well, actually” from people who – well you know...
The funny thing is, I did see stuff on forums where if they had done so much as Google their claim, they would find that they’d hit bedrock of truth again. Like, some guy posting, “There were no American volunteer pilots in the Royal Flying Core!” Google it. You’ll find the first hit you’ll get is about the American volunteers in the royal flying core in Battlefield I are guys who flew in a squadron, flew Bristol fighters – which is the fighter that we used – and their unit motto is one of our section names, as well. It’s fun when people put their foot in their mouth like that. [Laughs]
How do you – as a company – respond to that kind of stuff? I imagine that maybe one or two of those picked up traction as a “glaring inaccuracy” and you would have to back up with how that claim is actually wrong.
You know what’s fantastic? The community self-corrects. People will pillory someone like that going, “Nope, you're wrong. Here’s a link. I’ve proven it.” So, we have a really passionate community with Battlefield. I think there are people out there who like to yell, “Everything sucks!” But there are a lot of people who love Battlefield. I guess, if we didn’t base it on something, everyone would yell, “That sucks!” There are fairly easy things to go and search for and find and find that kind of grain of truth.
Do you have a particularly weird example where a person was completely incorrect and it was really satisfying to have someone come in to correct them?
No, there was one I watched for. I did expect to see people after, “Nothing is Written,” in the Lawrence of Arabia episode, for people to say that women didn’t fight with Lawrence of Arabia. But they did! And we found a particular case where there was women who joined with him to fight the defense around Petra. You know, that place in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where they go in…
I haven’t seen the movie, I’ll confess.
Oh, well that’s Petra. So, Lawrence fought a defense at Petra with a great number of women from the local villages. That’s where we pulled our protagonist from. She was one of the women that was there and assumed to have lost her husband she dedicated herself to fighting with Lawrence.
Looking at a lot of different topics you’ve covered, do you ever look at different ways you can portray them? When you look at what you have done with Battlefield 1 and then you move forward into V, do you think about a different theme? A lot of it is “war is hell,” but do you want to tell – not just another war story - but a coherent message?
You’re talking about growing principles across all of them? An editorial kind of message?
In one game versus another. Do you have an overall takeaway you want from players?
Yeah. How much can I say without – because some of that stuff you should just get from the material, shouldn’t they? You shouldn’t necessarily… I think, it is a little on the nose but if you look at the prologue, there is a statue. The very first thing you see in the prologue is the iconic image from the end of our last prologue with the two soldiers pointing their rifles at each other just before they load. At the base of that statue, there is a quote. The quote is: “The sins of the Fathers will be visited upon the children.” I think going into World War I, there was a mental image of “We are going to another war.” At some point that became “The Great War.” And at some point, that became “The war to end all wars.” Then [the war] ended and another one happened, and I think that people couldn’t believe it was happening again saying, “Did we not learn anything last time?” [That’s] a theme, I think. And what suffering that brings by not learning is a theme.
Speaking to that, how do you look at this thing that is supposed to teach you that war is bad but what you’re doing throughout the game is using weapons of war to kill other people. How much do you reflect on having those conflicting messages?
I think that’s great. If you fight and it’s just points and score, that’s one thing, but I think having an emotional and a philosophical depth to it, is fantastic. I hope people like it and get something from that. I guess the “anti-vision” for it would be feeling like someone is standing behind you and wagging their finger and thinking you're terrible for enjoying this, which is not what we want to create. I think, if you think more about war and you reflect on humanity and humanity’s relationship with conflict, that would be a victory.