11-11: Memories Retold is the Remembrance the First World War Deserves
At the premiere of 11-11: Memories Retold, hosted by the Imperial War Museum in London, paintings of the First World War were displayed; impressionist tableau, in the style of Monet or Renoir, that depicted scenes and images from the war.
However neither Monet nor Renoir painted the war, and most impressionists weren’t even alive at this time. The paintings shown were in fact images from the game. The portraits’ evocative angles; their illuminating light; their delicate painterly art style, made them virtually indistinguishable from actual impressionist classics that used to hang in galleries and exhibitions until the outbreak of the ‘Great War’.
11-11: Memories Retold is an upcoming narrative adventure game created by Aardman Animation, DigixArt and Bandai Namco, released to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice of 11 November, when the First World War ended. However it doesn’t remember the war in the way remembrance events typically do - it’s not some dry documentary stating the facts of the war, nor a ‘moment of silence’ which you’ll promptly forget. It’s a handcrafted piece of high art that engages with the war in an unprecedented way, both examining the horrors of the war and placing itself firmly in the canon of war art in a way that prompts audiences to decipher it, and their relation to it.
Several of the creators of the game spoke about the game: what they were trying to create with it, some of the novel artistic features it introduces to gaming, and how it can be used today to interpret a war that ended one hundred years ago.
The Art of 11-11: Memories Retold
The aforementioned painting/screenshot confusion was due to the game’s unique art style. It looks like a painting, evoking the impressionist style of art that was prominent up to around the time of the war. Eschewing the mantra that “games are art”, in 11-11: Memories Retold, art is a game.
The game’s art director Bram Ttwheam explained the unusual art style for a game was due to the fact “Aardman’s art is handcrafted” - the animation studio, famous for its Wallace and Gromit series, typically uses clay stop-motion to create its films. This game retains that handmade feel as all parts of it, from character models to settings and backdrops, feel as though they’ve been painted on canvas.
Some of the inspirations for the art style, according to Ttwheam, were Alexander Petrov (purveyor of the distinct paint-on-glass animation style), painters Claude Monet and J.M.W. Turner, and the recent animated film Loving Vincent. The relation of these inspirations is clear: similarly to the painters’ work, the ephemeral and evocative nature of the game's visuals leads the player to interpret what they see in their own subjective way. Whether this is a field of poppies, a gloomy trench, or a massive zeppelin factory, the player is drawn into the story and its atmosphere. Each character has their own signature colours, which enhances this impressionist outlook.
After Ttwheam finished explaining the artistic choice of the film, producer George Rowe countered it with an explanation of all the challenges that came with creating such an art style. The designers couldn’t just create a game with basic graphics then throw in brush-stroke visuals over the top, as this made the game too blurry; they had to be able to change for different objects the brush size, direction and length, as well as the shimmer speed, flow speed of moving objects and readability of the game, or else players wouldn’t know what to interact with.
Paintings represent artistic value: they hold the symbolic weight of the scene they depict, while letting a viewer interpret this weight as they see fit. The way they temper subjective views into experience is why they’re regarded as so profound today. However this comes with a complication: they’re not interactive, and it can be hard for a viewer not versed with painterly shorthand to understand the meaning of a painting, as the painting can’t deliver its ideas itself. So by turning 11-11: Memories Retold into a playable painting, the developers have combined the strengths of two different art forms - in doing so, they’re helping players explore not just the text but the subtext and orbital ideas contained within the game.
The Story of 11-11: Memories Retold
One of the most famous poems from the First World War is Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, which begins: ‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?’. His friend Siegfried Sassoon ended ‘The Last Meeting’’ similarly: ‘And youth, that dying, touched my lips to song’. To the artists and storytellers of the war, although perhaps not to all artists since, the war wasn’t about fighting but the humans it affected.
11-11: Memories Retold isn’t a story about the war but those who fought in it. In particular, it’s about a young Canadian soldier (voiced by Elijah Wood) and an older German soldier (Sebastian Koch), both with their own reasons for being at the front, who have a chance meeting. The narrative jumps between them, similar to the changing perspective of Grand Theft Auto V, to fit each level’s narrative.
The choice to explore both sides of the conflict is an interesting one - while artists are wont to describe their side as heroes and the other as villains, especially in the propagandistic and patriotic throes of the time, the choice to depict both sides of the war humanises the conflict.
Writers Stephen Long and Iain Sharkey spoke about delving deep into the annals of both the Imperial War Museum and the British Library to seek out human stories of the war - this can be seen clearly in the game, as all of the collectibles throughout are real documents, letters and photographs from the war. They spoke about how stories were passed down from the war orally, and through letters: newspapers were censored, and films and photography was done for propagandist intent.
Yet the writers also spoke about trying not to ground the story too far into the conflict, as the art style provided a natural dream-like feel. Instead, they opted to turn the story into a fable or parable, so the lessons of the war would resonate more readily with modern audiences.
This parable-esque magical realism can be seen most easily in the prevalence of animals in the game. Aesop’s fables were told through the interactions between anthropomorphic animals, and in 11-11: Memories Retold the furry and feathered companions of the main characters lend an insight into the themes and ideas of the narrative.
The way the writers focus their story not on the war but on the individuals within it emphasises the theme of remembrance that such a release date for a First World War game brings out - in engaging with, and existing between, the other humans in the war, we’re forced to understand what it must have been like to fight in the war.
The Music of 11-11: Memories Retold
Music in video games is, as music in films, merely a shadow of actual classical music: while the latter weaves a story, with tone, atmosphere and progression, the former tends to merely accompany a story that would be relatively unchanged without it.
There are very few scores in film or game that could be considered a work of art in their own right, but from the sounds of it, 11-11: Memories Retold’s score by Olivier Deriviere could join Ennio Morricone's work in reaching that height. Speaking of his score, he said “music should be more than just an illusion”, in that the score should be a fundamental part of the storytelling.
Even from Deriviere’s language, it became obvious that the game’s score wasn’t just a nice addition to the game but a fundamental part of its story, and also an artistic accomplishment in its own. He spoke of needing an orchestra so the score’s “colours” could be created, and cited famous impressionist composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy as inspiration. He talked about the minimal use of choirs in the instrumentation, at points where its addition divulged the music’s themes further. As he was correct to point out, the embrace of classical style and instrumentation, and thinking exhibited, is quite rare for a video game.
The score isn’t just a breath of fresh air for video game soundtracks, but a poignant way to remain in touch with the narrative of the game, as it paints an audible story that’s just as immersive as the actual story. Early pieces like ‘The Canadian Photographer’ uses allegro piano and woodwind instrumentation to portray the innocence and joviality of the character at that stage in the narrative; later ‘Life In The Trenches’ begins with adagio horns to emphasise the dour existence of the trenches, which contrasts the previous piece, though common leitmotifs are clearly audible throughout the score.
The way the musicality of the score is fine-tuned to reflect and drive the narrative helps a player engage with this narrative, throwing them in the trenches or no man’s land and evoking the explicit emotions just as well as any great story could. By engrossing the player in the narrative, and in the horrors of the war, the score doesn't just help convey the game’s messages but augments and expands on them.
11-11: Memories Retold as Remembrance
The game was envisioned when game director Yoan Fanise, from DigixArt, met a member of the Aardman team at a Games For Change event. Through the combined efforts of artists from a huge number of different disciplines - many of whom, Fanise noted, were working out of their comfort zones due to passion for the topic - 11-11: Memories Retold has been forged into a hugely important game.
The game hasn’t come out yet, and so we can’t say for sure how it’ll play out. Over the course of the 11-11: Memories Retold premiere rather little was shown of the actual gameplay itself, as the presentation focused on the artistic achievements that went into creating the game.
Game play-wise the game could be terrible, but it wouldn’t matter. The power of the game is in its evocative and astounding visuals, narrative and music, and the way these elements do justice to, and pay respect to, the horrors and victims of the war. Since most gamers know the First World War through action games like Battlefield 1, it’s important that other games record and retain the realities of the tragedy.
This was Fanise’s pitch when he introduced the game at the premiere. The game isn’t about the events and decisions that shaped the war, but the individual’s place in it, and the small-scale impact of the larger events. It’s about the experiences, perspectives, and trials of the war - both for the participants in it, and the developers making the game today; all of whom have some personal connection to the war as undoubtedly everyone in Europe does.
Through the combined efforts of Aardman, DigixArt and Bandai Namco, the game is shaping up to be an incredible artistic statement. The power behind an artistic statement such as 11-11: Memories Retold comes not just from the audience interpretation of such a work but from the choice to make such a statement at all. The passion, effort, and artistic achievement put into the game, regardless of outcome, is why it is such a powerful and important act of remembrance of the war and its centenary.
11-11: Memories Retold will be released on 9 November 2018 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.