With the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War taking place this week, the game serves as a sobering view of war and monstrosity that it is.
Towards the final months of World War 1, a photographer named Harry jovially joins the war effort largely to impress a girl, with little to no comprehension of what he’s getting himself in to. While across the world, Kurt, who knows full well the reality and horrors of war, is nonetheless driven by a need to discover the fate of his son, Max, who was fighting on the front line and thought to be dead. 11-11: Memories Retold – a third-person, story-driven adventure game – follows the intertwined stories of Canadian photographer Harry, played by Elijah Wood, and German engineer Kurt, played by Sebastian Koch, as they join the war effort.
As soon as you start the game the most arresting thing about it is the art style. Rather than aiming for the photorealism of many games, 11-11 uses a stunning, smudge painting-esque style inspired by impressionism which truly gives the game a look and feel quite unlike anything previously seen before. It feels like you’re walking through a living, breathing painting which is constantly being filled in around you as you traverse the scenery.
The animations created by Aardman and the top-tier voice acting mix together to help make a fantastic and rich narrative experience, shedding light on a subject which is both universally known and widely misunderstood: The Great War. The phenomenal animation really shines through in the more scripted moments of the game but unfortunately wears thin when the gameplay kicks in.
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One of the most gripping moments comes near the very beginning, where both Harry and Kurt decide to join the war. As they go through this thought process the game seamlessly switches you between the two characters until both end up signing up at the exact same point in the plot. It’s a wonderfully orchestrated scene and a fantastic story-telling device which lends itself well to the game overall. From a gameplay perspective, it clues you up to how the game is going to play out, easing players into the experience and letting you know exactly what this game is going to be doing.
The main story of the game is told beautifully. At the start of each act you choose which character to play first and then as you progress enough you switch over to the next one continuing the story. When playing as Harry, you mostly take photographs and interact with the man who convinced him to sign up: Major Barrett. The larger than life general acts of a typical ‘For Queen and Country!’ moustached man who oozes British-ness and is seemingly unfazed by the conflict. On the German side, Kurt’s story is a lot more sobering and emotional as it sees you pen heartfelt correspondence to your wife and search seemingly in vain for word of your missing son who, you learn, was fighting at the Somme.
11-11 plays like any other third-person adventure game you’d expect, and this is perhaps it’s biggest flaw. Being taken from gloriously animated scripted sequences in the story, to then devolving into what is essentially a point-and-click adventure/puzzle game as you start each scene greatly slows the pace of the story. You can talk to your fellow soldiers for some more immersion – but since they are just painted blobs with no discernable facial features, they lack any emotional punch to the player in the long run.
Each act and scene have several collectables which pose simple puzzle solving tasks. You search your surroundings (very slowly) and these collectibles, once you’ve found the set, give you historical information and context of the war. But they are rather hard to spot due to the art style, and it almost doesn’t seem worth the hassle. You can of course ignore them and solely press on the with the story, but that leaves players either giving up on any hope of completing the game, or forcing them to trudge through an experience that feels more like a chore than anything else.
There are other action scenes though, one moment which really stood out was when Harry first goes over the top and charges across no man’s land in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, where Kurt is stationed in the trench’s opposite. These stunning streaks of yellow machine-gun fire storms past you as you rush forward with your comrades and it’s a veritable feast for the eyes. At first blush, it’s certainly harrowing and stunning, but once you scratch the surface a little bit, it doesn’t quite convey the feeling of dread and urgency that the game wants you to feel. You can essentially just stand totally still, in no man’s land, and be perfectly safe from any harm as this massive conflict rages around you. It’s the moments like this that make me think the game would’ve been much better suited as an animated film.
11-11 is, more than anything, a masterclass in storytelling. The game does a fantastic job of connecting you emotionally with its two protagonists in a way seldom seen in a game before. Harry and Kurt are opposites, yet they find themselves dragged into these certain moments which lead them to meet, and despite being at war, save each other’s lives. It says a lot about the invisible thread of humanity that links people together, regardless of the situation they find each other in. Once they meet, they work together to get to safety and in the process, against all odds, become friends.
It felt that the two characters were allegories for every soldiers in the war because most of them would’ve had similar stories: a girl to get back to, a family to provide for, coping with the war and trying to live with it even when away from the war, and it's something that is perfectly distilled into these two characters. But it’s this style of storytelling which really helps the game get over the sometimes dull and tedious parts of actual gameplay.
There’s something to be said about video games being experiences more than anything and it’s clear to see what Bandai Namco were trying to accomplish in this regard, but it feels like they missed the mark by a sliver. Games like Battlefield arguably show war time for what it is: a bloody gunfight between two sides, and this is where 11-11 tried to differentiate itself from that with your characters not firing a gun throughout the entire game. But that to me, comes off as trivialising war. War is a machine that drags everyday people into conflict where they are faced with the most monstrous side of human nature and trying to give World War I, where the total number of military and civilian casualties was about 40 million people, a manicure so to speak, doesn't really translate very well into this game.
Along that vein of thinking, a by-product of this game is to educate people on World War 1 and show that, while it is bloody and horrific like other games depict it, there is another side to that story. A story of friendship in the face of adversity, of keeping your humanity and not blindly following orders. To this end, producer Lovisa has said that they want this game to be shown in schools.
If what you’re looking for is an immersive and educational look at World War 1 then this is definitely the game for you as it expertly brings a splash of colour and humanity to something as inhumane as war. However, if you’re looking for action and shooting with your story, you might want to look elsewhere.
While 11-11 Memories Retold is an ambitious project with fantastic story-driven narrative and outstanding visuals, it really lets itself down with sub-par gameplay elements which ultimately end up detracting from the overall story.
It has a lot of heart and it is powerfully significant considering we’re coming up to the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1 and it helps to show this period of our history in a different light with a serious meaning.
Hopefully Bandai Namco will continue to create games like this, as with more time and polish they could be on to something truly phenomenal.