So Battlefield 5 is going to have a Nazi campaign. Called “The Last Tiger,” it’s super likely to put you in Tiger I for the duration. What easier way to keep a player from doing war crimes than by confining them to a tank, right? As such, a true FPS campaign that would follow the story of some German trooper in WWII remains an unreachable goal.
And there are many reasons for it.
Putting “fun” into “unfun”
But first, I have to say that I disagree with the statement that making an “unfun” German FPS campaign isn’t impossible. When people say “unfun,” they mean the whole narrative stuff that would tackle all the hard topics and hopefully show the sad (and deserved) end of The Third Reich. However, the meat and potatoes of an FPS game is shooting people, and that is not that hard to accomplish.
You’ll be shooting Soviets, Americans, British, partisans, maybe even other Germans (one of the most often presented ideas is to have the game end with a dash to surrender to the Allies – which would include possibly fighting diehard Germans who want to stop you). The whole narrative stuff – showing how pervasive Nazi ideology was in the Wehrmacht, war crimes, etc – bookends or interrupts it. So the game can definitely be a good, solid shooter, even if it’s not a happy story.
History is written by the defeated because we’re in a cold war with the other victors
But will it be good history? That is very hard to say – or implement. For one, to understand where the myths of Eastern front arise you have to know about the strategic situation of the Soviets. What may look as human wave assaults from the German soldier’s perspective is actually the result of communication breakdown between infantry and tanks. Or the tanks might have run out of petrol. Either way, it’s one of those things that are hard to translate into FPS gameplay without resorting to World at War style slide shows. Do it wrong, and all Wehraboos will be happy with an another game that feeds into their favorite “Asiatic Hordes” myth.
And those ingrained myths will cause one hell of backlash as they’re being torn down. For however little a Wehraboo (this is playful term for Third Reich fanboys) knows about history (and historiography) of World War II, Joe Doe, a guy on the street who’s not terminally online, knows even less. He might be dissuaded from trying the game simply because he read some “expert’s” article about how the game gets Tiger tanks wrong. So the studio would need to not only have the ability to deftly navigate history and mesh it with gameplay, but also to run a good PR campaign to boot.
Such a studio would also need to go for broke and really lay on the truth in the game to make it all worth it. Show Germans invading France with horse-drawn carriages. Make Panzer III bounce shells off the armor of inexorably advancing Matilda II’s. Have Panthers and Tigers break down. If you can manage to show the way Barbarossa ground German truck pool down, do it.
Depth? In my World War II?!
However, to really make changes, you need to go deeper. Show your soldier as a German youth drinking in the Nazi propaganda. Show his friends dragging him into atrocities. Add in some dude who thinks that Hitler isn’t going in hard enough. Show the damn penal units that inspired Stalin to make strafbats. Just strike truth at the myths and see the writhe.
If the developer is feeling really brave, they should do a “No Russian” level. Modern Warfare 2 already opened the Pandora’s box on the wholesale slaughter of non-combatants – you just need to package it more gracefully to have more impact. Have the play purge a village that you might have seen a level or two ago because partisans attacked your unit. Maybe those same partisans even killed a named character! Sure, the player might have the option of not shooting anyone, but there will be comrades in arms that will deride him from not doing so – maybe even outside the confines of the level.
Killing you, a Nazi
And heck, don’t be afraid to kill a character. Modern Warfare 1 was probably the first game that kinda unceremoniously whacked off a POV trooper. So have one of the Germans you’re following be wiped off the map in an Earth-shattering bombardment preceding Bagration. Have a fail-state where your player gets executed for deserting. Make callbacks to the early levels of triumphant march against the helpless enemy by making enemy rule the air by the end of the game (especially if the level is set against the Allies). Just don’t be afraid.
You can also amortize costs – and maybe criticism – by taking the CoD approach and having campaign follow soldiers from different armies. By which I mean, mix the German campaign with the Allied one. Sure, it’s an even bigger task to make it all narratively coherent and impactful. On the other hand, you already have the assets, so why not use them? Just, whatever you do, don’t make us play the Normandy landing again, unless it’s one of the “easy” British ones.
Yet in the end, we’re unlikely to ever see anything like it. The closest we ever came to a AAA game with goal to show “what really happened” was with Company of Heroes 2 – which ended up having a campaign that just reinforced all of the tired myths. And with the development budgets of AAA shooters being what they are these days, there’s no chance in hell that any developer would ever risk making a game that controversial. “Playing it safe” would be the worst route to take, but it’s the most likely one.
I guess we’re just doomed to storm Normandy again while some chode regurgitates crap from “Death Traps” in the background.