The Emotionless Death Throes of 'Battlefield V'

The freighted inspirations for a wounded soldier animation, and how they became trivialized in DICE's latest military shooter.

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Nov 30 2018, 8:08pm

Screenshots courtesy of EA

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

I’ve been playing Battlefield V regularly over the past few weeks. While I’m underwhelmed in a general sense, I can’t get a little element out of my head. When you’re downed, you have the opportunity to be revived by a teammate. A death timer starts, and you can either accept your fate and accelerate through your end or you can hold out and beg for somebody, anybody, to come for you. Your arms reach out, quivering, with hands that are grasping for someone to take them. You beg for your life. I’ve been thinking a lot about this.

Video games have this odd effect on video game fans. The mechanical transformation of something truly horrible in the real world (the headshot, the ten car pileup, the razing of a city) into a gameplay mechanic renders it inert. When something is transformed into a game, the entirety of gameplay culture is quick to assert that it means nothing. It’s just a game. They’re right, of course, or at least they’re right up to the point that representations of reality through different media do different things.

And I’m interested in what those quivering hands do. Because they make me feel, as Waypoint Editor In Chief Austin Walker might say, a way. You can develop a resurrection mechanic in a video game in a thousand different ways, and yet these chose the plaintive screams of the dying as the keystone of keeping the action going in the game.

We’ll roll it back a little, though, before we get there. Every time I get downed in Battlefield V and see that arm, I think about Vin Diesel. Or, rather, I think of Vin Diesel playing Private Caparzo in Saving Private Ryan and the kind of domino effect that his death starts spilling out into the film.

In the scene, which is a fairly famous one that is known far more for its sniper battle than Vin Diesel’s performance, Caparzo is shot while standing in the street. The scene plays out in a typical Spielberg way, with characters simply stewing and panicking slowly as our calm friendly sniper hunts down the dastardly enemy who has shot Caparzo. Meanwhile, Caparzo is reckoning with his own death, retrieving a letter from a pocket and holding it out to his companions who are hiding behind cover.

That wavering arm, trying to give them the letter, is a visual route directly to the hiding soldiers. The enemy sniper follows the line of empathy, or sympathy, or sheer sadness at the reality of death. In that moment, thankfully, our religious friendly sniper takes him out. They rush Caparzo. He dies. The scene ends.

The effects of Saving Private Ryan across video game culture are, at this point, probably incalculable. And in these small death animations where someone is holding out for someone, anyone, to come and save them, I think about Caparzo’s arm stretched out at the people in hiding.

I don’t think that’s a mechanic in Battlefield V, but I’m also not stopping to look. When a teammate is downed, the icon covers most of their body, and I am either rushing to their side or completely ignoring them because they’re still directly in the line of fire of the enemy who killed them to begin with. Similarly, when I down an enemy, I am not looking to see if they’re whipping around to plead with someone who could save them. I’m keeping my eyes trained on the writhing body so that I can take a life off any fool who is ignorant enough to step out to try to help them.

A young woman in a fur-lined coat stands looking determined in a snowstorm

In that sense, while Caprazo’s outstretched arm is something to be seen in the third person by the film viewer, the death animation in Battlefield V is meant to be experienced by the game player. The pleading screams and the reaching and the yearning are not for anyone else. They’re for you to sit with or to reject in your rush to get to another life. They are meant to be personal, but they’re also applied to everyone equally. We all die sometimes in Battlefield V.

In a war film, when we see a soldier die tragically, we’re being put into the shoes of the survivors. Saving Private Ryan is a film that relies almost entirely on the dramatic deaths of its unique characters to drive home Greatest Generation stories about both the heroism and the utter arbitrariness of war. It is a horror, but it is also a crucible. When the characters die one by one in a patterning that is basically identical to a slasher film, the group mentality is the one that the viewer is meant to identify with. We’re here, and the dead are not, and that is significant. This is how the war film works.

Battlefield V’s outstretched arms and grasping hands borrow from this tradition, but they can’t drive home the effect. They become uncanny, because we’re both the dying person and the witness to death. And, because of the way that games work, we’re also the survivor. We’re the backup that comes along to replace our own dead selves.

A first person screenshot from Battlefield V in which a character looks up at the sky on a snowy mountainside, hand out stretched, while a prompt at the bottom asks if the player wishes to bleed out or wait for a revival.

We get the visuals of death, the screams of death, and all of the things that are meant to communicate tragedy and sadness, and yet none of those things can land. Battlefield V borrows the language of cinematic death, but its very existence as a video game means that it can’t sell us on that language. We experience the tragedy, we witness the tragedy, and yet it is immediately buried in more gameplay.

The reaching arm and the grasping hand are hollow gestures. They’re the trappings of cinematic war sadness without anything to justify them. They’re reskins of a basic gameplay mechanic that fundamentally misunderstands what that kind of emotional moment is supposed to do, how it works, and so it sticks out like a sore thumb. I keep thinking about it because it accomplishes nothing, and within that realization, I think that Battlefield 1’s magical resurrection with a syringe is somehow more honest. The miracle is the same in both cases; at least Battlefield 1 had the honesty to acknowledge the absurdity of it.