I happened to be in London back in 2014, just a few days before the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One. And while I was there primarily as a tourist, the group I was traveling with was drawn to the Tower of London that day. There were dozens of volunteers on the grounds, and they slowly planted a field of red, ceramic poppies. Thousands of flowers wreathed the Tower of London, and thousands more were yet to be added. Eventually 888,246 poppies would fill the grounds: one poppy for each British military death during the Great War. As I looked across that sea of red, something struck me deep in the chest. Where I was from, I don’t think we looked at World War One as anything more than an “important” part of European and world history. But as the reverence held within that art installation began to grow inside me, my perception of the conflict and what it meant to the world as a whole began to change. I would carry that image, thousands of souls immortalized in clay, with me for a long time.
Four years have passed since that day, and the world now celebrates the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day: the end of the Great War. In tribute to the centenary, Digixart and Aardman Animation released 11-11: Memories Retold. 11-11 is the story of two men, Canadian photographer Harry and German technician Kurt, who join the war effort. With a focus on narrative and character driven action 11-11 takes on the Great War in a very human way that strips away any kind of gunplay or combat that is found in many other games that try to capture the feeling of WWI.
Harry and Kurt are both drawn to the war for very different reasons. As a young photographer, Harry initially joins up so he can partake of the perceived glory of the war, whereas Kurt quits his job in a zeppelin factory so he can enlist and find his missing son, Max, whose unit has gone MIA. The protagonists are very different men, but are ultimately very relatable characters with realistic motivations. Harry becomes the field photographer for his unit under the command of the bombastic Major Barrett, while Kurt becomes an engineer so he can work on the very radios that might bring news of his lost boy. The player chooses which character they’d like to start each chapter with, but the story frequently jumps between both characters and ultimately both sides of the war.
Gameplay is fairly straightforward. As Harry, players take pictures of various examples of day to day life amongst the troops (often photographs promoting Major Barrett’s war efforts). Kurt has to fix broken equipment, most often radios, in the form of very basic puzzles built around connecting various parts to each other. The occasional environmental puzzle or minigame crops up from time to time and while they often punctuate important moments in the narrative, like when Harry accidentally puts on a performance in a Parisian cabaret, or when Kurt tacks down ammo in the midst of battle, these activities are often as simple as timed button presses or shuffling a few boxes around to create a path.
At certain points of the game, Harry and Kurt are able to send letters back to their loved ones. Harry gets to send some of the photos he takes to the girl he left behind in Canada, and Kurt writes letters to his wife and young daughter The photos and details you share in each letter change the narrative in small ways, but finding some of the topics Kurt can write about proved to be a little difficult. Later in the game Harry and Kurt gain animal companions in the form of a pigeon and stray cat respectively. These pets spice up gameplay a little bit, especially the sections where you play as the cat. The cat is primarily used to uncover secrets or dislodge objectives that are out of reach for the human characters, but leaping around the world as cat is pretty entertaining on its own. Collectables are scattered around each chapter with some being easy to find and others requiring small puzzles or specific actions to be taken. The collectables provide some more historical information on the time period, but other than that there’s not much in the way of extra content. Very occasionally there would be slight hiccup with the game, usually nothing more serious than an npc getting forever stuck on a bit of the environment and I certainly encountered no bugs that impeded gameplay.
While the gameplay is a little lacking, 11-11: Memories Retold more than makes up for it with the art and story. Visually, playing the game is like walking through a living impressionist painting; the world is colorful and the various environmental details blur together in a way that mimics some of the most famous of impressionist pieces. While this art style makes still moments like looking out over Paris or gazing out at a vast cemetery visually pop, the game in motion is undeniably impressive. The swirling clouds of a thunderstorm become as beautiful as they are threatening; the bright, spiraling glow of machine gun fire cuts across the battlefield in a jarring, troubling way. 11-11: Memories Retold’s art breathes a sense of character into every moment, every image. Little details, like different colored subtitles for languages a character can and cannot understand, add to the overall atmosphere of the game
The tale that the game tells starts off simply enough: a boy goes to war to woo a girl. A man strikes out to find his lost son. But very quickly, the backdrop of war begins to test the protagonists. Told in three acts, the story takes place over the last two years or so of the war, and the game slowly counts down the months, the days, and even the seconds until the Armistice is reached. Both Harry and Kurt experience the horrors of war in both subtle and gut-wrenchingly obvious ways. Their fates intertwined, both men provide real human connections to the Great War and their stories come across as real and meaningful as any other war story I’ve seen A fantastic voice cast led by Elijah Wood and Sebastian Koch also helps to add a real sense of realism and impact to the story.
Every now and again a game comes around that asks the question: can videogames be considered art? I think it can be difficult to craft a game that is both fun to play and is interesting as an art piece. To me, 11-11: Memories Retold accomplishes that in most regards.. While the gameplay isn’t particularly thrilling, more often than not it still services a well-told story in a gorgeously realized game. There were several moments that took me back to the clay poppy field in London; a videogame drew out the same sort of emotion as sprawling, impressive art installation because it is a sprawling, impressive art installation. 11-11: Memories Retold is just as evocative as the war that inspired it and is an experience I think should be had by all.
11-11: Memories Retold is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.