Spending the evening of Armistice Day playing 11-11: Memories Retold – a moving narrative-driven game about the first World War – couldn’t have been more apt really.
When we think about ‘war videogames’, we tend to think about high-octane, all-guns-blazing, shoot ’em ups. Games like Battlefield and the more serious Call of Duty games before the series started pitting us against zombies and taking us to space. 11-11: Memories Retold isn’t an action game. Despite being set amid the chaos of war – real war on the front lines – there’s no combat involved. Instead, 11-11 is more concerned with the day-to-day lives of soldiers; the reality of living in a battlefield rather than fighting on one. It’s about the emotions that go along with everything war entails. After all, firing a weapon is only a small part of it.
11-11: Memories Retold focuses on two main characters: a German man called Kurt who enlists in order to find his missing son; and Harry, a Canadian photographer who’s coerced to join the allied war effort in order to photograph the reality of being a soldier at war. Each protagonist, then, is fighting on the opposite side. This isn’t a game about painting nations as heroes or villains; it’s about the individual people doing their duty. Whatever their nationality, these are men with partners, children, mothers, brothers. The side they’re fighting on doesn’t matter.
Spending equal time with each character means we will sympathise equally with both of them, and each cause they fight for. It’s hard to take a side when we become emotionally invested in each of them, and their personal stories. Even when their goals may conflict with one another, it’s hard to choose… even though the game occasionally forces us to do so. But more on that later.
The most obviously striking thing about 11-11: Memories Retold is its art style. The entire game has the look of a moving impressionist art canvas. Characters and locations are made up of bold and noticeable brush strokes that dance around the screen as you play. It’s a brave choice by Aardman and DigixArt as it’s unlike anything you’ve ever played before. As a series of stills, the game looks gorgeous. Yet as the colours and strokes constantly flicker while the game is in motion, it can become a little jarring and distracting at times. That said, I’m not sure I can imagine any other art style working as well with the sombre and often melancholic feeling that accompanies 11-11.
Also a perfect accompaniment to the game is 11-11: Memories Retold‘s soundtrack. Composed by Olivier Deriviere and performed by the London Philharmonia Orchestra, it’s wonderful in every way. Venturing between jaunty, uplifting tracks that inject some much-needed hope into 11-11‘s tale and more muted, haunting melodies that better reflect the tragedy of war, each piece of music provides a moving and magical supplement to the game’s beautiful story.
But as blown away as you may be by 11-11‘s art and music, it’s the storytelling that will keep you playing. Taking around four hours to complete, I played through the game in one sitting, glued to my seat and desperate to see what would happen next. Despite lacking any high-octane action you might otherwise expect of a war story, 11-11: Memories Retold manages to maintain a good pacing by frequently switching between characters. You never meander too long in one scene, with transitions being well-placed to keep your attention.
The gameplay employs a mixture of light adventure, exploration and puzzle solving. There are a few player-led decisions to be made along the way too. 11-11 isn’t exactly a passive experience but there’s nothing to challenge you either; the focus is very much on the game’s narrative. You’ll have the freedom to explore small areas – hemmed-in trenches and bunkers, for example – but your goals are always very clear and easy to complete. Find a person to retrieve an item from; push a box to open up a new pathway.
Aside from the main objectives to move the story forward, some areas allow for some optional tasks – most often, a fellow soldier will ask a small favour of you. There’s also a large array of collectibles to find. Some of them are hard to spot, tucked away in corners off the beaten path. But spending a bit of time exploring trying to find them pays off as they’ll unlock tidbits of information, each helping paint a greater picture of the war.
It’s little touches like this that really enhance the experience of the game. Both Harry and Kurt will receive letters from back home, for example, giving us not only a glimpse of what life on the front line was like, but also for the loved ones left back home. Occasionally, you’ll have to make some choices in what to respond with. For Harry, that means choosing a photograph to send home. And for Kurt, that means deciding whether he wants to tell his young daughter the truth, or sugarcoat his situation to spare her feelings. The choices you make will affect future interactions.
There are also some great moments of relief where you’ll take control of Kurt and Harry’s animal companions. For Kurt, that means a cat that he’s befriended in the trenches, and for Harry, that means a bird that’s become attached to him. Controlling the bird generally means beautiful scenes, soaring through the air. As the cat, you’ll be playfully jumping between obstacles. Perhaps unnecessary to portraying the reality of war, they still add something to the experience that makes the game what it is.
Even though 11-11: Memories Retold never explicitly makes you choose a side between Harry and Kurt, there are times where you’ll need to make a decision that favours one more than the other. Some of the choices you make feel truly meaningful, with weight behind them that could perhaps affect the fate of either of the two protagonists. It’ll make you think about your decisions carefully. After all, the game’s fantastic storytelling coupled with the stellar voice acting truly brings the characters to life. You will care deeply about both men – and their animal sidekicks – after only a small amount of time with the game.
This isn’t the first time a game has tried to tackle a different perspective on war. We had the management simulation game This War of Mine and Ubisoft’s story-driven Valiant Hearts, which is perhaps most closely comparable to 11-11: Memories Retold. Yet, 11-11 takes things to the next level, with more realistic characters, brought to life in a way that makes us feel almost like we know them. It’s a tall order for a game to make us care so deeply about its protagonists – especially when it only has a few hours to do so – but 11-11: Memories Retold does so admirably. It’s compassionate, believable, beautiful and touching; it weaves a narrative that’s so carefully strung together. And even though it might not be exactly a true story, it doesn’t matter; it paints an important picture. One that can help a whole generation of people understand what soldiers went through during the First World War. What could be more impressive than that?