BEST OF 2016: ‘The Runner’ Campaign In Battlefield 1

“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”  – Donald Horne, from his 1964 book ‘The Lucky Country’.

That’s where it comes from. That phrase. The lucky country. When I was growing up, you could barely hear about Australia without being bombarded by those three words soon after. Despite Horne’s negative use when he coined the phrase, Australians took it as a positive boast. The Land Down Under was seen as ‘lucky’ because of its laid back lifestyle. The beautiful beaches, friendly people, good economy and general detachment from the problems of the rest of the world made Australia seem like a shining beacon in troubled times. A place that would always be a reliable port in a storm. While every other country suffered poverty, wars and civil misery, Australians maintained the “she’ll be right” attitude. We were the envy of the world.

I was young back then and believed it all. In 1988, my country celebrated its Bicentennial – the two hundred year anniversary of the first arrival of English prison ships into the area that would become Sydney. Australians were elated to join in the celebration of the ‘founding’ of Australia. I remember travelling to the big city of Brisbane for the amazing World Expo 88, a massive six-month long fair attended by fifteen million people. The celebration of Australia as a concept was infectious nationwide. As a boy, my country was the greatest place ever. I never even considered that there was an entire race of people who lived in Australia before white people arrived.

Battlefield’s history with single-player campaigns has been, let’s face it, forgettable. There was a lot of yelling in Battlefield 3 and Omar from The Wire was in Battlefield 4 but beyond that, the impact of those stories was non-existent. Multiplayer has always been the focus and with good reason. So when EA and DICE announced that the next entry in their franchise was set in World War 1, many eyebrows were raised. Would such a bloody, senseless conflict lend itself to a fun, multiplayer shooter? Even more so, would the single-player mode pay the correct amount of respect to the absolutely insane amount of people who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918?

Once the dust of some questionable marketing mishaps had cleared, it was evident that the answer was a surprising yes. Five different story campaigns (six if you include the short prologue) focused on different groups of soldiers from around the world. A pilot with questionable morals. A tank squad that came together under impossible odds. An Italian soldier searching for his lost brother. Tales of loss and heroism that didn’t feel cheap and disrespectful. That in itself is an incredible feat for any form of entertainment, let alone a video game.

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Fayshal Ishak Ahmed was a man who died on Friday 23 December 2016. In 2013, he fled Sudan, a country where flogging, stoning and even crucifixion are legal. Ahmed was a refugee and tried to reach the golden shores of Australia by boat. But since 2001, the Australian government has treated refugees and asylum seekers as criminals first, human beings second. The Labor government opened two offshore detention centres on Nauru Island and Manus Island to ‘process’ the people wanting to escape lives filled with war, dictatorships and misery. The succeeding Liberal government escalated the offshore detention program to where both centres now hold hundreds of people who have broken no laws. And they have been there for years.

The centres themselves have been long source of controversy. Squalid conditions only begin to show the problems inherit to every aspect of the offshore program. The contractor hired to run the centres are without supervision or laws and several guards are accused of mistreatment of refugees, to the extent of violence and sexual abuse. The Nauru government denies any wrongdoing or corruption on their part and the meagre amount of journalism that exposes the horror in these centres is accused of being completely false. But facts speak for themselves.

Ahmed is now the fourth person to have died in these detention centres. After Hamid Kehazaei (lack of medical treatment), Reza Berati (murdered by guards) and Omid Masoumali (self-immolation in protest), Ahmed’s death was caused by improperly treated seizures that he had been suffering from for months. While Australians worry about whether or not to have enough slices of ham for Christmas lunch, the refugees on Manus and Nauru fear death. Death that has been paid for, approved and excused by the Australian government. Since pouring millions of dollars in these detention centres, several Prime Ministers (including the current one) have stood proud that they are doing the right thing by continuing to treat innocent people like animals. They claim they are winning the war on people smugglers, despite never identifying or convicting a single person engaging in such a practice. Meanwhile, refugees who tried to escape their home countries with only their lives now lay imprisoned by Australia, the lucky country that they believed would be their saviour.

‘The Runner’ in Battlefield 1 tells the story of Australian soldier Frederick Bishop. It is set during the Gallipoli campaign in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Bishop’s career as a soldier is winding down, his eyes convey a weariness with the madness of war and a readiness to be finished with this way of life. Assigned with new recruit Jack Foster (who idolises the veteran and his achievements), Bishop reluctantly becomes a father figure to this “fuckin’ kid” who wants nothing more to dive headlong into the heroism of war. Early in the campaign, Foster disobeys Bishop and the old soldier explodes with rage. He forces the young twenty-something to stare in the face of carnage and angrily makes him realise the potential cost of his immature actions.

But then something happens. Bishop seems to realise that he’s not that different from this young upstart and sits down. They begin to bond over the simple fact that they are both Australian and that fact alone makes them “impossible to kill”. The scene is delivered with a striking level of honesty and realism by actors Peter O’Brien and Louis Hunter.

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Not only did this scene work as a piece of dramatic fiction in a war setting, but it was the first turn in the story that made me realise I was witnessing a uniquely Australian tale. Bishop and Foster aren’t caricatures. No wacky over-the-top stereotypical behaviour that made them figures of ridicule for ‘normal’ Americans or British soldiers to laugh at. It wasn’t wall-to-wall “G’day cobber” or “shrimp on the barbie”. These characters were fully and instantly realised. Bishop reminded me of dozens of rough old blokes I knew growing up in Central Queensland. Ones that smelled of engine oil and Winfield cigarettes. Foster’s naive innocence rang true to me – someone who has played tons of war games but the closest thing to actual war I’ve experienced is a couple of old uncles who don’t talk about Vietnam.

The rest of the story reaches similar heights. Towards the end, Bishop makes a decision to protect Foster in a way that makes you believe he has been looking for a good excuse for to do something like this for a long time. At least Foster makes it mean something. He’s a good kid, after all. A lone island of familiarity in Bishop’s ocean of madness and blood.

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For the last decade, the actions of the Australian government have been reprehensible. Denial of same-sex marriage, blind support of extreme right-wing politicians and the sickening abuse of asylum seekers. They take responsibility for nothing while being protected by the Murdoch media who shout down and vilify any person who is persecuted. When protests against the treatment of indigenous communities shut down a city intersection, the government ignored it and the media criticised the protestors for causing traffic problems. Racism flows through Australia like a raging river and with lunatics in parliament who believe in bigotry but not climate change, it is not stopping any time soon.

It is a difficult thing to admit that your country is not what you believed it to be when you were young. What shined bright as a land free of corruption, slowly unveiled itself to be exactly what I feared as I grew older. And when every new layer of horror is supported by a majority of modern Australians, it is a daily bitter pill to swallow.

I’m writing this on Boxing Day and a long-standing tradition in Australia is to watch the cricket. The Boxing Day test match begins today and this year we’re up against Pakistan. When I was young, I watched the cricket religiously. The West Indies were my favourite team. They were powerful, entertaining and destroyed everyone in their path. Cricket was a joy to watch and every Boxing Day, I enjoyed every moment of it with my Dad. It was a wonderful tradition.

These days, the only tradition that connects me to Australia is a deep feeling of shame. The way Australians treat people of different skin colours. Or women. Or the LGBT community. For years now, the idea of being Australian has transformed from being the envy of the world to a look of derision from people who know all too well how our government (and the people who voted for it) treats humanity in general. It’s a constant dark feeling in the pit of my stomach and something that I can’t imagine the soldiers in World War 1 fought to protect. But perhaps they did. I wasn’t there. Perhaps Australia has always been this way. In 2016, ‘the lucky country’ seems about as believable as Santa Claus.

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‘The Runner’ campaign in Battlefield 1 made me forget that feeling. If only for a few hours. It reminded me of my Dad and growing up without knowing the falsehoods that lay in wait for me inside every facet of Australia. It was an exciting, rewarding story featuring characters that feel like people I knew a lifetime ago. It is so rare to see Australians portrayed in video games and rarer still to see them as actual human beings. It struck something inside of me that I had forgotten and thought was dead and gone forever. And it took a group of Swedish game developers to make it happen.

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