A role playing game set in the First World War doesn't sound at all like the usual Bandai Namco offering. With a unique look, and a deeper meaning, 11-11: Memories Retold is certainly different. And have we have sampled a preview build.
You'll have never played anything that looks like 11-11: Memories Retold. This much we can guarantee. The First World War-set title, slated for launch this year, is a three way collaboration between Japanese giant Bandai Namco, the UK's Oscar-winning Aardman Animations and French studio DigixArt.
The visual style is unique - so unique that new techniques had to be discovered to make it viable on the kind of hardware available to the average gamer. It's so radical that it defies comparison. When much of gaming graphics discussion veers between the poles of photorealism and cartoony styles, with some debate on various detail working and techniques employed therein, 11-11: Memories Retold isn't interested in convention.
Cuphead has been the most visually different popular game we've seen in recent years - taking its style from the animations of the 1930s. An honourable mention from the Altchar team also goes to Hollow Knight for its particular look and while both ooze quality, 11-11: Memories Retold is in a different league.
As you'll see for yourself, the game attempts, and largely succeeds, to produce a visual style very much like that of the brushstrokes of a painting. Except it's a painting that's alive on the screen.
The influences on this style are several. Aardman had already produced Flight of the Stories for the Imperial War Museum, and it became a starting point for the look of 11-11. However, the techniques involved were a little too complex for most consumer hardware to handle, so the project's art director Bram Ttwheam went for something simpler, influenced by the paintings of J M W Turner and the Russian animator Aleksandr Petrov .
Earlier this year, reflecting on this decision making process, Ttwheam acknowledged the scale of the task the 11-11 team had set themselves: "That's the challenge we took on - how do we teach a game engine to paint?"
The fact they succeeded at all is largely the work of one man, Alexander Birke, the sole graphics developer for 11-11. Starting essentially from scratch, he took on the job of just that - teaching a game engine to paint.
"The way that the painterly effect is constructed is that we actually simulate individual brush strokes and can make them move. This hasn't been done before," Birke has confided.
Did we like it? Well, we can say that it takes some getting used to, but of course it would. Given the way the game is paced and structured, it worked for us. And given the actual aim behind 11-11: Memories Retold, a unique visual approach seems appropriate. This leads us on neatly to the next main feature of the title - it wants to hit you directly in the feels.
To understand why, you must understand the genesis of the game. Its development stems from a meeting at a Games For Change conference in 2016. It was there that the various partners hit upon the idea of creating a different kind of player experience, a game without villains, a game that would produce empathy with both of two opposing sides.
The First World War is an obvious choice for this. It's widely argued that no-one benefited from the terrible conflict, that it was simply the result of an arms race, of new technologies coming into use, and that it planted the seeds for a less morally ambiguous conflict in the Second World War. And finally that the common man on all sides was the one who paid the price.
So the narrative structure, the story, of 11-11: Memories Retold is told through the eyes of Harry, a Canadian war photographer on the Allied side; and on the Central Powers side Kurt, a German infantryman. The first is voiced by Elijah Wood, and the second by Sebastian Koch, maybe best known in the English-speaking world for his appearances in Homeland.
The story starts mid-war in 1916. Harry has joined up to impress a girl, Julia, back home, and Kurt has joined up in order to find his soldier son, who has gone missing in action. A number of historians acted as consultants on the game, including Peter Doyle, co-author of the book Fritz and Tommy which looked at the experiences of infantrymen on both sides of the war, and the commonality of them.
The main battles depicted are those of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge, even though the actual battles are little more than the violent backdrop through which the stories of both men, and their interaction, are interwoven.
In the limited preview build we played, the gameplay frequently shifts from one of the characters to the other - essentially as a block of story is added to one, then in turn a block is added to the other, even small blocks. You are seeing the story of a man on each side being constructed.
So what's the purpose of this? Doesn't it all sound a bit worthy? Too even-handed to make the characters easy for a player to identify with?
Yoan Fanise is the game's producer. He has a record on First World War games, having been behind the well-received Valiant Hearts: The Great War. He insists the game is not educational, but has the intention of making people think about conflict: "We don't want to teach something, it's not an educational game in any way. We want to raise awareness. War never changes."
And this did seem to work, at least in the window of the game we sampled:
In one passage of gameplay during our preview, a sudden burst of double-sided empathy was quite powerful. The British army major our photographer character was following seemed very keen to get a picture of him and his men taken in some awful shrapnel blasted pit as the battle raged. As we were dodging the constant stream of tracer-lit machine gun fire coming from the German trenches, suddenly the action cut and we were Kurt.
Now we were tasked with getting water for the machine gunners to cool their weapons. The self same machine gunners pouring fire at Harry and the soldiers in no-man's land.
The usual rules of gaming are that you want your character to do their job or task. In 11-11, we'd really rather not have been out taking a picture as people tried to kill us, and we'd really rather not have been keeping the guys trying to kill our photographer in their murderous business. Orders are orders though, right?
The music in the game is entrancing, and was composed by Oliver Deriviere, closely collaborating with writers Iain Sharkey and Stephen Long in order to match moods and action perfectly. A cat and pigeon also feature in 11-11: Memories Retold, as arguably the spirit animals of Kurt and Harry. An interesting idea, that may help make the game more accessible to younger players. Or anyone who likes either cats or pigeons.
In summary, 11-11: Memories Retold is a title that will push the boundaries of gaming, in both visual and story terms. Will it succeed in its noble aim of making players think differently about conflict - to see war in human scale, rather than of politics, or right and wrong?
That remains to be seen - and depends to some extent on how many people it reaches, i.e. its commercial success. Nevertheless, the fact that Tom Clancy novels sell in the millions doesn't stop All Quiet on the Western Front from being a better book than all of them. And whoever stumbles upon 11-11: Memories Retold, may just uncover a similar scenario.
11-11: Memories Retold is scheduled for release on 9th November this year.