Star Wars: Battlefront II dropped in beta form over the weekend, serving up a sliver of what we can expect from the multiplayer when the game is released later this year. What worked from the previous iteration remains: juicy explosions, squiggly vehicles, and time-displaced cameos from the galaxy-renowned heroes and villains of the series.
The massive laser-based Battlefront II experience is not unlike kindergarten soccer; a loosely organized madness where (on console at least) small groups of players may form but otherwise each team is practicing bedlam with the impossibility of coaching. You strike out for that ball on your own, or maybe find your friend and you run around, thinking of points only to outright dismiss them or assume that the others will take care of that crap. As long as the kids had a jog about the lawn and no one got hurt, the score doesn’t matter. In Battlefront, momentum carries the day, and with some exceptions, it’s rare that a single player dominates the exchange—if your team lost, there probably wasn’t much you could do (is what I tell myself).
Yet I also found Battlefront II to be a disarming experience. For the beta, I was drawn to orbital clashes featuring the shipyards of Fondor. Playing alone, late at night, with plenty of downtime between crashes or getting clipped from above, I’d consider the numbers involved in such a confrontation. How much did each spacecraft cost, and how many lives chucked into the freezing void, with at least one hundred ships going down on each side as well as ancillary targets and whatnot? Each TIE or X-Wing was faceless except for the player’s tag, with many an unceremonious defeat at the hands of KyloRex or i_am_the_last_king, etc. The more I played, the more I felt reduced, scrapped, a nameless human bullet built to be fired and forgotten.
This is a first for me, at least, on a conscious level while playing. These kinds of war games seek to approach the thrill of battle as closely as possible while belaying the humanity through abstraction: droids fight clones, fighters and bombers wobble through spacestation hallways to destroy shield domes. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare tipped this balance with its drone level, bringing the abstraction full-circle back to Defender as the player fired on marked white dots, taking orders from noisy faceless clips. Here again in Battlefront II we are made into the nameless remote pilot, playing war without the trauma of human bodies. In doing so, I think of the poem “Drone” by Solmaz Sharif:
• two generations ago my blood moved through borders according to grazing and seasons
• then a lifeline of planes
• planes fly so close to my head filled with bomblets and disappeared men
• scaffolding sprouts nooses sagging with my dead
• I burn my finger on the broiler and smell trenches
This poem was published in Solmaz’s book LOOK, which seeks to recontextualize language warped by the Department of Defense’s institutional dictionary. Videogames are their own language, a confluence of media, with each game establishing an individual lexicon that draws from a common well. Star Wars further pulls from history, launching the conventions of World War II across the universe, and of course isn’t the first to do so. It’s space fantasy escapism, but Nazis had Stormtroopers, so are the Empire’s Stormtroopers Nazis? It’s not that simple, but the longer Star Wars goes in its various forms the harder the question is to ignore. At what point are we playing the planes filled with cluster bombs/proton torpedoes and prisoners meant to never return home?
Star Wars: Battlefront II is another link in the chain of wargames throughout recent history. It’s no better or worse, and seeks to create play out of the abstraction of a language of conflict. Overwatch does the same through a more animation-oriented aesthetic, making sport out of defanged violence, as so many of these games do. But this beta had me smelling the trenches. In third-person swirling space, the abstraction and disassociation of battle tries to remove me even further from the destruction and mayhem of actual war, but in our age of remote-controlled bomb delivery, with civilian “bycatch” and wrong targets and a still fallible human engine behind the entire machine, the abstraction is becoming more difficult to maintain.
The false binary of Star Wars’s good and evil wouldn’t even hold through the original trilogy. So it’s not really a surprise that these days the distinction seems even less clear today. I am not condemning Battlefront II specifically nor wargames in general; there’s a place for play and abstraction, cultural memory and confronting our darkest instincts, simmering war down to sport. I am complicit in this language, I had fun with the game and will likely spin it a few more times. But it’s a powerful effect, with questionable intentionality, to be made to feel like a drone pilot. Especially while fighting on a team that draws nomenclature and iconography from historical monsters, in a time when those same demons seem to be rearing up louder than ever.