Did you know that the Indian Army played a rather significant role in World War I, with a roughly a million Indian soldiers posted overseas over the course of the conflict? Did you know that many African corps from French colonies, like the Senagalese Tirailleurs, did as well?
These a just some of the fascinating, often terrifying facts about the war that I discovered while playing Valiant Hearts: The Great War. In fact, I think I learned more about World War I from the six odd hours I spent playing the game than from a whole term studying war in a high school history class. Where are all those “vidyagames are rotting kids’ brains” folks now?
In contrast to many other games with a World War I setting, Valiant Hearts is a 2D, sidescrolling adventure game with a focus on the people involved and the human cost of war. Anticipating a conflict with Germany after they declared war on Russia in 1914, France began deporting German nationals. Among them is Karl; despite being married into a French family and his wife recently giving birth to a child, Karl is sent back to Germany, where he is conscripted into the German Army.
Meanwhile, Karl’s father-in-law, Emile, is called upon to serve his own country after Germany declares war on France, breaking apart a family and forcing them into opposite sides of the conflict. The fact that this all happens within the first 10 minutes of the game is both a powerful statement in its own right, and a foreshadowing of what’s to come: Valiant Hearts isn’t a “good versus evil” tale of Allies and Nazis, it’s a story about the individuals thrown into chaos of politicians’ power struggles.
Being an adventure game, Valiant Hearts is mechanically simple - you progress by solving puzzles, typically involving sequentially finding and using various items. For the most part, these are straightforward and logical, though occasionally I had to think outside the box a bit. There are also some action sequences, where you’re forced to run through trenches while dodging falling shells, or tasked with sneaking past guards.
On a gameplay level, there’s nothing here that you won’t have done a thousand times before. But the context provided by the narrative and atmosphere takes these run-of-the-mill mechanics and turns them into something much, much more powerful. You’re not just mindlessly doing ‘fetch quests’, you’re trying to make sense of a senseless situation, doing whatever you can to make it through to the other side. Sometimes that means finding a way to steal an officer’s uniform, sometimes it means using a pile of your fallen comrades corpses for cover from enemy fire.
Even the action scenes, marred by poor checkpoint placement and some questionable level design that often leads to random, unexpected deaths and a trial-and-error approach are saved by this greater sense of purpose that permeates the whole experience. In any other game, a sudden, unavoidable death would be a cause for frustration and controller throwing; in Valiant Hearts, it simply left me pondering the horrors of war, and how suddenly life can be wrenched from our grasp.
Like I said, this comes down a lot to the narrative, but it’s the atmosphere that really sells the message Ubisoft are trying to share. The game uses a beautiful, comic-like aesthetic that is just far enough removed from reality to give the visuals a kind of surreal weight to them, while not so far removed that they become completely divorced by reality; the whole thing plays out like a comic book in motion, and it really is a thing of solemn beauty that I can’t commend enough. A harrowing score only adds to this.
It could be easy to write this off as just a game, if a heart-wrenching, very human one, but Valiant Hearts makes a point of tying itself back to reality. While the plot itself is fictional, albeit based loosely on diaries from soldiers, all the battles and significant events of the war are real. In each chapter, there are concise documents giving a brief overview of everything from technological advances to the role of animals on the battlefield.
Most importantly, they’re not forced down your throat, and are not simply tacked on for a bit of extra information; rather, the game uses its story and atmosphere to make learning about the real events compelling and rewarding. The game pulls you in, and makes you want to learn more about this world and what’s going on. Seeing things you’ve just read about come to life within the game, meanwhile, creates an emotional connection with this knowledge and turns it into something more than an abstraction on the pages of a history book. Want to get people engaged with education? Make it compelling, meaningful, and rewarding.
Valiant Hearts is by no means a perfect game. As much as I was impressed by how the game forced me to react to random deaths, that effect wore off and by the end of the game, those action scenes were becoming more than a bit of a nuisance. Between those scenes and some pseudo boss fights that felt more than a little bit tacked on, it seemed like the developers were trying to ensure that this would still be a “fun” game, even at the cost of the central vision.
I also ran into more than my fair share of bugs, primarily around assets not loading. Sometimes it was a jarring, but not ultimately harmful thing, like parts of the background not showing up. Other times, elements critical to progression were no-shows until I reset the game.
So in the end, Valiant Hearts is something of a flawed masterpiece. But it’s a masterpiece nonetheless. This is a game that definitely won’t be for everyone, but it’s something that the videogame industry has been in dire of need of. Being a steel-balled, Nazi-killing war hero is all well and good, but Valiant Hearts reminds us that there’s more than one way to tell a war story.