In the world of video game development, AAA studios are usually not the port of call for the creation of games to bring awareness to historical events or to promote the greater good. In fact, despite the rise of many AAA games with serious undertones, many large video game developers have been accused of valuing financial return, rather than praised for the social benefit of their products. It is sad that although sometimes these comments merely fall into the category of harsh criticism, in other times money does indeed prove to be more important than social awareness, making the idea of a ‘profound game’ less and less likely to be found in international mega game development studios.
Valiant Heart: The Great War (Soldats Inconnus: Mémoires de la Grande Guerre in French) was therefore a fresh breath of air from the Ubisoft Montpellier studio, combining the efforts of a top-end international game development company with the histories of World War I. Released on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One in June 2014, the game later also included iOS and Android ports. Gameplay takes the form of a 2D puzzle platformer, with the player’s character traversing the map horizontally, performing actions and interacting with the environment items to open up new paths. The game has four chapter in total, covering the entire duration of World War I from both sides of the trench, as well as including civilians on top of combatants in its character roster to reflect the impact of the Great War on society on a large scale.
Starting off, the most striking feature of the game is an abundance of gestures and body language the characters engage in. Following a narrated introduction, instructions to the player are mostly conveyed as simple pictures, a character’s outstretched hand, or the vague waving of a rifle or sword. In a way, this offers both an alien and a familiar context to the player, who feels both in a foreign land and yet is able to roughly understand the instructions. It would not be hard to imagine that this might have been what the soldiers felt when they arrived at strange places for the war. At the same time, this is a mockery of what we, the modern players, think of World War I. More than a century after that conflict, the tales of those times now seem both familiar and alien to the average twenty-first century youth – the military manoeuvres and events make sense on paper, and yet we are almost wholly disconnected to the human and emotional cost of the war, a vacuum that this game evidently sought to fill.
One of the most unique distinctions between this game and other popular media focusing on World War I was the varied cast of characters, which became evident within the first half hour of the game. The story is focused on the minor players who made up the masses that enabled the conflicts to occur. The player characters have no control over their destiny – this is expressed both on a larger scale, with the chapters changing without giving the player a warning, to small details in the game play, such as NPCs physically preventing the player from moving to certain areas with aggressive gestures (complete with a big red cross in speech bubbles). The player characters feature roles rarely portrayed in media regarding the war era – we have a Frenchman who was court-martialed for disobedience, a German captured by allied forces and escaped a POW camp, a Belgian doctor whose country was suddenly lost, an USA volunteer who fought the Germans out of his own vendetta, and a French woman whose husband was expelled from the country for being German and whose father was conscripted by the French government. These are the invisible scars of war – not massive trenches that cut through the entire countryside, not deliberations that swayed the tide of battle, but the separation and alienation of families, the reduction of fellow men to jailers and the jailed, and the injustice of governments to their own people.
The game indeed makes no attempt at hiding the horrors of war experienced by civilians from both sides. While historically many representations of the war had focused on the victors, Valiant Hearts bravely portrayed the dissension and mutiny in the Allied forces. After all, World War I saw wartime innovation like no other conflict before its time. Novel technologies and strategies, such as trench warfare, tanks, flamethrowers, the airforce, and chemical weapons, meant conventional wisdom regarding battles often resulted in massive casualties. Campaigns frequently ended as month-long standstills with established trenches, while tens of thousands of men perished from diseases and malnourishment and infected wounds. There was no glory, no adventure. There were just rotten socks, gangrened hands, men buried alive in collapsed tunnels, and the helpless choking sounds of the dying as the battlefield filled with mustard gas. The depiction of the war in this game present a somewhat safe viewpoint for us to observe the destruction behind the screen, but since the horrors of war were useful to craft puzzles around, the purpose behind the entirety of the gameplay essentially revolves around staying alive in one of the greatest conflicts known to men.
As a 2D puzzle game, Valiant Heart managed to involve puzzles that illustrated every aspect of life during the war, from the frontlines to the field hospitals to the POW camps. There were puzzles that involved surreptitiously getting socks dry, blowing up a German machine gun from beneath, and escaping POW camps while avoiding searchlights. Gameplay actually varies quite a bit between the four chapters, as well as between the four player-controlled characters. For example, sections where the player controls Anna the Belgium doctor involved quick-time actions that represented fighting against time to save soldiers from blood loss, more than the physical puzzles that dominated the sections where the player controls the male characters. The nature of the puzzles also greatly reflected the DIY nature of the soldier and civilian’s daily lives during that period of scarcity. There were many makeshift tools and much quick thinking, not to mention the occasional bribery, forgery, thievery, servitude, and willingness to bend the rules to ensure day-to-day survival. Such actions would most likely not gain approval in our current society, but people had to commit such acts in game to keep our characters moving forward.
The puzzles were further enriched by the presence of a ‘foreground’ and ‘background’ in a 2D map. The player character can enter doorways, adding depth to the puzzle. Moreover, some puzzles were complicated affairs that involved multiple NPCs across the entire stage in different levels, often requiring one NPC to be appeased before the next step can be taken to grease the palms for the next obstacle in line. The animal companion that we have, a German medical dog we rescued from chapter 1, is also a marvelous little thing that can be commanded to fetch items hidden behind cracks or lying in the background. Pushing tables, climbing ladders, opening closets, and putting the dog into a bucket to either lift or lower it to a different area of the map is all a part of the planning to solve the puzzle. The player frequently have to fiddle between the viewpoint of two or three playable characters in one scene to smoothly coordinate the situation, especially as some levers would return to their previous state after some time has passed. Some vital items required for the puzzle to be solved may also be hidden in darkness or in the depth of mustard gas, requiring a certain amount of blind searching and memorisation to complete the task.
The game makes a further emphatic claim to its serious purpose with background information regarding every section of the chapters. There are also collectibles scattered throughout the world, and picking them up also results in extra bits of information being added. The player gets to know anecdotes about the battlefield, how wartime life was back home, the way the soldiers tried to create daily comforts for themselves, and the personal correspondence between family and friends from all over the world. These collectible are usually quite well hidden in the game, and picking them up required a bit of luck as well as premonition. Background information about the specific time and the campaigns are also included, giving context to names and events alluded to in the main gameplay. Of course, successfully collecting all items in one section also gave a nice medal to the player’s Ubisoft Uplay profile, making it a goal for the potential collector.
Artistically, the simple art of Valiant Heart belies the cruelties of the war that the game tried very hard to convey. Characters are chubby, almost comical as they ran on little legs along the battle field, and the long fringe and lowered hats serve to musk the majority of facial expressions. This innocent and childish art style becomes all the more ironic when involved in the solemn and bloody business of war, and flailing little limbs belie the grim reality of death. At the same time, the soft and gentle art style also serves to dampen any visual shock regarding blood and gore, giving us a relatively cleaned and censored version of the conflict. But we know that was not how real battles went. In fact, the art style serves to reinforce that while we are ‘playing’ at war, the true cost of a war was deeply ingrained across society, and even the most innocent cannot escape it.
Lastly, the absolute minimal amount of dialogue present in the game also made Valiant Hearts an unique ‘language-less’ experience. Rather than having voice actors or even in-game text, the game play is entirely devoid of any language. The only sections where language is present is in the voice-over between chapters and campaigns, where a narrator conducts a monologue that sums up the occurrences in the last chapter and gives the premise of the next chapter. Within the chapters themselves, instructions were given solely via the body language of the characters, using gestures and universally accepted symbols such as red crosses and the skull. There are some mumbled French, German, and English that NPCs sometimes babble out, but they are really too garbled for me to make out. Not only were soldiers fighting on lands away from home, this further reinforces the confusion and incomprehension that civilians must have felt during the war – that nothing made sense anymore, that the very semblance of syntax and order is now muddled and operating purely on auto-pilot, much like the players are reduced to only understanding crude symbols and generic body language in lieu of actual instructions.
If I have any complaints about the game, it would be that, inevitably, due to the nature of games, real life logic goes out of the window at places. I really don’t want to consider whether I can actually hit a flying pigeon with a piece of coal, for example. Due to the nature of the puzzles, there is also less replayability to the game than I would like, as puzzles become much easier to solve and thus less engaging the second time round. Moreover, the medical dog, the inseparable companion of the characters for much of the game, has got to be the most overpowered medical dog I have ever seen. And perhaps a more serious complaint would be why was the dog STILL wearing a German medic badge, even when it was being commanded by the Allies? But then again, the Geneva Convention was not drafted until after the second World War. Perhaps we are indeed operating in a sphere prior to the establishment of ethical and moral rules we have come to know today, a time when wars were supposedly more glorious and chivalrous, but in reality only contained more merciless and senseless slaughter.
In conclusion, Valiant Heart was a refreshing attempt at portraying the horrors of World War I, without being over-indulgent with the violence and the gore, shedding light on the everyday suffering of people worldwide. In particular, it strove to look beyond the conventional scope, beyond the grand strategies between armies to focus on the women, the children, the old, the sick, and those who joined the war even though it was not their war. The inclusion of actual letters from foreign and colonial troops – Canadians, Indians, Algerians – brought the true global scope of the conflict into sharp reality, a throbbing contrast to the soft character design and adorable animations. Nevertheless, Valiant Heart: Memories of the Great War remains a friendly yet profound representation of one of the most bloody wars in human history, and fully illustrates the breadth and depth of its impact across the world and for generations to come.