‘Why aren’t there more video games about World War I?’
I’ve often asked myself that question. It’s a good question. The answer, I think, is buried beneath the weight of a history so physically brutal that we’re loathe to recollect it.
In his excellent podcast ‘Hardcore History’, Dan Carlin regales the story of French commanders, dressed in the uniform of their forefathers, committing wholeheartedly to the romantic ideals of soldiery. Standing high, sword raised aloft, as the full brunt of modern technology lodges hundreds of bullets into the flesh of an unfathomable number of Frenchman.
That, for me, is the image that defines World War I. The rapid erosion of heroism in the face of overwhelming carnage. A war in which technology completely savaged the human spirit. This was the time of war as ‘adventure’, a moment to test your national character. A notion that dissipated in a matter of days in the most brutal manner possible. There are historical accounts of soldiers, before their first taste of war, hearing gunfire in the distance, legitimately worried and upset the war might be over before they got their taste of the action. So many of those young men would be wiped out in seconds. Thousands, tens of thousands, ripped apart in minutes.
That was the nature of World War I.
World War I was a war that subverted the dramatic tropes of conflict. There was no real antagonist. This wasn’t an ideological war. This wasn’t a fight for personal freedoms. World War I didn’t follow the three act structure as tightly as World War II did. There was nothing to celebrate in victory: just the collective misery, death and a very real Armageddon.
Hardly the ideal setting for a video game.
In the past, the best video game stories have typically been simple. It makes sense. Mechanically speaking, games rarely have the tools required to tell stories in shades of grey. For the most part World War II games have no responsibility besides providing players with something or someone to shoot at. That’s fine for a conflict like World War II. Less useful for more morally ambiguous conflicts.
Like World War I.
Valiant Hearts, by Ubisoft Montpellier, is a game about World War I.
What’s immediately interesting about Valiant Hearts is what it’s not. It’s not a first person shooter. In fact, in my time with Valiant Hearts I didn’t fire a single shot. It is a side-scrolling video game with problem solving elements and minimal stealth.
It’s not a game committed to an aesthetic ‘realism’. Valiant Hearts was built using the UbiART engine, a set of tools previously used to create games like Rayman Legends or Child of Light. It’s an engine we’re used to seeing in games filled with wonder and whimsy. No-one expected it in a depiction of the most brutal war in modern history.
Valiant Hearts is unexpected. It’s subversive. That makes sense. It takes a video game subverting the tropes of its medium to represent a war that subverted the dramatic tropes of armed conflict.
Valiant Hearts represents World War I like Call of Duty never could. There’s no room for subtlety in a game that holds you responsible for so much celebratory, pornographic carnage. You can see the difference: when Call of Duty attempts to teach you lessons about the harsh cost of war it always feels hollow. You have, after all, spent the last six hours or so having a complete blast shooting the balls off the Nazi hordes. In Call of Duty war is never hell. War is a series of really cool explosions and perfectly refined gunplay. Nothing wrong with that necessarily, but it’s hardly the correct vessel to depict World War I.
When Valiant Hearts takes a magnifying glass to the horrors of war, it feels delicate. It feels sincere, because it is sincere. Through and through, it is a game about what World War I represents.
You spend so much of your time in Valiant Hearts avoiding death. Cowering in fear from the hail of machine gun fire, hiding in the shadows. It’s telling that the moments when Valiant Hearts falters are also the moments that tip-toe towards bombastic portrayals of traditional pantomime villainy. When Valiant Hearts is at its best (as it often is) it's a representation of survival in the midst of chaos and slaughter. Essentially that is what World War I was for so many soldiers.
In World War I, the survivors learned to keep low while others stood high with their swords held aloft. It was those who abandoned false notions of heroism who lived to tell the tale.