Why Valiant Hearts Is The Perfect Representation Of World War I

‘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.


Comments

    This wasn’t an ideological war.
    It was in a sense - it was a war driven by a common ideology of militarism, gunboat diplomacy and empire which was promoted by all of the major participants and supported by a European populace who did not yet understand what modern war would look like.
    Why aren’t there more video games about World War I?
    I think the obvious answer is the one you identify in a round about way - it doesn't lend itself to 'fun' gameplay, which is what games are traditionally trying to produce.
    In the past, the best video game stories have typically been simple.
    I disagree - many of the best stories in games have been complex.

      Yeah, but I think you know what I'm getting at: World War II was a war against fascism. It's seen as a 'good' war. That's what I was getting at (re: your first point)

        the reason why we dont have many WW1 based games is because for the majority of the wart it was nothing but trench warfare where one side would get jump out of their trench and get mowed down by the other side, then they would swap roles.

        it wasnt until the last year of the war with the intruction of tanks and apcs that warfare evolve to the early platoon size warfare that became the norm in ww2 til today

        I think his second point is the main reason though. Game mechanics - it's presumably not so fun to have slow, old rifles and have your main method of attack being "walk slowly into that machine gun fire".
        It's a shame, because it'd be interesting to play a game based on older wars - Crimean, the conflicts in the British Raj, even the American Civil War - but if you were trying to make it semi-accurate, it probably wouldn't be as fun as Medal of Honor/Call of Duty (the old ones) from a gameplay perspective.

    Loved this game, almost cried at the end, although I was very emotionally invested as I played it through over two days in two sit downs. Might not have so much impact if you just played one act at a time.

    Another great example of the bleakness and the utter waste of World War 1 is ToadyOne's (One of the gentlemen behind Dwarf Fortress) WW1 Medic game.

    The battle lines push back and forth between a trench as wave after wave of your troops and theirs are utterly anhilated by machine guns, strafing aircraft, artillery and gas attacks, and your job is to pick up the pieces, without being part of the mangled mess at the end of each unsuccessful attack.

    And it all seems to be for nothing - You save a guy's life and the points you get from it are wiped from your score for the twelve who bled out while you were patching him up. On the very, very rare occasion that your troops do manage to take the opposing trench, the game simply gives you another trench and another stretch of no-man's land to redecorate carmine and mop up.

    A story that always fascinated me is the day of armistice in Gallipoli, a cease fire between the ANZACs and Turks in May 1915. As the number of dead soldiers grew both parties agreed to have one day of cease fire so they could bury their dead. They worked together and actually got along, sharing cigarettes and identifying how alike they were. Then after the armistice they would go back to trying to kill eachother.

    What I really liked about Valiants Hearts is how it shows both sides of the war. There's a part in the game where Emile helps a German soldier who in turn helps him back. The games full of quite touching moments. And that ending.. I had a feeling it would be a sad ending, but did not expect it to end like that..

      Most modern, conventional wars are like that. It's only when you get into incredibly ideologically-driven wars that you start getting the indoctrinated and outright crazy soldiers who will commit war crimes without a second thought. WWI may have been absolutely catastrophic and the bloodshed was immense but neither side could claim a moral victory because they both shelled indiscriminately, used poison gas, and forced themselves into the horrors of trench warfare. Hence the common soldier could sympathise with the enemy because they were going through almost the exact same hell.

      Heck even after the war when you had old soldiers from both sides come together to remember the dead, there was always that camaraderie between them despite their opposition. Valiant Hearts does a pretty good job of showing a lot of different aspects of the war and you're right that it showed how utterly alike each side was, especially with soldiers like Karl and Emile.

    Perhaps the worst event in history. I know that sounds dramatic, but outdated troops being sent over the top only to be mowed down by machine guns, gassed, and then the other side taking its turn to be mowed down and gassed. idiotic leaders portraying the war as an adventure and vilifying those who refuse to fight in the futile war for no good cause in the mud and blood of no man's land.

    The treaty only led to a Second World War and for civilians and soldiers to be killed in the millions. The advantage of the Second World War was improved strategy and a genuine reason to fight.

    Despite all the jingoism, there is nothing to celebrate in the first world war. It is the worst event in human history, and to see a video game tackling the horror head on is nothing short of refreshing.

    Another big reason for few games/films set in ww1 is that the US had such a minor role in it compared to ww2.

    ww1 has always been the strange/exotic/enigmatic war in American psyche (see how it's used in The Darkness for example.)

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