By EpicSteve 8 Comments
Valiant Hearts is the only game I’ve played that respectfully encapsulates war. It delivers a narrative that’s jam packed with themes of personal hardship and sacrifice while giving the player enough historical context. It represents multiple viewpoints of World War I and never really paints any side as bad. This game isn’t about fighting in combat or the greater politics, but instead the human elements take center stage.
The game’s cartoony approach to the narrative and art never really detract from the overall tone. There are plenty of light hearted scenes, humor, and even a cute dog companion. However, unlike games like the new Wolfenstein that can’t manage multiple tones, Valiant Hearts successfully delivers the grim realities of the war.
While certain scenes of brutality such as using massive piles of corpses as cover from machine gun fire can set a distracting juxtaposition for some folks, it never hindered my experience. I would argue that this juxtaposition of art and narrative serves the purpose of stealthily exposing the player to the brutality of the war in a comfortable setting. The game never downplays any grim reality.
Valiant Hearts does a good job of entertaining the player but takes time to show the player how fucked up the situation they’re in really is. The narrative constantly reminds the player of the enormous death toll and the futility of the war. The macabre environment and depressing atmosphere leads to a constant sense of dread. However, that constant dread is alleviated by the friendly art style. The art allows the commentary on the war to be communicated without it being a heavy handed drag.
One of the most impressive parts of the game is the historical context. Each section of the game utilizes one of the horrifying innovations of death as a gameplay mechanic or obstacle. This includes using a tank to move through a battlefield, cutting through barbed wire, or using a gas mask to survive deadly chemical weapons. These real world obstacles translate as game mechanics well, but the expertise lays with how the developer communicates why these innovations were deadly and the hurdles soldiers had to go through to overcome them. You will learn why gas attacks were so deadly and the game will show you how barbed wire was one of the deadliest new tools of war.
The human elements are executed with such respect and gentleness that it makes them stand apart from other interpretations of war. One of the main characters is a soldier drafted into the German army, forced away from his wife and newborn son. This son grows up without a father and the wife is left without any information on whether her husband is alive or not. Another character is a civilian nurse travels from Paris to the frontline healing horses, Germans, and French. She doesn’t care about the war or the uniforms, but wants to do her part in taking care of the sick and injured regardless of creed.
That’s only two examples of a surprisingly large cast. The story does a good job at showcasing the soldiers efforts in the war on different sides and the efforts of women and civilians.
Valiant Hearts is also sure to show the player the gruesome conditions of trench warfare. It gives us a glimpse into the minds of the soldiers whether this be how female nurses played a massive role in the recovery and moral of the injured men and how an Infantryman would trade valuables for dry socks. It also shows the player that disease and simple shrapnel wounds killed more soldiers than bayonets or bullets.
It’s this attention to detail and historical care that makes the game credible and a decent tool to teach people about a war often glossed over in history classes despite it taking the lives of over 40 million people. One historical element like the invention of Dog Tags is explained and even used as a plot point.
What the most beautiful thing about Valiant Hearts is that its human elements are not married to WWI. Most of the things it teaches about the mindset of soldiers and the strain combat are probably applicable to all wars. With the game never actually handing you a gun, it illustrates that war is more complicated than shooting people with different uniforms and that those different uniforms are also worn by humans that are in the same situation as "the good guys".
Note: My job at Iron Galaxy is going well. I totally have a new level of appreciation for games that are good and come out. Because holy shit there's a lot that go into games. Especially spreadsheets. Soo many spreadsheets.