It appears that violence in games is an unavoidable, necessary tool to tell an interactive story and make it accessible to as many players as humanly possible. Or at least it was until now. With the release of Ubisoft Montpellier’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War, we may have finally discovered an alternative to needing to make a violent first-person shooter in order to create a successful war game.
When you think of war-based video games, odds are a small handful of titles comes to mind: Call of Duty and Medal of Honor, just to name a couple. Medal of Honor made the genre popular back in the late nineties with its self-titled debut, and after a series of successful ‘tours’ of various WWII battlefields, Call of Duty picked up the concept and ran with it. Now Call of Duty has a yearly anticipated iterative release, and the battlefront has gone from tours of Europe to the frontlines of the future, complete with acting powerhouse Kevin Spacey in-tow.
All-in-all, however, these games are largely the same: pick up a couple of guns, a grenade or three and “win this war, soldier.” While the graphics get better and better with each release, so many things don’t really seem to change or grow. In an industry begging for something fresh, something new, the most-profitable franchise on the market today doesn’t bother to venture into deeper themes, stronger characters or even lightly touch on the stark realities of the wars they try so hard to emulate. Even more consistent with each release is the outcry from the community that violence in games fails to serve an effective purpose–being present just amp up sales and tick off parents.
Above: Can this be art?
To switch gears for a second, think back to the overall reaction to BioShock Infinite. A large number of gamers and developers alike were utterly wowed by the world and the story that Ken Levine and crew had managed to create. Columbia took our breath away with its intricate set pieces and unabashed racism, while Booker and Anna put our brains in a blender and hit puree when it came to the story. Many were saying that this could easily be the game that serves as an example in the “games as art” debate, if it weren’t for just one little thing: the intense violence. Not even fifteen minutes into the game, you’re forced to put a hook-gun into the skull of a policeman and pull the trigger, pulping his face into a million little pieces on the ground.
Now, I don’t have a huge problem with this, but many, like Cliff Bleszinski–creator of the Lancer, ironically enough–and a few of the notable members of the gaming press, felt that the violence was what would keep BioShock Infinite from going down in the history books. When questioned about it, Ken Levine offered an excellent response in an interview with Kotaku writer Stephen Totilo:
“It’s a limitation of the medium,” Levine said. “I can sit down and write a scene about just about anything. It’s really tough to make a game about any particular topic. You go see a movie like Margin Call, which is a fascinating exploration of how emotionally and the kind of pressures that led to the financial meltdown were on people. To turn that into a game would be a real head-scratcher. But to turn it into a movie is really a function of: can you write a good movie about it? Because you don’t need that skill component, and you don’t need to sort of train people on the systems and things like that [as you do] in games.”
So, if shooting and interactive violence are unavoidable in making a wholly approachable game centered around large conflict, how does Valiant Hearts fair against its multi-million dollar competition, you may ask? Incredibly well, and it may even serve as the first lesson in how to tell a compelling story about conflict without spilling an ounce of visible blood.