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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.
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.
Ubisoft took on a huge responsibility when deciding to set this new game in the era of the First World War. On one hand, a game is meant to be entertaining, and entertainment is a very dangerous mine field when dealing with actual history—and possible the men and women who previously lived it. I’ll never forget playing Medal of Honor: Allied Assault with my Grandfather, who watched me gleefully play through the attack on Normandy Beach, only to say, “Why would they make a game out of this?”
Real men with real lives died in very real, often unspeakable ways, and it takes a very skilled and respectful hand to give a voice to that era in the form of modern entertainment. Luckily, by teaming up with Mission Centenaire and Apocalypse: World War I, the depth and severity of the real world takes a front seat to the entertaining puzzles and side-scrolling action of the game. As you explore the stunningly animated, comic-esque representations of the German-French front, you will uncover fragments of real history, teaching you about WWI in relevance to exactly where you are in the game at that moment.
Perhaps the reason WWI is not widely represented in modern war games is because it lacks easily determined lines of good and evil. Unlike Hitler and the Nazi regime in WWII, WWI was more a battle of revenge that became a battle of attrition. Yes, Germany had to be stopped from overtaking all of Western Europe, but it was Russian miltants that fired the shot that killed Archduke Ferdinand and let loose the dogs of war.
First-person shooters, while appealing to a wide audience, begin to lack appeal when you find yourself unable to really relate to the side you are fighting for—a great example being Halo 2, and the rest of Master Chief’s campaign against the Covenant, after the rise of the Arbiter as a playable character. However, to paint the French as the sole heroes, or the Germans as the sole enemies would be a failure in world history. So, how do you approach such a largely recognized, real gray area?
Valiant Hearts manages to paint compassion on both sides through its absolutely heart-gripping narrative. Karl, a young German married to, and father of a child by a French woman, Marie, has been exiled from St. Mihiele after Germany declares war. Not long after, Karl is conscripted into the German forces against France, and Marie’s father, Emile, has been drafted into the French army as well. Both men long for the day they can return home to their family—a family who harbors no bad blood towards the other’s home country—and have no idea they will soon have bayonets poised in each other’s direction.
Meanwhile Anna, a Belgian girl away from her hometown of Ypres (which, I learned courtesy of the game is pronounced “Eep”) to learn to become a vet, discovers the German forces and their leader, Baron Von Dorf, have kidnapped her father, a well-known scientist. In her effort to retrieve him, she must cross both German and French lines, helping as best she can as a neutral nurse along the way.
These are only three of the five major characters Valiant Hearts offers, but in all of their cases you will find instances where each must help both French and German soldiers who find themselves in harm’s way. Anna will find it in her heart to heal the wounded regardless of uniform, Emile will make friends on both fronts who will save his life in return for him saving theirs and Karl will do anything it takes to get back home to Marie and his ailing son.
But, you might ask, is it actually possible to portray a war—let alone a real war—without any semblance of violence? To be fair, it may be, but that doesn’t mean that Valiant Hearts avoids violence at all costs.
Freddie, another of our heroes is an American living in Paris at the time of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. While he may have his own motives, which you’ll discover as you play, he agrees willingly to join the French forces against the Germans. Not long after he meets Emile, and the two become steadfast friends and allies in a world torn apart.
Serving as what may be a commentary on the current state of America in world affairs, or perhaps entirely unintentional, Ubisoft seems to have chosen Freddie’s segments as those featuring the most, if any, cartoonish violence. Bullet-Bill size bombs and missiles fly through the air from tanks and cannons shooting down soldiers and planes in huge clouds of dust. Occasionally other characters will have to use weapons to achieve a goal, but it is usually either to clear a debris-blocked path, or to free Freddie from some kind of attempted capture.
Beyond all of this, however, it is important to remember that a game is still a game, and if it doesn’t play well, or fails to entertain, it will ultimately fail. Luckily, Valiant Hearts offers ingenious puzzles, a stunning soundtrack and innovative controls with a heart-warming twist.
Walt, the last of our heroes, is a Doberman Pincher trained by the German forces to be a canine medic. Serving almost as our conscience and a physical manifestation of the missing innocence of war, he meets Emile and instantly bonds with him. Through Emile’s adventures he later meets the rest of our heroes and they all use him to help achieve their end goals—complete with a pat on the head, or a tummy rub for each good deed done.
The mechanic of using Walt to complete various puzzles works smoothly, and the attention to detail can especially be seen when using him. By pressing the key that offers up Walt’s available commands, the screen will turn black-and-white, mirroring his viewpoint, as we all know dogs are colorblind.
The puzzles don’t always utilize Walt, and offer up to three hints if you find yourself stuck. In my entire play-through I tried as hard as possible to avoid using hints and managed to only have to use one near the end of the game. That being said, that doesn’t mean the puzzles are insanely easy, so much as it means that you will often have to be more patient to discover a solution.
Anna, too, has a unique minigame tied to her efforts as a nurse. When approaching a downed solider or civilian, a Rock Band style quicktime event will trigger where you must press the correct combination of buttons in the correct order, or risk losing the person you’re trying valiantly to save.
Additionally, Anna comes across a car and at different parts of the game will use it to help our heroes traverse large areas of the Western Front. During these segments you get to control the car in a small minigame, avoiding obstacles and incoming attacks. Additionally, these moments are punctuated by the use of famous orchestral pieces—a la the Infernal Gallop (better known as the music for the Can Can) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee. Enemy machine guns and bombs trying to derail your vehicle as it goes down the road punctuate each instrumental swell and slam of an ivory key. Oddly enough it brings a kind of beauty to the concussive anarchy that is warfare.
As you can see, Valiant Hearts: The Great War manages to dispel just about every notion the industry currently has about the steadfast nature of war games. Yes, they may simply be more accessible when delivered via the FPS genre, but haven’t we moved past a fervent need for accessibility? Isn’t it time that innovation started showing up on store shelves as opposed to only through digital releases?
According to the ESA’s 2013 report, over 53% of Americans alone play video games, and the industry itself brings in nearly $22 billion—that’s a safe assumption that mere accessibility cannot hold back creativity any longer. We’re here, we’re comfortable, and with the average gamer sitting pretty over the age of 30, change now will only foster the desire for something better in generations to come without frightening away the current population.
All in all, as I tuck away my soapbox until the next time, there is one point I cannot stress enough when it comes to Valiant Hearts. If you haven’t played this game yet, and that’s okay because it is still relatively new, you’d be doing yourself a considerable disservice to avoid it.