Valiant Hearts: The Great War | A tale of sacrifice
Type of game
Valiant Hearts was born as a solo project in 2011, but with the centenary of World War I in 2014 it found its purpose and direction. On one hand, by being a tribute to the memory of the war’s fallen. On the other, a chance to educate the audience about its historical impact. However, the developing team of Ubisoft Montpellier had never approached a similar game before, and thus the title underwent a process of research to ensure historical accuracy. The result of this extensive work was a touching gaming experience that changed the outlook on war video games altogether.
The Great War seen through human eyes
On August 1st 1914, at the dawn of WW1, the peaceful existence of Karl and his father-in-law Emile shifted forever. As a German living in France, Karl is forced to leave the country behind, as well as his wife and newborn child, while Emile is enlisted despite his old age. Both determined to return home, they will face on opposite sides a conflict such as the world has never seen. However, their story will intertwine with those of others who were caught in the crossfire. Unexpected allies like Freddie, an African-American volunteer, as well as Anna, a Belgian nurse looking for her father. Last but not least there is Walt – a first-aid dog that will bring comfort among these chaotic events.
Focusing more on the people’s struggles than the larger political picture, Valiant Hearts’ retelling has a deep human connotation. Its protagonists are no heroes, enlisting of their own volition for the glory of battle. On the contrary, they are ordinary people swept into the midst of conflict against their will, attempting to survive. A point of view that can be found in other intimate stories of war, like the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
They are not tales of grandeur because there is no greatness in war. And the video game does not hold back from exposing this grim truth. But despite the heavy themes it tackles, it is not devoid of beauty, for in such desperate times the resolve to survive rings all the more true.
Valiant Hearts is a war game unlike any other
Warfare has always been the focus of compelling narratives. As the setting of human tragedies, unspeakable horrors and action heroes alike, it has an inherent captivating connotation. Moreover, numerous generations grew up with glorifying tales of war, contributing to the grim fascination surrounding this topic. As such, it was only a matter of time before it became an object of entertainment as well. From early board games like Risk or Battleship – some of which were born during times of conflict – to modern video games. Today, the popularity of the genre is still high thanks to many series and a variety of subgenres. Ranging from first-person shooters such as Halo to strategy games like Total War. However, the experience that is Valiant Hearts is unique to the genre.
Contrary to most titles, the game mechanics do not focus on combat. Instead, they take the form of a side-scrolling puzzle game. This was a choice made to allow the focus to be on the human aspect of the story, and not muddle its message. In order to proceed the player will need to solve a series of environmental puzzles. This includes clearing paths for the troops, digging tunnels among unexploded bombs, sneaking through enemy lines, and many more. Intuitive challenges that do not interfere with the pacing of the narrative while still offering a variety of scenarios. A clear source of inspiration are other puzzle games such as Playdead’s iconic Limbo.
Glimpses of hope among the rubbles
The tone gets darker and darker as the story progresses alongside WW1’s main battles. It portrays all the horrors that the people of the time experienced firsthand, soldiers and civilians alike, regardless of their side on the battlefield. From the hardships of life in the trenches to the devastating use of lethal gas. From the bombing of cities to its cost to human lives. In Valiant Hearts, war is all around, terrible and encompassing, and cannot be ignored. In none of these scenarios, though, will the player ever play a violent role. That is because none of the protagonists is a killer, let alone a villain – much like the majority of those enlisted for combat.
In fact, despite the climate of conflict, the characters will find themselves helping others time and time again. Anna will treat the wounds of allies and enemies alike, while Emile will rescue civilians in the bombed city of Reims. A comforting glimpse of humanity that makes the protagonists resonate to a deeper level with the audience. Because while the title does not sugarcoat the slaughter that is war, it also shines a light on the moments of human connection: the camaraderie, the selfless acts of kindness as well as the bonds born in times of hardships.
These moments of levity bring solace to the protagonists and the player alike. But most importantly, they spark a reflection on the real-life people who experienced WW1.
Valiant Hearts’ message of remembrance
Another remarkable feature of this video game is the graphics, which stand out for their 2D illustrative style. Even more so when compared to the hyper-realism of other war games released that year, such as Call of Duty. And yet this stylistic choice holds an inherent charm and narrative value. The character design is impressive in its simplicity, the gestures and interactions full of character despite the gibberish dialogue. But it is the detail and colors of the ambiance that make the scenes truly memorable. Multiple layers of background depict barren wastelands and burning cities shrouded in smoke. The extent of war’s destructive effect, which go well beyond the walkable path.
Valiant Hearts is not without flaws. Its game mechanics might be too simple for the average player, and the cartoonish style can feel jarring with the dramatic nature of some scenes. However, it is successful in bringing history to life in a way that is both educational and touching. A level of attention to detail goes to show how video games that have simpler styles or shorter running times can be just as effective in conveying big messages. Such is the case for Celeste and its cathartic inner journey, or the religious undertones in The Binding of Isaac. It is their capacity to approach delicate themes that make for meaningful gaming experiences.
In conclusion, the title’s emotional storytelling won over players and critics alike, becoming a little gem in video game history. During the 2014 Game Awards, it won in both best narrative and games for change categories, and in 2023 Ubisoft released the sequel Valiant Hearts: Coming Home on Netflix.