If there’s one thing (of many) that is represented incorrectly in video games, it’s war. Typically, being in a video game war is akin to the most awesome death rollercoaster you’ve ever imagined. They overflow with excitement, bravery and strangling foreigners with the American flag. Games make war fun and badass. Hell, I remember when I slowly knifed an enemy soldier in Modern Warfare 2, watched his eyes roll back in his terrified head and then proceeded to kill a hundred more dudes immediately afterwards. War + Game = Whatevs.
I have never been in a war but I have read and watched enough about them that at least I know they seem like the worst thing ever. Among the vast amount of wars that have ravaged the globe over the centuries, one of the most brutal and senseless was World War 1. Ending up with a death toll close to 20 million, “The Great War” has been very briefly touched upon in video games but the true harrowing cost of those four years of blood and sacrifice is something that would be near impossible to capture in any way that would make sense.
Valiant Hearts comes close.
While its big brother studios were off making huge open-worlds filled with endless side missions with teams of thousands, Ubisoft Montpellier have designed a small story of four characters that stabs you in the heart with pain and sorrow at every opportunity. This studio have gone out on very precarious limbs before with Beyond Good & Evil and From Dust. With Valiant Hearts, I think they have once again made it clear that story and characters tower over any number of missions that involve gunning down 8,000 enemies with kick-ass guns.
See, my perfect war game would consist of 20 hours of sitting in a trench with very minimal action, lots of crying and perhaps suicide at the finish. Yes, yes I know it wouldn’t sell many copies. But it would be worlds more interesting than forgettable mission after forgettable mission of moving from A to B to C. Valiant Hearts is in the spirit of this “perfect game”. As a 2D adventure game, there’s action and puzzle-solving but the thing sets it apart is the characters backstories and the developer’s dedication to research. Pick up an object and some soft piano begins while you have the option to read about how that object helped soldiers through the worst hell they have ever been a part of. Hope exists in Valiant Hearts but it is often lost in the mud and insanity so reading such historical facts, real-life letters to home and fascinating notes fills that void.
Thankfully, the gameplay itself is fun and rewarding. A depressing game that tries to show the player the horrors of conflict is great but if it’s boring to play, then none of that would matter one bit. The puzzles are interesting and action sequences are tense. Every character has different attributes and skills and the game transports you to very different and very fascinating ravaged areas of Europe.
But let’s get down to what really matters: Valiant Hearts is one of those rare games that reminds you how utterly horrific human beings can be. Obviously, this doesn’t sound like “fun” but I don’t care. There’s enough games where you fistpump the air at the end. Even in its small victories, no section of this game doesn’t make you want to celebrate anything. And that’s the point. Whatever your situation, if you are sitting there playing Valiant Hearts then chances are your life is much more comfortable than any of the characters that are portrayed. They have been numbed to death and tragedy to an alarming degree. They are trapped in hell while you press pause to see if that latest episode of Agents Of Shield has downloaded.
I can’t even fathom what soldiers in World War 1 were subjected to. The raw nerve of it. Like being told by another person to walk into instant suicide basically because that’s also what the enemy is doing. It is behaviour that should be reserved for madmen. I never felt even a hint of consequence in countless games that had me storming Omaha Beach or firing rocket launchers at tanks but a small moment in Valiant Hearts where I swung a shovel at someone’s head left me stunned. Because I knew this simple act would have grave consequences.
Valiant Hearts is a brave, rewarding game that left me terrified. Terrified to be yet again reminded that throughout our past and into our future, human beings will continue to be monsters with very little prompting.
Pretty sweet achievements, though.