Very few games and media in general have moved me emotionally the way that Valiant Hearts: The Great War did. From its contrasting of lighthearted art style with seriousness of subject matter, to its use of real-life artifacts of the war, I don’t think I have connected in such a way to a story about war in years.
In many games about war, much of the gameplay is centered on the righteousness of the protagonist and the cause that he (typically) represents. There is evil in the world, and you are playing to defeat that evil. All hope of compromise has collapsed prior to the events that unfold around you, and your only job is to eliminate the other side, or at least beat them enough to force them to submit. War is gritty and serious, and each event involves your best efforts to avoid death at every turn.
Valiant Hearts evokes the severity of war through the use of methods contrary to the usual storytelling techniques that are shown in typical war stories. The art styling is whimsical and colorful, with lots of contrast in the colors between different stages and the stiff appendage motions that call back to old Monty Python scene transitions. Use of language is limited to only a few utterances, with much of the rt being told through illustrations shown in speech bubbles. The random screams and stilted screaming of French officers provide some entertainment early on in the game, setting the tone for the absurdity of leadership decisions, a point that proves to be essential near the end of the story. The main characters are also identified through their lack of eyes, with either a large mop of hair or, in case of the American Freddy, a cap. The choice of character design reminds me of a group of sheepdogs running around a pen, making friends with a pit bull puppy.
Because of this art selection, one can almost forget the serious nature of the game. Even in early stages, you can almost miss that Emile’s fellow soldiers are being gunned down all around him as you carry the French flag and avoid German bombing raids. When gleefully tossing tiny sticks of dynamite, little green circles surround the landscape, representing the massive quantities of chlorine gas that suffocated and burned troops. Large networks of tunnels remind me that there were real people trapped in the tunnels, playing a war of attrition in miles and miles through the Belgian countryside. While an orchestra gaily plays during the driving puzzles, real taxi drivers were bringing troops to the front lines for battle, and while Anna was able to save several civilians after bombing raids and traps from burning buildings, approximately 39 million real-life individuals did not get the medical treatment that could have spared their lives and livelihood.
The feeling of seriousness can also be felt in the artifacts left throughout the game. Many other war stories highlight the war technology used – guns, ammunition, aircraft – without connecting to the daily lives of the soldiers. Knowing that there were only a few types of service pistols has less of an impact than seeing a razor that a solider would use to shave facial hair, allowing their gas masks to sit flush on their faces and save their lives. Knowing the size of soldier’s rations and type of buttons that were used on the uniforms paints a broader picture of the time in which The Great War was being waged and the struggles that so many people faced.
The game was based on the letters that were being sent from the front lines to the loved ones waiting back home, and the use of letter writing by the main characters gave context to the lives that these individuals had to lead across enemy lines. The expulsion of Karl from his home in France to his native Germany, and Emile’s subsequent conscription into the French army, highlighted the complicated nature of the relationships of ordinary people within such a small land space as Europe. There was also a struggle for Marie, Emile’s daughter and Karl’s wife and mother of his child. She is left to stay at home to take care of the baby, holding love for her father and husband and taking only the side of the war that will bring her family home.
Towards the end, we see the complex feelings that Emile suffer, as he watches his fellow countrymen revel in their military successes and the subsequent loss of German lives in the trenches. The ending of the game brings the tragedy home, showing the player that for many in the war – no matter how righteous one could be – there was only one way for it to end.
With the proliferation of so many games that bring excitement and intrigue to war and imply the virtue of the player and the position of their side, Valiant Hearts: The Great War shows a truly human story – one that shows the complexity and internal conflicts that arise with well-intentioned individuals driven by duty and love of country.