I’ve just finished Valiant Hearts: The Great War on the PS3, and it’s the best new game in a while. As a puzzle game it’s very good but not perfect, but it’s the game’s narrative approach to its subject matter that’s made me want to bring this blog out of hiatus to talk about it.
Valiant Hearts is set in the First World War; or, rather, since it’s a puzzle game, it’s set in cartoony version of the First World War in which both armies lock vital equipment behind elaborate lever/pulley mechanisms for no particular reason. For all its cartoonishness, though, it treats the subject matter with more respect than games that reduce war to endless repetition of the act of shooting.
For a start, fewer than half of Valiant Hearts’ levels take place during battles. We see towns (in various stages of ruin as the game progresses), countryside, and a prisoner of war camp. The excellent passages of historical information available from a pause menu illuminate various aspects of the period, as does the selection of historical objects that form the game’s collectibles.
More interesting is the way the game sets up its conflict and ultimate antagonist. The first character introduced is a German farmer living in France and married to a French woman. War is declared, and he’s deported to Germany and conscripted into the German army. Immediately afterwards we see his father-in-law conscripted into the French army, and the father-in-law’s basic training forms the game’s tutorial. This set-up forces the player to abandon their tendency (trained into them by most depictions of war, especially games) to see one side of the conflict as the good guys and the other as the bad guys. The enemy isn’t the Germans: the enemy is the war.
There’s also the moustache-twirlingly nefarious Baron von Dorf, but he always felt like a secondary villain: a necessary antagonist for the four characters’ personal stories, through which the overall story of individuals against the war was told. Because the player characters specifically have a conflict with the Baron, it doesn’t feel like they have a conflict with the German nation as a whole, and many other German characters encountered in the game come across as sympathetic.
I’d like to see more games take Valiant Hearts’ war-as-the-enemy approach with other wars (both historical and fictional). The Second World War is normally seen as more clear-cut, with Nazi ideology unambiguously evil, but there’s still a lot of scope for sympathetic characters who found themselves on the wrong side of national boundaries when the war began. It’s harder to imagine games taking the same approach with more recent historical wars, in which American troops are shipped half way across the world to fight a visually and culturally distinct Other with whom the soldiers have had no friendly contact; but perhaps this very difficulty means it’s more important for art to help us see the other side of the conflicts as human.
Valiant Hearts has been released close to the centenary of the start of the First World War. I hope it doesn’t take a hundred years for games to depict more recent wars in a similarly balanced light.