Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Genre: Puzzle adventure
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, XB1, PS4
Reason to cop: You want to learn more about World War I in a way that is accessible and ingenious.
Reason to not cop: You'd rather remain ignorant to the seldom-discussed traumas of the past.
Bottom Line: It's the best history lesson you'll ever buy. Knowledge is power.
American history has often treated World War I with less regard and reverence than its sequel. Given the psychological horror inflicted on the majority of first-world nations around the world, this willful ignorance is understandable. This isn't to say that World War II wasn't accompanied by its own set of traumas and baggage. What I mean is that World War I lacks a defining moment of victory that students and teachers can latch onto in public schools across the country.
Even though nine million soldiers were killed in World War I, the accumulated power of these deaths still pales in comparison to the global, existential, and patriotic weight of the atomic bomb. Along with that, America severely withdrew itself from foreign affairs in the wake of World War I, a claim supported by the Senate's rejection of both the Treaty of Versailles and a membership into the League of Nations. Then-President Woodrow Wilson—who had entertained the idea of running for a third term in 1920—was wildly unpopular with the American people by the time he left office. In April of 1937, a Gallup poll revealed that 64 percent of Americans believed that entering the war in 1917 was a mistake. Those numbers would see a reversal in the coming years, but the shift can likely be explained by the United States' decision to enter World War II in 1941. For decades after the conflict, everyone in the U.S. appeared to be ready to move on.
The country's private shame about the Great War is no crime. Frankly, anything you read about the war can tell you that it was horrifying. Tanks lurched across European countrysides like giant, metallic slugs. Chemical warfare was used for the first time in a conflict of this scale, endangering and killing not only the soldiers, but the civilians who lived in nearby villages and cities. A large gust of wind was all it took to asphyxiate an innocent human being. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire laid waste to Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek populations in various genocides.
These facts only scratch at the surface of what was taking place during this period of history, but they're a start. Hopefully, they're an inspiration for people to dig deeper into the conflict and form their own views on what this war was about or how one should define its legacy. It's relevant not only because it matters to know these sorts of things, but also because the Iraq War may also fall victim to this same, national amnesia if we're not careful.
At this point, you may be wondering: What the fuck does all this have to do with Valiant Hearts? The answer is that it has everything to do with Ubisoft's new World War I-inspired puzzle game. By challenging you to explore World War I and its assorted traumas, Valiant Hearts works to reverse our collective gap in memory, and provides countless teachable moments that serve as more than mere solutions to puzzles.
In the game, you start out by playing as Emile, a French citizen pulled into service by the national army. Similarly, his son-in-law, Karl, has been thrust back into the service of his native Germany. Along the way, you also meet and play as Freddie—an American ex-pat who is out for revenge—and Anna, a Belgian nurse who helps out on the Parisian home front. As you progress through the narrative of the game, you're running through trenches, digging out tunnels, treating the wounded and shell-shocked, and helping to defeat the invading Germans.
The scenes of a devastated Paris, the hail of gunfire as it rains down from turrets: these are details that manage to transcend the harmless and childish surfaces of their animations.
The game isn't as terrifying or visceral as its subject matter, though still works to provide an education for those who aren't privy to the gory details of bloodshed and dysentery. The cartoonish artistic direction helps to provide a certain distance from the details of the conflict that are more difficult to stomach. This isn't Call of Duty, where a first-person perspective would cause us to feel the sensation of swallowing mustard gas or taking a bullet to our mess tin. Instead, we're romantic adventurers who must overcome these obstacles the same way Mario would jump over a Goomba.
Of course, Valiant Hearts isn't entirely spotless either. There are moments when the outstanding events of the war cause one to consider the significance of these events as they're playing through them. The scenes of a devastated Paris, the hail of gunfire as it rains down from turrets: these are details that manage to transcend the harmless and childish surfaces of their animations.
But, for the most part, Valiant Hearts seeks to form a historical connection with its player through the various items you can pick up throughout levels, as well as diary entries and informative cut-scenes that help to set the stage of war. You can pick up items like Canadian dog tags or letters from Prussian soldiers and then press "Pause" in order to read about them. Additionally, each level comes with its own set of facts to help better explicate your setting. It can be frustrating that these explanations aren't better synthesized with the action, but it's still an accomplishment on Ubisoft's part that they opted to provide such pain-staking detail in the first place. Instead of giving you secondhand trauma via a first-person adventure, they're trying to make your history book more fun and compelling. There are no barks from military commanders telling you what to do, just simple thought bubbles with pictures that explain your next objective. It's a noble goal complemented by witty execution.
In terms of gameplay, the first chapter of the game felt sluggish toward the end due to simplistic puzzles and the straightforward nature of each level. As the game progressed, these problems were worked out, and the title became more challenging and nuanced. The most ingenious aspect of the game was how it managed to remove the violence from trench warfare, instead asking you to pursue stealth and teamwork as the means for survival and success. Even when Anna must saw off the limb of a wounded soldier, the game carries out the operation via a rhythm game instead of simply putting a grizzly, dismembered limb in your hand.
As a result, the psychic burden of World War I becomes surprisingly light. The topic is made approachable, and the gameplay compels us to move forward instead of backing off in fear. Valiant Hearts isn't A Farewell to Arms in terms of writing nor weight, but it also isn't trying to play us for saps. In any sort of entertainment or fiction, war has to be cloaked so that we can cope with it. Ubisoft has chosen a disguise that is lighter than most, but never forgets about the load shrouded underneath.