World War I isn’t an easy topic to write about, much less make a game out of. The reasons for the war are now archaic, and the technological innovations that sprung from the conflict cannot be discussed without understanding the lives these new inventions, like the machine gun, took. The lack of easy narratives and devastating toll on human life make the war harder to conceptualize. That’s why Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War stands out as a bold attempt at creating a game that also educated players about World War I.
For those unfamiliar, Valiant Hearts is a narrative-driven adventure game that centers around four different characters brought together by the war. There’s the German soldier Karl, his French father-in-law Emile, Belgian nurse Anna, and American soldier Freddie. In the aftermath of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Germany and Russia declare war with each other, forcing their respective allies to enter the war as well. France deports German nationals from its territories which separates Karl from his son and French wife, Marie. Karl is drafted into the German army while his father-in-law Emile is drafted into the French army. As the two try to reunite their broken family, they come across Anna and Freddie who have their own reasons for participating in the war.
Ubisoft Montpelier partnered with the documentary series Apocalypse: World War I to provide a historical framework for all the real-life battles and locations the characters participate in over the course of the four-chapter game. The decision to include historical facts along the way is a welcome surprise.
While some reviewers at the time decried the history lesson as detrimental to the game’s feeling of immersion, I found Ubisoft Montpelier’s willingness to delve into the minutiae of the conflict surprising. Not only did these historical lessons illuminate general and obscure historical events pertaining to the first World War, but the game refused to shy away from explaining the war’s darker aspects as well.
Players had access to historical information about specific regions the characters were stationed in, what living conditions were like on the battlefield, and much more. While the mechanics that allowed players to access this information could have been more refined, the actual information offered to the players is informative without feeling too abridged. The game even highlights surprising information such as a section about American soldiers who volunteered for the French national army before the United States officially entered the war.
Video games, perhaps more so than any other genre, often sacrifice human stories in favor of crafting certain experiences. Games based on real-world conflicts are often guilty of fueling narratives that war is exciting and fun. How a video game shooter plays, with multiple lives and regenerative health, also glosses over the real, life-and-death stakes of a soldier. Valiant Hearts doesn’t set out to make a grisly portrait of the battlefield, but instead tries to capture its emotional truth.
Each of the characters — who are based on real letters sent during WWI — express their distaste for the violence and the aimless war in which they are involved. The game’s climax, where Emile is executed by his own country, doesn’t turn away from how senseless the war seemed to those who fought in it. The ending was surprisingly sobering for a game that sometimes masked war’s horror with its design. Despite Valiant Heart’s family-friendly visuals, however, it never intentionally tried to take away from the characters and their emotional turmoil. The way Karl and Emile speak out against the war, and Anna’s first-hand narration about the carnage, offer a rare glimpse of how video games tackling historical conflicts can incorporate an empathetic interpretation of history.