War. War never changes. Or at least — games about war usually don’t. Let me show you.
Behold! You’re a soldier, fighting for a country/cause/planet/species. You go on missions: rescuing hostages, capturing bunkers, surviving until the cavalry arrives, and ultimately — becoming the hero. The odds will be stacked against you, but with skill, teamwork, and a little grit, you will Save the Day. Is this game Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Far Cry, Mass Effect, or Dragon Age?
“No, you buffoon!” you shout triumphantly. “I’m not a soldier at all! I’m commanding armies across treacherous terrain, building up economies for the sole purpose of pounding my opponents into a bloody pulp! That’s a war game, too!” You are correct, O anonymous reader: this is Age of Empires, Starcraft, Warcraft, and obviously any Total War game.
Now, to be clear: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a good war game. It’s one of the best outlets for the violent tendencies baked into humanity. I mean, we were murdering each other before we were even sentient; just look at how our closest living ancestors conduct themselves. This shit runs deep, and I know I personally feel a lot better after hacking several hundred rats to pieces in Vermintide 2.
But Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a different sort of war game. It will make you laugh, then rip that joy from you — all in a few minutes. It is a game about a family bound by both blood and circumstance. It deals in different emotions: compassion, apathy, and hazy morality. By the end of Valiant Hearts, I didn’t feel great, and that’s what makes it such a great war game.
Everything starts in the town of Saint-Mihiel, France. There, we meet a strapping young man named Karl and his family: wife, newborn son, and father-in-law, Emile. Unfortunately Karl is German, so when war erupts in Austria-Hungary, he’s deported back to his homeland. As Karl’s family tries to cope with their loss, the elderly Emile is drafted into the French army. All of this happens in less than five minutes of game time.
It’s the Up of games, and like its Pixar counterpart, Valiant Hearts enjoys juxtaposing very different emotions. Before boarding a train to the front, Emile bumps into a group of French soldiers throwing baguettes at an African-American engineer named Freddie. Luckily Emile doesn’t like racists, so he breaks them up and forges a friendship with Freddie. Then you get to solve a fun polka music puzzle!
It’s this kind of emotional contrast that distinguishes Valiant Hearts from other war games – even ones that don’t glorify war. In This War of Mine, you manage a group of civilians a warzone. To survive, you have to ration food, beat up other survivors, and hope your folks don’t succumb to insanity or depression! A great game, but hardly nuanced in its emotional playbook.
Both This War and Valiant Hearts focus on people who have been sucked into a hellish world. But Valiant Hearts knows how to season its story with humor. Characters mutter the occasional words and phrases in their native tongues, but most communication happens nonverbally — through wild gestures and thought bubbles with pictures à la Machinarium. This fits well with the hand-drawn background, giving the game a playful tone that never becomes too childish.
The puzzles you’ll solve will be charming scenarios like “Dodging Airplane Bullets And Landmines To The Tune of ‘Hungarian Dance No. 5’” and “Redirecting Deadly Chlorine Gas by Rotating Pipes”. Turning this kind of subject matter into cartoon sequences should not work, but it does, perhaps because the cuteness makes the tragedies hit harder.
And oh, are there tragedies. Besides Karl, Emile, and Freddie, there are two other playable characters: Anna, a Belgian nurse looking for her captured father, and Walt, a German medical dog. Without spoiling anything, you will be riding an emotional rollercoaster with these five characters, some of whom forgot to buckle their seatbelts.
Each character has a different (nonviolent) ability, like administering first aid, cutting barbed wire, or being a dog. For being a game so obviously about war, Valiant Hearts is surprisingly peaceful. Sure, you’ll throw the odd grenade to clear blockades, and I remember a questionable part involving a tank… But! For the majority of the game, you’ll be running from conflict rather than engaging in it.
Sometimes that running gets bogged down by collectibles. Each item you collect grants you a period photograph and a historical blurb. I have mixed feelings about these. While I appreciated the nods to reality, I was usually in the middle of an action sequence when I snagged one of these doodads. The game never forced me to read the historical bits immediately, but then I never really felt like there was a good time to sort through my stuff.
In my review of Life Is Strange, I bemoaned the game’s lack of balance between interactive objects and pacing. I’m not against collectibles in general, but I think they need to be properly integrated for me to accept them. Psychonauts does this really well: there is a lot to collect in that game — emotional baggage, figments of imagination, mental cobwebs, and the mighty scavenger hunt. But it made narrative sense to find those things. It’s odd that characters in Valiant Hearts would interrupt far more pressing concerns to search for safety pins and hats. Fortunately, the added historical context from the collectibles is worth the brief breaks in immersion.
Valiant Hearts immersed me enough to make me cry. Unlike Life Is Strange, though, these tears didn’t feel forced. This could simply be because Valiant Hearts earned my trust; it made me laugh before messing with my heart. While the characters are people of few words, they’re more relatable and endearing than the caricatures of Life Is Strange. They feel real because they find moments of hope and happiness amid the terror surrounding them: Emile and an enemy soldier work together to escape a collapsing mineshaft; Anna tends to wounds of soldiers on both sides; Walt finds time to play fetch with the humans he meets.
But it’s important to recognize that none of the characters actually want anything to do with the war. They’re all trying to disengage for various reasons: Karl is trying to get to his family, Emile is trying to get to Karl, Anna is trying to find her father, and Freddie is trying to assassinate a German commander for killing his wife…
OK, so Freddie might be the exception, but the point is — the characters are driven by motives that are separate from the larger war. These motives eventually conflict with their duties, and it’s during these moments that you will be smacked with the hardest emotions. This is refreshing. In most war games, you’re playing characters who have committed: they’re there to kick ass and/or protect their country.
The heroes of Valiant Hearts are not seeking glory. They want out. And this shift in perspectives is powerful. You won’t emerge from this game with adrenaline pumping through your veins — you’ll emerge hating the very concept of war. You’ll hate war as Emile, when you’re fighting off boredom in the trenches. You’ll hate war as Anna, when you bring an enemy soldier back from the brink of death. You’ll hate war as Karl, when you’re rotating a single gas mask among family members to keep them alive.
I will probably never play Valiant Hearts again. That’s how much it made me hate war. But you should play it.