Valiant Hearts: War Makes Men Mad

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Valiant Hearts is not a war game, but a game about war. It is a puzzle/adventure game with a tragicomic aesthetic encased an emotional fictional narrative based in fact and historical events. It teaches us about the lives of the soldiers and people in World War 1 without being heavy handed or pretentious. It also succeeds in being educational without being forced. Like all good war stories, it tells the human cost of war rather than the nationalistic platitudes and glorification of warfare that we see all too often in games, books, movies, and television.

The story opens with Karl, a German residing in France with his wife, Marie, and new born son, being sent out of the country by the French government right before the war breaks out. Both Karl and Marie’s father, Emile, get drafted into their respective country’s army. We also have Freddie, one of the 128 Americans that enlisted with France at the beginning of the war, and Anna, a Belgian nurse treating soldiers on the front lines while searching for her kidnapped father. Each of the characters are beautifully realized, with unique sound cues and music and childlike animations. Although they speak mostly in pictograms and half gibberish, the comical aspects of the presentation servers more to add innocence and contrast to the experience in war rather than distract.

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The lack of weapons that the characters can use contrasts with what we think war games should be.  It also highlights who the characters are. Freddie doesn’t use a gun, he uses wire cutters. Emile is both a cook and a trench digger. Anna is a medic. The few times that violence is used, it is always for immediate survival. Instead we get to use ladles, shovels, bricks, bones, and apples. These people are not really soldiers but civilians that are in a situation that requires them to do what they don’t. Violence is rarely the answer. Valiant Hearts seems to say that even in war, the peaceful can be heroes.

As these characters try their best to survive and reunite, they end up in many of the historical battles and events of this time. The game does a great job of incorporating these events and sets the historical context of them in a matter of fact way. There is no grand standing, and except for the very clearly defined antagonist of the first half of the game, the war is presented as a reality rather than good versus evil. War is the enemy here, not the Germans of the French. Throughout the game, there are hidden collectibles which give additional information about the facts of war. While it may seem like a distraction, I couldn’t help myself but to look at them closely whenever I found one. I learned that Germans were the first to use Chlorine gas and that the unprepared French troops took heavy casualties from it. I learned that they used urine soaked rags covering their faces to protect themselves. I learned that Chlorine gas reacts with liquid in your lungs to form hydrochloric acid.

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But that’s not all. I also learned bits and pieces of what soldier’s lives were like. I saw pictures of injuries and death. I saw pictures of tanks and bombs. I saw letters that soldiers had written. I learned that one soldier had created a shoe lace tightener from a bullet casing. That made me think about how I walk around with loose laces on my boots and maybe I could use one of those. I learned that there were far more nationalities involved in the war than I first though. Most of what I learned wasn’t happy; wartime is unpredictable and violent.

One of the memorable moments in the game has Emile trying to escape from a tunnel cave-in. You have to navigate Emile around gas pockets, buried bombs that haven’t exploded yet, and other dangers. At some point you come across a German soldier who has been buried under rubble. Emile helps him get out and then they help each other to escape. Without each other, none of them would have made it out alive, so when a German patrol in the tunnels comes across Emile, the German soldier convinces them to let him go. After climbing out of that tunnel to rejoin your team, you continue your task which is setting up dynamite to collapse the German tunnels above you. Emile can’t see, but the player can, that one of the Germans in the tunnel above him is the same one that helped him get out of the tunnel. The scene ends when you successfully collapse the German tunnel and bury the friend who saved you just moments before.

War is hell, as they say.

Valiant Heart’s final message to the player is: “Even though their bodies have long since returned to dust, their sacrifice still lives on. We must strive to cherish their memory and never forget.”

But as I look on at the current political landscape, I can’t help but think that everyone has already forgotten.


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