Obligatory YouTube link for those who want it. And, yes, I totally used “literally” when I literally meant “figuratively,” but I only caught it as the video was uploading and fixing a one-word mistake meant 3+ hours of recording, re-encoding, and re-uploading. Figured I could stand to let one dumb word use fly.
Anyways, Valiant Hearts is like that shy person you know that’s obnoxiously self-deprecating. It’s good. I liked it. I just wish it saw in it what I did, and had the self-esteem to be proud of those great moments. The less good moments aren’t *bad*, either, they’re just… burying the great stuff. Which is a shame. Like I say in the video, there’s a heartfelt and touching story in there if you strip out all the doofy parts.
Also: Totally didn’t realize the totenkopf was a thing until people on YouTube pointed it out. Still, even if the pointy hats and skeleton iconography are accurate it’s still in service (given the framing) to making the German soldiers menacing and evil. *shrug* Script after the jump.
When Wolfenstein: The New Order came out there was an image floating around the internet that compared this picture of BJ Blazkowicz to this picture of BJ Blazkowicz, usually with the headline “Wolfenstein then and now” with a sort of “Look how far we’ve come!” flair to the whole thing. To which the snarky response is, of course, how far have we come? Guy shoots science fiction Nazis then, guy shoots science fiction Nazis now. The level of fidelity has changed, sure, but A New Order is a more or less as faithful an adaptation of its source material as one can get without being Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The technology has improved, sure, but I don’t think we should tie progress in the field of graphical rendering with progress in the field of games.
But I think if we’re going to seriously assess how much progress games (and in this case I mostly mean studio-backed commercial releases, not all games) have made since the age of Wolfenstein 3D we need to look at how we have learned to use and consume games. And since we’re talking about Valiant Hearts today, I suppose we should look back at how games have talked about the lives and sacrifices of soldiers at war. How have we handled this historically? Mostly with cutesey quotes when you die in Call of Duty or a John Williams-y soundtrack that plays as you shoot an army’s worth of enemy soldiers.
In contrast, Valiant Hearts has genuine ambitions of being a game about people stuck in a conflict they might not particularly want to be in. It wants to speak to the experiences of the soldiers on the front lines. The psychological toll, the waiting for something to happen, the distance from family and friends, the scarcity of food, the conformity of the uniform, the rigid structure of the military. So does Valiant Hearts succeed at doing that? Aaaeeaugh… kind of?
The problem at the core of the game is that it suffers from being pulled in what feels like two creative directions at once. On one hand it wants to be this small, simple, intimate tale of people who loved, fought, won, and lost in World War 1. A story not of the conflict and combat but of the sacrifice and suffering. And on the other hand it wants to be very traditionally video game-y, very driven by systemic reward structures and visceral indulgences, with clear black and white morals. And the two approaches don’t really see eye to eye.
For example, there’s the tone and scope of the game’s stories. First, there are the two goofy, over the top stories of Anna and Freddie. The evil Baron Van Dorf – who of course is on the German side, and is so comically evil he has a scull and crossbones on his hat – personally bombed Paris and personally killed Freddie’s girl, and now Freddie will stop at nothing to hunt down this one particular guy in all of the war. Baron Von Dorf also personally kidnapped Anna’s father, who happens to be some sort of proto super scientist capable of making mega-tanks and zeppelins. So the two have their macguffins driving them across Europe chasing one particular evil general in a wacky game of cat and mouse. And it’s not that none of this works, per se, it just plays out in pulpy Indiana Jones style. Which, if that was the intent of the game, could work okay.
The problem comes when you realize that their stories are tied up with those of Emile and Karl. Emile and Karl’s stories are far more believable – stories about leaving home behind against your will, conscripted to fight on opposite sides of a battle you have no real stake in. Their goals are just to see their family reunited, or at the very least taken care of in the event that something goes wrong. It’s their story that is the emotional core of Valiant Hearts, and if the game has any true merit it’s through these characters and what they go through.
But Freddie tightly intertwines with Emile’s story, and Anna tightly intertwines with Karl’s story. It’s like having Rambo in the same platoon as Joker from Full Metal Jacket; even if you can buy that they’re friends they’re sort of from two different realities that frame the concept of the war in very different ways. And that’s what playing the game is like, too – cutting back and forth between an exaggerated, larger than life approach that focuses on fun and a serious, grounded style that focuses on being resonant and somber.
It’s not just a tone thing, either. I mean, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five combines surreal aliens with the very real horrors of war in order to transcend the expectations of both the war and scifi genres and make something wholly unique. It’s not like you can’t play contrasting tones or genres against one another to make a statement. But the ideas at play in Valiant Hearts are thematically opposed to one another. On one hand you have Emile and Karl highlighting that this war is tearing a family apart and forcing them to fight one another. In one of the game’s more memorable if predictable moments, Emile and a German soldier have to help one another to escape a cave and in the process they earn mutual respect for one another. But later, Emile is forced to kill him despite their friendship because the war rages on and orders are orders. Walt, the dog, is actually serving on the German side of the war when he saves Emile from a landslide. Karl, a German citizen living in France and married to a French woman, is conscripted to fight for his home country, Germany, and held captive in a French POW camp by his adopted countrymen. The whole point of their stories is to underscore that the lines between the two sides are arbitrary and easily blurred, that the war was Europe cannibalizing itself. No death should be celebrated here because the difference between your men and my men is arbitrary.
But the framing of the other stories contradicts that directly. You have Baron Von Evil, because the game needs a quote-unquote real antagonist. The game stuffs Freddie’s wife in a fridge for a quick revenge story with an easy payoff. Meanwhile Anna’s dad is damseled by the Baron, who snickers and cackles and is involved in multiple boss fights. There’s an implied good side with France being home or ally to all of the characters, where all of their happiness resides, and Germany being this outside force with pointy hats and dragon flags and warmongering Barons. It’s a clean-cut, black and white, naive and juvenile presentation of the war, where the good guys are out to stop the bad guys from being evil.
In short, Karl and Emile’s story paints the war itself as a villain; they are both victimized by a war that is framed as literally consuming them. But I don’t know how anti-war Valiant Hearts can be when it has a revenge plot that ends in shooting down planes and quick time event driven boss fight.
And the game doesn’t comment on how these two approaches differ; it doesn’t use Freddie’s story to condemn lazy revenge narratives, Anna’s search for her dad isn’t a clever inversion of the damsel trope. Their stories play out more or less as straight faced indulgent entertainment right alongside Emile and Karl’s stories of family and hope in a war neither has any interest in fighting in. It’s like Valiant Hearts is afraid to commit to the small and intimate so it pads itself with easy to consume bombast.
This extends to the game’s mechanics as well. Instead of a single cohesive system it opts to apply a variety of different game mechanics as needed, from simple adventure game puzzles to 2D shooters to basic stealth. And in this case I think that works; it lets us experience each character as a unique person with a unique personality while keeping the focus on narrative instead of systems. Some mechanics more successful than others, but all tend to be used in ways that feel meaningfully applied in some places and gameplay for gameplay’s sake in others. Take, for example, Anna’s excited rush to the front lines. Full of pep and playfulness and set to the tune of Offenbach’s Infernal Gallop, her drive is a fun, colorful, upbeat, and fast paced avoid the object game that captures her enthusiasm for war. And that up tempo mechanic set and colorful scenery make the abrupt halt at the grey-brown despair and suffering on the front lines mean something, that contrast both visually and mechanically conveys her idealism for war being crushed seemingly in an instant. It’s actually a beautiful use of both visuals and mechanics to sell a point or character moment. But then later you help Karl escape and end up doing the same thing while blowing up a massive tank in a scene that doesn’t have any deep thematic meaning. It’s just cool to blow up tanks in sync with classical music.
Again, there’s this whiplash inducing indecision between “Let’s make this a moving, powerful game about a small number of characters” and “Let’s make this a super fun video game that people want to spend fifteen dollars on” and you never know which direction the next scene’s going to go.
But if you can look past the fact that the game doesn’t focus on its most interesting or successful elements, you can certainly enjoy them when they appear. The moments that work to sell you on the characters, they totally work. The game demonstrates that it’s perfectly capable of being maudlin without ever falling into mawkish or manipulative but also without attempting to overreach and deliver a story deeper or more complicated than its lush drawings and simple mechanics can tell. It knows how to be a quiet, somber eulogy those we lost during the Great War punctuated with warmth and humor to remind you why we should mourn and what we lost. It just, for whatever reason, doesn’t or can’t commit to that vision.
I can picture a three hour version of Valiant Hearts that’s laser focused on telling the game’s more interesting and meaningful story. No boss fights, no blowing up tanks to classical music, no quick time brawls. Just the story of two men who had their family torn apart by a war that didn’t care about them and didn’t change much of anything. And that would be a wonderful and compelling title. So how far have games come? Unlike 15 or 20 years ago I think we know how to use mechanics, cinematography, and incredible art direction to make a point or sell a moment. This game shows that repeatedly. What we don’t have is faith that those points or those moments are enough. In short, I think we now know, at least in some rough way, how to use games. What I think we’re still seeking is “Why” and “To what ends do we use them?” Is Valiant Hearts pulpy fun, or is Valiant hearts a tragic story about World War 2? It doesn’t know because it doesn’t have an answer to those questions.