A century ago this year, what should’ve been the war to end all wars broke out across Europe and Asia. Vain nationalism, a complex network of alliances, and a handful of incompetent generals sent more than 16 million men to their utterly needless deaths on battlefields from France to Turkey.
The Great War heaved the world into the modern industrial era, and with terrible focus turned its attention to creating new and more efficient ways for us to kill one another en masse. Its unconvincing end would set the conditions for an even deadlier conflict 21 years later. But whereas Hitler was a dyed-in-the-wool bad guy who had to be stopped, there were no true villains in the Great War. It was an unmitigated tragedy.
Its only fault – if it can even be called that – is that it didn’t have the made-for-TV (or game) righteousness of World War II. One hundred years on, however, the finer lessons the Great War has to teach us about the seductive dangers of national pride and patriotism have never been more relevant or urgent.
That lesson, and the triumph of the human spirit over the desperations and depravities of war, is something the Ubisoft Montpellier has set out to explore in Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Built on Ubisoft’s UbiArt Framework, it is the interactive story of five people caught up in events far larger than themselves.
It roams the muddy, shell-pocked fields of France, but unlike other war games that glorify combat and reward players for dispatching enemies by the hundreds, Valiant Hearts focuses on quiet acts of personal heroism and decency.
Even on the frontlines, the player never kills anyone. Instead, the game tends to focus on simple action and light puzzles in which the player is usually trying to save rather than take lives – whether it’s shutting down an engine pumping chlorine gas into Allied trenches, or pulling a crying German soldier from the rubble, giving him water and binding his wounds. Some puzzles even involve a heroic, eager-to-please search and rescue dog that asks only for a tummy scratch as payment for undertaking desperately dangerous and courageous acts.
These poignant and distressing passages of play are punctuated by moments of levity and humour. In one memorable sequence, Anna, a vet eager to support the war effort, repairs a Parisian taxi and swerves through barrels and traffic to the tune of the can-can so that she can deliver soldiers to the frontlines just 20 miles away. But of course it's fleeting, and the lighthearted moment soon gives way to the horrid realities of the front.
As these characters progress chronologically through the battlefields of France, the terrible history of the Great War is retold, and particular events or subjects are supported with additional reading and images from an in-game menu. The levels are also littered with collectibles, the stirring and informative personal artifacts of soldiers who served in the war.
Valiant Hearts looks set to be as much an education as it is entertainment. It is clearly designed to be accessible to gamers, their children, and their partners. By focusing on personal journeys, it takes the narrative of the Great War out of history books and documentaries, away from the generals and the politicians, and makes it more relatable and comprehensible to players of all ages and levels of historical familiarity. Valiant Hearts: The Great War looks to be an important and touching title that every gaming household ought to make a little time for when it comes out this June for PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.