World War I was a war stuck in transition; soldiers charged with bayonets in hand under the fire of machine guns from enemy forces crammed inside the belly of eroding trenches. There were no Nazis or atomic bombs that made the lines between “good” and “evil” so easy for each side to define. It was a politician’s war and novels such as Mary Borden’s Forbidden Zone or, more notably, Erich Marie Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front struggled to capture the Great War’s decimation on an individual level.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a video game that mirrors the traditional form of a historical fiction novel by providing an omniscient narrator to guide the reader, or in this case player, through the story lines of four characters: Emile, Karl, Anna, and Freddie. Each character provides a different lens in which to view the events of World War I. Karl is a German citizen living in France when war breaks out. As a result, he is forced to leave his wife and child, his home, and enlist in the German army. Emile, Karl’s father-in-law, is forcibly conscripted into the French Army before being captured. Anna is a Belgian nurse aiding in the war effort in one of the few positions a woman could obtain. Finally, Freddie is an American whose lover was a casualty of a bombing by the Germans. He volunteers for the French Army in order to exact revenge.
While their story lines are not dissimilar to characters in other war novels, Valiant Hearts is able to employ sound and visual effects that capture the drama of the moment in a way that traditional literature cannot. Also, there are objects in every level that the player can find. Once found, a journal page will appear on the screen giving a brief, factual history pertaining to the object. Although it can sometimes interrupt the gameplay, it creates an immersible environment and reminds the player that the context of the game is not entirely fictional.
There is not as much direct violence as would generally be expected from a war based video game. There are bomb explosions and a few plane crashes, however, in each story there are opportunities for the player to provide first aid or do short rescue missions. Also, the primary purpose of the game aspect is as a two dimensional, puzzle platformer and the game is typically overshadowed by the compelling characterization.
Because it utilizes more than just text, Valiant Hearts is to portray World War I in a way that its predecessors were never able to capture. Like every video game or story, there are flaws; there are times in which the stories could be more congruent and the pitfall of overly glorifying war is always present. However, Valiant Hearts bridges the worlds of historical fiction and video games is a beautiful way.