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Video Games Killed the Radio Star

War Games Don't Have to Be a Horrible, Desensitising Experience

Ubisoft's Valiant Hearts is the exact opposite. You’d have to be dead inside to not come away from it changed.

by Mike Diver
02 July 2014, 12:15pm

Gaming’s foundations are built on war. What is Space Invaders but a war game? The player is charged with repelling waves of enemy aliens, intent on destroying them. There is no happy ending: the aliens always win. All the most-skilled participant can do is keep them at bay until the scoreboard’s topped.

That was 1978. Since then, innumerable titles have used the conflict between two or more rival forces as the base upon which everything else is built: the gameplay and the gear, the aesthetics and the audio. The long-running Call Of Duty series sees each of its iterations sell in the millions; evidence enough of war’s appeal amongst contemporary gamers. 2012’s Black Ops II sold over seven million copies in a single day – a gross profit of more than $500 million (just under £300 million). 

So games and guns are common bedfellows, and with brilliant commercial results. Hence why these releases aren't going anywhere, and with the greater visuals offered by the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One compared to previous-generation predecessors, they’re only going to become closer to the real thing, the war combat that the vast majority of the West’s games audience are unlikely to ever experience.

Continued exposure to violence in videogames does have a desensitising effect on players. There’s no proven connection between tragedies like Sandy Hook and Columbine and the first-person shooter titles that the killers in question were fans of, despite some parts of the media’s persistent attempts to pin these horrendous acts on the games’ developers. But it certainly is the case that a steady diet of digital violence, particularly on underage players, can turn the horrors of war into nothing more than afterschool entertainment.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War (multi-platform, developed and published by Ubisoft) is a very different war game. Like Space Invaders, it doesn’t offer much of a happy ending. Unlike that sci-fi shooter and thousands that followed in its wake, its setting is very real with events playing out during World War I. It presents in no little detail the everyday agonies of a Europe tearing itself apart, echoes from which were felt worldwide.

And it presents these uncomfortable, engrossing details in a singularly styled way, utilising Ubisoft’s UbiArt Framework for its cartoony visuals. But rather than resulting in a distracting dissonance against the use of very real events of World War I as narrative markers – the struggle for survival during chlorine attacks at Ypres, the terrific losses of the Somme Offensive – the art style focuses the player on game objectives through crisp environmental design, and on something rather deeper. With every adult character’s eyes obscured by hair, hat or helmet, the only whites we ever see are those of children. Eyes on the future, then, and may it never again witness events like these.

Valiant Hearts’ story is told through the actions of four main characters, whose paths entwine at several points. Emile is a French farmer drafted to defend his country from invading German forces. His daughter is married to Karl, German by birth – he’s conscripted to fight for his homeland. Freddie is an American living in Paris who joins the Allied forces in 1914 – long before the US became formally involved in the conflict (in 1917). And Ana is a Belgian nurse who steals a Parisian taxi to journey to the Western Front, saving lives from both sides at every step. There’s a dog, too, Walt, an essential presence in the solving of myriad puzzles.

Which is precisely what Valiant Hearts is built on: this isn’t all running and gunning, where our Allied heroes unload hails of bullets against the Hun. The only weapon Emile wields with any intent is a shovel. Rather, its main gameplay mode challenges the player with corporeal and cognitive puzzles, none of which are ever so perplexing that progress is significantly halted. Overcoming them often requires instructing Walt to fetch an item out of human reach, or leaning against a switch set on the opposite side of the screen.

The pup proves his usefulness again and again, reinforcing the importance of dogs in World War I: records uncovered in 2013 showed that some 20,000 dogs were trained by the Allies for frontline duties during the four-year conflict, while German forces employed 30,000, typically Doberman and German Shepherd breeds. Walt is the former, and begins the game in the charge of a German medic, a bit-part character that he is briefly reunited with.

There’s a lot of basic fetch-questing in Valiant Hearts, running concurrently with the puzzle solving – but that’s okay, because the exploration of each stage reveals reward collectibles, items of World War I significance that come with vividly illustrative facts and period photography. Throughout, Valiant Hearts does much to educate: The Great War isn’t one tackled by videogames with any kind of regularity, so Ubisoft really has made the effort to pack this game to the gills with background information.

How did soldiers counter the effects of chlorine? By pissing on hankies, obviously. We’re told how the gas turned to acid when inhaled, burning soldiers from the inside, out. The British saw such warfare as cowardly – but after Ypres, they’d do the very same against the Germans, at the Battle of Loos. It was a failure, with many British soldiers gassed when winds favoured enemy positions.

Valiant Hearts takes a few mechanical missteps. Ana’s troops-saving sequences rely on basic rhythm-action beats, as a bandage scrolls from left to right with quick-time presses required to stem the bleeding. Once you’ve seen the first, you’ve seen the last. A few vehicular chase sequences can grate, despite inspired use of classical music. There are some entertaining but tone-breaking boss fights, too – a great one uses a church organ to battle a Zeppelin, but its comedic creativity feels out of place in the middle of abject misery. That said, with no levity at all across this game’s seven-or-so hours, one might not reach the end.

There have been games that ask the player to think differently about war, about how it’s never a simple case of good versus evil. Spec Ops: The Line, of 2012, does this excellently, tapping into Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness for inspiration as its protagonist, Martin Walker, has his psyche assaulted by emotional traumas and one horrific deployment of white phosphorus. Sensible Software’s genius Cannon Fodder of 1993 taught us a lot about the price of war, as its green hill becomes overrun with crosses marking fallen friends.

But Valiant Hearts says more than any similarly themed game before it. It tells us that love can endure the greatest hardships. It tells us that apparent enemies can so easily be allies when the situation depends on it. It tells us that men do crazy things in the heat of the moment, terrible acts that they will never forget. And it asks us to remember, on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of The Great War, the casualties suffered by both sides. More than 16 million people lost their lives in a grinding battle of attrition that produced more losers than not.

Valiant Hearts commemorates the Lost Generation and those who never made it with a bowed elegance, understated of voice but unequivocal of impression. If Space Invaders can command a permanent place at New York’s Museum Of Modern Art, Ubisoft’s tremendously affecting efforts here deserve to be introduced to curriculums worldwide. The opposite of a desensitising experience, you’d have to be dead inside to not come away from it changed.

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