A screen shot from Valiant Hearts
Perhaps the best war game of 2014 so far involves very little shooting, has a distinct shortage of blood and gore, and never once gives you a bonus for a perfect head shot. Valiant Hearts, reviewed here, is a puzzle-centred affair set during The Great War – in fact, its full title is Valiant Hearts: The Great War – and uses four entwined character arcs to weave a coherent narrative of tremendous loss gradually giving way to the slightest shoots of hope. It's a beautiful vision of the most terrific horrors.
Published by Ubisoft and developed by the company's Montpellier studio, the game is rendered in the same UbiArt Framework that's brought two previous Rayman games, Origins and Legends, to life, as well as the diminutive but delightful role-play game Child of Light. It came out for Xbox 360 and One, PlayStation 3 and 4, and PC platforms in June – but, from the 4th of September, iOS users will be able to feel its grip on their emotions as it comes to iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.
To mark the game's move to mobile devices, for which its control scheme has been completely redesigned for the best accessibility possible, I spoke to Ubisoft IP development director Adrian Lacey and Valiant Hearts' audio director Yoan Fanise to learn more about the making of one of this year's most arresting interactive dramas.
VICE: The First World War is a subject that's rarely been explored in video games. It was a time of incredible losses, and immense pain for those involved directly and through having family members on the frontline. How did you begin to address it, so as not to be disrespectful or trivialise it?
Adrian Lacey: To turn World War One into a game is really tricky. If you turned it into a shooter, it'd be horrendous – one shot, one kill, people just dying constantly. We were nervous about treating it that way because it was so violent and so aggressive. Instead, we decided on this other angle, to see the conflict from the people's point of view – how they lived, or how they survived, through that experience.
We took away the guns and the shooting to a great extent. We didn't know how people would react to that, because we're effectively telling a love story as well as a war story. It's brilliant to see the emotion in the game, from the artwork to the sound, and I've seen people well up a little bit playing it. I'm glad that it helps them understand war in a different way to how most games present it.
The art style helps, I think, to maintain a necessary division between the realities of the time and the fact that what you've got here is a game. What you're playing through is horrific, but also – because of its stylised look – you can learn from the experience without feeling, I suppose, repulsed by it.
The art direction, from the very beginning, became a foundation for everything we did. The way that Paul [Tumelaire, art director] approached the artwork, his style had both a comic book look and darkness to it. That allowed us to treat the war in a very serious, but also somewhat characterised way. I think that allowed us to retain this respect for the people who went through it, while also making it accessible.
We had moments of doubt, but we found that even through the darkest times of the war, people still found joy, and fell in love, and had a great time. They played games and lived, and you can see that in the documents, these moments of happiness. And that helped us find our balance, too.
You mention documents – you did a lot of research going into the game, didn't you? The team would bring in artefacts from the time that were special to them, right?
It was an advantage to have people on the team whose families had been through it – we had the stories from their families, and that direct attachment to the war made us feel that we weren't trivialising anything. We put so much research into this – we went to the area, to the trenches of the Western Front in France, and spoke to so many people. We collected all of these facts and figures, and it's rare to be able to show what you've learned, as a developer, in a game. But with this one, we've flipped that: we've put that information in the game, so they're learning as we did.
Some reviewers felt that the stage-specific information, particularly grisly details, interrupted their enjoyment of the game. I can't say I feel the same. I really appreciated learning more about what I was putting these characters through, about the reality behind the fantasy you've drawn. Metro called it "heavy handed", for instance, but I felt the value of having the facts relayed to me, to gain that greater context.
It's always a fine line – some gamers don't want to feel like they're being educated. They just want entertainment. And that's fine. For us, on this game, we were really focused on the emotional experience, and that's tied to the information from the time. I don't think that the information for each stage is too intrusive – you're not made to look at it, it's optional. When we were making the game, we knew we didn't want these things to be too in your face. We didn't want to force them on anyone.
But I think it's important to have the context of how and why 30,000 dogs were on the frontline, and other interesting facts. We thought that people might go through the game and Google as they went, so why not put the information right there? As part of the overall experience, it adds to the story. It's a bit of an interactive learning experience on the side.
One of the Ubisoft IP team recording sound in the trenches
As well as the art style, the sound is very striking. It's probably, for me, the most impressive aspect of the whole game – I don't think I've heard a war game sound this, well, awful, if you get what I mean.
Yoan Fanice: We wanted to present an immersive soundscape that would essentially bring the player right into the trenches. Through soldiers' testimonies, we learned that the moment they were asked to charge was very brutal, and quite sudden: horrific scenes filled with machine gun fire, explosions, screams and cries of anguish. The intention was to express human feelings during war through cries and music that would resonate with players, so we recorded a lot of screams from the development team. We really pushed them to the limit, to the point where they had to imagine how they would be screaming in agony as if they had taken a bullet.
Adrian: The team went down to the trenches, to record sounds in there. They worked with the French Foreign Legion as well, and went through their archive material. We took the sound side really seriously. Not all of the weapons are still active, and of those that are we might have got into trouble for firing them for the purpose.
And that approach to sound design carries over to the music, doesn't it?
Yoan: Since my field is audio, I had all the game designers listen to the tracks I had selected in order to help guide the mood for their gameplay sequences. This, along with real First Word War photos of the places and events that we were recreating, was really productive in terms of imagining gameplay situations that fit with the story and the characters' mindsets during these moments.
With respect to the choice of music tracks, it had to reflect deep emotions, and so mid-range levels weren't that interesting. If you put music in a game it really has to say something; I hate music that's just used as background ambience in order to avoid silence. Silence, at just the right moment, can sometimes say more than anything else.
What was it like, going to the actual trenches used during the First World War, as part of the game's research?
Adrian: The freakiest thing is the distance, more than anything else. You're in one trench and then someone tells you: "That, over there, is where the German trench would be." You could throw a rock at it. It was right there. That freaks you out – these people were that close to one another, digging trenches above and below each other. Imagine what that must have been like: you're all quiet, and then you can hear the people in the opposite trench talking, and who knows what about.
The other thing was the size of the trenches. The Germans were pretty organised. They dug deep trenches with plenty of room, and they had bunk beds and stuff – they really worked on their trenches, to make them liveable. On the Allied side, they were very rough and ready, and really small. If you were taller than about five-foot-five you'd have been hunched over all day, every day, walking through mud with dead bodies everywhere. It certainly was not a nice image.
Our guide would point out places where they'd stack bodies, hundreds of them, and they'd be beside where the soldiers had to live. We were in a group of, say, 20, and already the space felt really cramped. I can't begin to process how someone could live there, in that environment, for years. That's something that will stay with all of us forever.
During the game you play as a Frenchman, a German, a Belgian and an American, and get air support from a Brit. The impression seems to be, to me, that you're not presenting distinct good and bad sides with Valiant Hearts. There are bad people in the game, but ultimately both sides suffered.
Adrian: In war, it's usually the good guys who win, historically – whether they were actually the good guys or not. In the First World War, there wasn't that pronounced division, between good and bad, that you had in the Second World War. The lines were very much blurred. Communication back then was bad – it could be the case that you got a message too late to stop 100,000 people going over the top to their deaths. It didn't matter what side you were on, as thousands of people were being affected. And most of them didn't know what they were doing, or where they were going – they were just told to be somewhere.
A lot of the documents from the time, that we found, talked about families being torn apart, because a lot of the combat was on the borders, where multinational families lived. Because a husband was German but his wife French, he'd be called up, away from her, to fight against her countrymen. And that's the story of Karl in the game – he's taken away from his wife and child. There were so many stories we found like that. And the real people involved in the war weren't always aware, fully, of why they were fighting – there wasn't really that much information available to them. They were just there to do a job. And what happened? They got shot. They got shot doing their work – and if they didn't want to do it, they'd get shot then, too.
And it seems none of us are learning from the mistakes made in the First World War, the Second and beyond. Warfare is part of any nightly news broadcast. Somewhere, right now, someone is pointing a gun at someone else they consider their enemy. It's maddening, isn't it, that by now we've not found a better way?
I'd love for people to play the game and for it to go some way towards helping them appreciate how stupid this kind of war is. Karl is our German in the game, but he wasn't responsible for the war – he was just drawn into it. He lost just as much as the Frenchman Emile, or Freddie, our American. Everyone loses something. There wasn't a winner.
I hope that our generation, which is able to communicate on a global scale, can maybe begin to make a change. Boundaries have changed so much, and communication has improved so much. Making games like this – sure, perhaps it can help. Maybe it can inspire someone to think differently. I've done traditional shooters in the past – and don't get me wrong, because I really like them – but it's nice to be able to show this other side of video gaming, an emotional side with a different set of messages. We've been lucky to have the opportunity here to try something different from the usual blockbusters, and if it does well then we'll have the opportunity to try more different things.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is available now for a variety of home platforms, and comes out on iOS on the 4th of September.