I know that I am a little late to the party, but I just recently finished Valiant Hearts: The Great War. I loved the game, but what really sticks with me is the game’s depiction of war. It paints a picture of horror and death, and that the people fighting on both sides of the war experience the exact same things. More video games should try to depict war like Valiant Hearts does.
This contains spoilers for Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Valiant Hearts is about four human characters, Emile, Karl, Freddie, Anna, and one adorable dog. Emile is Karl’s father-in-law and he is sent to fight in the French army; Karl is from Germany so he is sent to fight in the German army. Freddie is an American fighting for the French, and Anna is a medic. Throughout the game they cross paths and eventually they become entwined with each other’s lives.
No matter where these four characters are, or what they are doing, they always treat people like humans. This even includes the enemy, except for when the enemy are actively trying to kill them. Emile, a Frenchman, and Freddie, an American, form a special bond almost as soon as they meet. Anna, the medic, heals anyone that she finds wounded, including German soldiers. At one point Emile gets trapped in an underground cave with a German soldier. Instead of fighting with him, they work together and escape. Later, the French army blows up the tunnel this soldier is in and Emile thinks what they did was very cowardly. Freddie finally gets his hands on the German soldier that killed his wife and decides that killing the man simply for vengeance would be wrong. The game ends with Emile being executed for attacking, and accidentally killing, a commanding officer; he did so because he believed the officer would get everyone there killed just for the sake of killing a few more Germans.
I believe this is what most war games are missing. I am not going the route of saying we need less first-person or third-person war games, just that these types of games, and any other genre, would benefit from depicting war as more than just a shooting gallery. This always demonizes the other side as all the player sees is them as a hostile threat. Valiant Hearts constantly shows that no matter what country a soldier is fighting for, he gets wounded, he longs to see his family, and he even dreads fighting this war any longer. Several environments of the game show soldiers in the background constantly being mowed down, and screams constantly ring through the air. It is very unsettling, and will stick with me more than other games focusing on war.
The one element of this game that I do think taints this point of view is the game’s antagonist, Baron Von Dorf. He is the one element that ties all the characters together; Von Dorf attacks Emile in the beginning, he killed Freddie’s wife, he has Anna’s father, and Karl is under his command. All of the encounters with him were the most “video game-y” elements of Valiant Hearts. They were the closest thing the game had to boss fights and it felt like it was an attempt to give the game a clear villain rather than just letting the war itself be the villain. As mentioned earlier, Freddie decides to spare him, which I do think is a great moment, but I would have rathered Von Dorf not be in the game at all.
I think it should be noted that Valiant Hearts displays this all in a 2D side-scrolling style; proof that developers do not need realistic graphics to convey a realistic experience. Video games are getting better with storytelling, so I do not believe that Valiant Hearts will be the last to depict war in this way. It may not even be the first, but it was the first I encountered and it certainly has left an impression on me.
Riley Berry is an Associate Writer who is glad the dog did not die. You can follow him on Twitter.