Valiant Hearts: The Great War – The Inactive Parts of War

World War I is boring. Trench warfare meant soldiers more often battled mud soaked socks and disease carrying rats, not enemy soldiers. In a battle of attrition, armies won trench warfare through continuous air attacks and cannon bombardments. Soldiers knew that no man’s land, the empty space between trenches, meant death by gunfire or barbed wire. A war of attrition makes for boring video games. While waiting, no one wants to wring out socks and dig tunnels for a dozen hours. Valiant Hearts: The Great War doesn’t try to show the boring, candid part of trench life, it succeeds on its own.

The German’s Blitzkrieg tactic in World War II put soldiers at the front lines behind ally armour to push forward, not defend ground. Developers loved to replicate the attack and defence of major strategic points such as Carentan, France. WWII’s notable fights, mobile armor and airborne attacks showed the destruction people wanted from games. A soldier’s psychological erosion in the flooded trenches of WWI doesn’t excite people, shooting does.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War tells stories of soldiers, medics and even dogs, but puts their stories ahead war events. Ubisoft Montpellier didn’t make a shooting gallery. Valiant Hearts explores life in the trenches. Players see the construction of the tunnels and the different stations scattered along the defensive lines. At one end, soldiers wash the pots and pans and at the other end, soldiers manage supplies. With supply shortages, the value of trading items exceeded the money they earned. Emile – a French solider fighting the Germans away from his farm in France – trades a pair of fresh, dry socks for ink to write a letter to his daughter. We know how the war ends, but we don’t know what happens to Emile.

Players won’t spend the entire game trading socks and cigarettes, action scenes connect to new stories. Anna – a vet in training – left her Belgium home in search of her father. While searching, she cares for wounded civilians and saves injured soldiers. She doesn’t fight, but still contributes to the war. Players also help Freddie, an American soldier fighting in Europe, to drive prototypes of tanks to capture objectives. He helps the war effort, but the small victory just builds towards his true goal of heading home, away from the stresses of war. The actions scenes never force the player to kill anonymous soldiers without a purpose; the scenes further illustrate the exponential casualties as the war drags on.

Valiant Hearts retells story of the bloodbath caused by the Battle of Verdun, whereas M2H and BlackMill Games make Verdun – a multiplayer shooter. Their newest game arranges multiple squads of players in trenches to capture and defend points. I don’t mind their mechanical approach to WWI games, but each developer’s continual avoidance of strictly shooters shows its battles don’t translate into good games. WWI lacks the movement and progression of WWII – soldiers rarely ran headlong out of trenches since entrance into no man’s land guaranteed death.

To reveal what happens outside of the battlegrounds, Valiant Hearts uses the stalemate to show the effect on people and families, not just war platoons. Other historical war games teach about key battles, but Valiant Hearts shares stories about a soldier’s favourite trinket. I loved to read the short excerpts on new locations or war items found throughout the game. Safety razors, close to the design of hand razors people now use, not only alleviated itchy beards. Soldiers carried safety razors inside all kits since clean shaven faces worked best with gas masks. The little details about safety razors or the canisters soldiers molded from scrap bomb shells imagined the reality of a soldier’s everyday life. Give me a gun and I’ll shoot Germans without flinching. Scatter some letters and trinkets around the map, and I feel guilty for their sacrifices.

I don’t want all war video games to put player empathy first; no one wants to feel miserable all the time. Valiant Hearts understands proper context and doesn’t try to turn WWI battles into shooting corridors. Ubisoft Montpellier molds a game around the depressing reality of trench life and civilian living, which helps me understand WWI from a new, sympathetic perspective. I’ll always love to shoot slimy aliens, though I appreciate the reminder of each soldier’s sacrifice during the events we now use for fun.