The Unsexy War
With the release of Ubisoft’s (seriously WTF, why is it always Ubisoft) Valiant hearts: The Great War, I’ve been thinking about ‘the other war’. World War 1 is not a war we talk about a lot in England, while I can’t speak for the Europeans and how they see it, for the British, the first world war is a black spot in our history, an entire generation of young men was senseless thrown away for no practical reason. It was the same for both the French and German people, all who lost millions in the fighting, thanks to out dated tactics and arrogant leaders. The typical soldiers on the ground had more in common with those across no man’s land than they did those who gave the orders.
The brief moments outside the trenches before death
There have been many great works of fiction written about the conflict, Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong, All quiet on the Western Front and Warhorse have all shown to great effect what life was like on the front lines. Comedic takes on the war have also been done in the wonderful Blackadder goes forth, which wonderfully highlights how absurd the war was for the soliders on the ground. So why haven’t many games tackled the subject?
It’s simple, it’s not sexy. By that I don’t mean the war lacked shirtless hunks and babes in the mud (It did lack those though) The war had no bad guy, no Nazis’s, no monsters, just men, men who never wanted to be there. The Nazis’s in many ways were a gift to games, as you can kill as many you like and never feel bad. But when it comes to soldiers in WW1, most would have been conscripted, especially in the later years of the war as the countries became more desperate for man power. This being the case, you’d have to be incredibly crass to have a first or third person shooter set in this era. Doing those scripted take down kills that shooters love these days, would be harrowing; imagine that scene from Saving Private Ryan (Yes, I know wrong war) where the soldier is killed with knife in that struggle that goes on for two minutes, but from a first person perspective and suddenly you’d feel horrified with yourself. A game that could be described as doing something similar would be Spec Ops: The Line, where the player is forced to kill men, who’d at any other time would be only their side, in a grime retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
So what other genres could you have then? An RTS would be morally dubious to say the least. To play as a commander, it would involve throwing hundreds, if not thousands of young lives away for a few meters of soil.Lions lead by Donkeys is a popular adage of how the war was commanded, with figures such as Blackadder’s General Melchett being how most English people imagine generals of the time.
An accurate representation of British war leaders of the time
A tank game such as World of tanks would be possible but basic to say the least. Tanks of the era were little more than a metal boilers with a engine, a large gun and would break down on almost daily basis. So unless the game went a bit alt-history like Double Fine’s Iron Brigade the game would be tedious and frustrating as all hell.
Valiant Hearts is itself is a puzzle platformer, the player navigates the world, interacting with NPCs and objects to advance through the game. The game has four different protagonists, two in the French army, one in the German army, and one women, allowing the player to see the war from different perspectives, the player is assisted by a lovable dog, who acts as a common thread between all the characters and can be used in some of the environmental puzzles. Any combat done in the game is done with a simple bop on the head of a soldier when their back is turned. Its very bloodless and downed foes simply look asleep once dealt with.
So why does Valiant hearts work? Because it isn’t about the war, it’s about a family, a family who is torn apart by a war and perceived issues of nationality. A brief synopsis of the game goes like this, a farmer, his daughter, German son in law are forced apart when the son in law is deported at the start of the war, the farmer is then conscripted himself, leaving the daughter on the farm with her young child. See that? Not a shot fired and yet it’s an engaging start for a story. Any game that is based in the first world war needs to focus on the human elements of the conflict and not the idea of ‘winning’. Lucas Pope’s border control sim ‘Papers, Please’ would be an interesting example to take, a game with narrative and game-play woven together, which makes something as tedious as paper work engaging on both a human level and in the context of the world as a whole. Papers, Please is engaging, not fun.
Border control the whole family can enjoy, I mean endure.
It’s good to see a such an interesting title as Valiant Hearts, how it shows a war that is so rarely acknowledged in gaming, how it tells a war story without a gun in sight. While it can be a bit heavy handed in it’s narration, it’s easy to forgive as the subject at hand was as bleak and hopeless as is possible. While I doubt that many other developers will want to make a game set during the great war, it’s nice that Ubisoft Montpellier was willing to so. Valiant Hearts and Child of Light does show a willingness by Ubisoft to fund small more niche products besides it’s big triple A titles.
Besides all that, it’s nice to have some media about the Great war which isn’t poetry