Valiant Hearts: An issue.
In previous blog post I wrote about how and why we don’t see much of the first world war in video games. The sheer futility of it all, the lack of clear villain and the body count would make it a rather traumatizing setting for a game to say the least. I praised Valiant Hearts about portraying the war in an even handed manner, showing neither the Allies or the Germans as bad people, but having seen more of the game, I kinda need to retract that. The game has a villain, it has an antagonist, it’s not the war itself but a man, Baron Von Dorf.
Evening, I’m the Villain.
Baron Von Dorf as you can probably tell is German. Leading the German forces across no man’s land via a heavily armed zeppelin. The Baron is a cartoonish bad guy, with large mutton chops that he’s sure to stroke as he fires off a few more rounds of mustard gas at the french villages below. The Baron is shown to have no redeeming or even human qualities, instead there to act as a boss battle at the end of a level as Bowser once did. Using large pieces of machinery to give him some sort of size and scope, the player must use their wits to solve the puzzle of how to beat the baron’s latest contraption. Having kidnapped the father of one of the characters, killed another’s wife, the Baron is the big baddie of the game, but he’s nothing but a Saturday morning cartoon villain, akin to Skeletor as he runs off, licking his wounds and crying out ‘I’ll get you next time He-man’.
Like my tank? It’s got a skull and cross bones, makes it more dangerous you know.
If the Baron had been humanised it would have made the game a bit more engaging. Don’t show him sipping wine as men storm no man’s land and cackling as he blows a few innocent men to smithereens, show him as so many generals were at the time, out of touch and cold to the plight of those under his command. The very fact he’s on the front lines at all is out of place to say the least in the setting, with most generals being a good distance away from the nearest trench.
Having the villain be a German is problematic, playing into the narrative that the allies formed after the war, that the German people kick started the war and that everything that happened rests on them. These ideas lead to parts of the treaty of Versailles, which left the german people broken and under massive debts to the allies, which later contributed to the rise of the Nazi party in the 30s. So yeah, not helpful at all. As three of the player characters are french or american, with the 4th being a reluctant German soldier, it does make sense that an antgonist would be on the opposing side. But this kinda misses one of the bigger issues of the war, that the top brass on your own side were getting the men on the ground killed by sheer incompetence. They may not have pulled the trigger, but they may as well have. This theme is explored in a small way in the game, particularly with (Spoilers!) Emile being shot for striking a superior officer. But not one allied officers is named and characterized in great detail.
A more pressing issue to the game’s story itself is that it didn’t need a villain. It was a story of four people trying to survive in a hopeless situation. With families divide by distance and political borders, and the main objective of every character (save one) to be reunited with those they lost. The one exception to this is Freddy, the African American who joins the french army after his wife is killed by a bombing raid led by Von Dorf. Freddy eventually finds the Baron but chooses not to kill him, letting him go and live with what he’s done, knowing that one more death in a war that’s claimed millions is meaningless.
You’re probably wondering who builds all these contraptions for me. It’s simple, Pixies do.
It’s a shame that for all the good work Valiant Hearts does, and how uniquely it’s done, that it falls back on having an antagonist in the first place. The fight to survive and see one’s loved ones is the main goal of every character in this game. The addition of the Baron and the end of level boss role he fills is unnecessary to the games plot. Of course Valiant Hearts is still first and foremost a game, and aspects such as boss battles and the like are important, but is adding a human face to those encounters also important? That’s a question I’ll need to ruminate on further before I can answer it in a satisfactory manner, if you have an idea feel free to comment below.