This post was originally written for the weekly Community Writing Challenge on GameInformer.com
The Community Writing Challenge for this week is centered around history in video games. For my contribution, I want to discuss Valiant Hearts: The Great War, a game that goes above and beyond the competition. Where most war games focus on tense shootouts and rewarding players for headshots and high kill counts, Valiant Hearts breaks the mold to actually discuss the historical aspects of war and focus on the individual lives affected by it.
The most notable thing about Valiant Hearts is its setting: World War I.
Although the vast majority of war games are set in either World War II or some depiction of modern warfare, the team at Ubisoft decided to focus on the first World War for Valiant Hearts. While far from an unknown war, this is an era that has been rarely explored via the realm of interactive entertainment. For many reasons, this unexplored territory is more fascinating and impactful than other war games on the market.
Valiant Hearts wants you to learn about this war, a fact made evident by its plethora of information on the subject. In between levels, the narrator breaks down the war in easy to digest and understandable bites. From the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, which triggered the war, until its end in 1918, Valiant Hearts is a short but educational experience that teaches about the many battles and changes to life that took place during this period.
Along with the narration, there are 100 hidden items to find throughout the course of the game, which are all assorted objects and tools from the time. Discovering these hidden items unlocks data entries which further explain their purpose, which helps create a more vivid understanding of the war. You can learn about the different pieces of soldiers uniforms, the weapons they used in combat, and the tools they used in their downtime to make life more bearable.
As someone who admittedly forgot most that he was taught about WWI in school, Valiant Hearts was a revelatory experience, teaching me about a place in time that I was aware of, but not well versed in. I ate up every bit of the narration, but combing through the different levels (mostly assorted battlefields and stations) in search of the collectibles kept me coming back even after the credits rolled. Valiant Hearts re-taught me how incredible learning about a subject can be.
It’s also worth noting the maturity of the game. Although it uses what looks like a cartoony hand-drawn art style, Valiant Hearts feels considerably more mature than the likes of, say, Call of Duty. You jump between the perspective of a few different characters over the course of the game, all from different backgrounds. The Frenchman Emile and his German son-in-law Karl, an American soldier named Freddie, and a Belgian nurse named Anna. One of the things that makes Valiant Hearts so special is the fact that it puts you in the shoes of different people from different nationalities, explaining why they’re fighting and showing you what is at stake for them.
Valiant Hearts is an emotional story, focusing on the weight of the war on the individual as well as the world as a whole. As these different characters cross paths over the course of the four-year war, we get to see how the war changes them. I love this focus on the individual characters because it makes the experience feel more grounded and personal. When most war games have you playing as a nameless and mute soldier, it makes you feel less connected to the story and makes the stakes and horror of the war feel minimal, if not existent. By introducing us to characters with names, we grow a connection to them and, in the process, are able to more accurately imagine what it would be like to be in their situation ourselves.
I love how Valiant Hearts approaches World War I and makes it more of an educational experience in history than just another mindless shooter. I first played it when it released back in 2014, but as soon as I saw the Community Challenge I knew I wanted to write about it. I’m currently replaying through the game again and finding myself once again fascinated by this point in time. In fact, Valiant Hearts has led me to do my own research on World War 1. I’m reading books, checking out the Wikipedia page, and watching documentaries. I think that if a video game can teach you about history in an engaging manner and inspire you to go do research of your own, then surely it must be commended.
– Zack Burrows