The Game That Turns Chemical Warfare into a Slapstick Romp

The Great War was a tragedy. 'Valiant Hearts: The Great War' is a merry escapade where you don’t even shoot anybody.

Jun 27 2014, 3:00pm
Screengrab: Valiant Hearts/Ubisoft

The Great War was a tragedy. Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Ubisoft's new puzzle-adventure game set in war-torn Europe, is a gay romp, a merry escapade where you don't even shoot anybody. 

In other words, don't wholly buy into the cunningly maudlin marketing behind Valiant Hearts. This game is largely balls-out ridiculous. You hit Germans over the head with a soup ladle when they aren't looking. You knock them out with a happy-go-lucky haymaker like Batman in the swingin' 60s. 

In one sequence, you and your dog are playing an organ inside Reims Cathedral. The zeppelin carriage of Baron von Dorf, Valiant Hearts' boss, is sticking down through a hole in the great edifice's ceiling. The organ's pipes have been twisted in all directions by a stray bomb and you must coordinate keystrokes, with your dog, to attack the baron using gusts of musical wind that exude at various angles from the crooked pipe. At your signal, the dog, Walt, obediently places a paw on the keys:

One face button of your controller is dedicated to bringing up history facts and colorized photos related to your in-game location—something that in another game would generally require you to first pause and then scroll through a menu to access. When you press this button the current level's music fades and a melancholy piano concerto comes up.

Then you might suddenly see, as I did, a photograph of an actual soldier with a severely disfigured face:

After reading about disfigured soldiers, you then go back into the game and use a human bone as a makeshift lever to flip a switch which raises an elevator. You tunnel at impossible speeds through the earth with your ladle. You drive a taxi, swerving to avoid other vehicles and objects—all of which are jubilantly synchronized to Can-can music.

The story switches you between an assortment of characters, none of whom have eyes. Bangs and hats mask their faces. The women are slight but the men look like hulks. Men and women both have feet so dainty they look like they are toddling on peg-legs. Still, the art is colorful and vibrant.

One of the protagonists is a girl with prominent cleavage who nurses men back to health as a Red Cross volunteer. She was a veterinarian before the war and carries a riding crop which she can swing like a weapon, although the game doesn't afford much opportunity for her to use it. Instead, she mostly heals the wounded in an endless series of rote QTE sequences.

Valiant Hearts' Can-can sequence.

The fictional characters and their stories bored me, to be honest. They all had fictional diaries, every bit as dull as you'd expect a fictional diary to be, detailing very non-specific lives.

The real history button, on the other hand—with historical facts provided by a partnership with Apocalypse: World War I and Mission Centenaire, according to the in-game screen—always brought up something compelling, details like the trench art that bored soldiers fashioned out of exploded shell casings: "Some of the exploded shell materials were already aesthetically interesting, otherwise soldiers would rework their finds to create handy items." Why couldn't you work on something like that in-game?

Anyway, as you jog through this Tex Avery dream of World War I, you come across some of the 100 collectibles that have been inserted into the game by the developers. These are real world artifacts that, with a touch of the history button, you can see recreated in detail as a drawing, with a description and historical context.

Sometimes these collectibles are in places that, for the player, lead to awkward feelings. As the nurse, I rescued a trapped mother from a burning building, reuniting her outside with her daughter who had been blinded by chlorine gas and later released by the Germans. But while I was in the house I also stole a wooden top, before taking leave of the mother and her child, who was now short one toy in addition to all her other troubles.

The author as the nurse.

As Karl, I escaped from a POW camp and collapsed in the snow. A family took me in and nourished me back to health. As I left, I stole a phonograph player off its stand in the corner of the room. "The ancestor of CD and DVD players," the accompanying text read after I'd pressed the history button, "the phonograph used wax cylinders before vinyl discs took over." Very interesting, I thought, getting out of my uniform and putting on a disguise in a nearby horse stable.

My preoccupation with these collectibles sometimes led me totally astray. When taking part in a battlefield charge, with other shouting soldiers going screen right, my instinct was to take a quick dash over to screen left, looking for any stray historical goodies, leaving me struggling to catch up with my brothers in arms. Ludicrously, even as a soldier I didn't have a firearm, so maybe staying in the rear with the gear, as they say, might not have been such a bad idea.

Ludicrously, even as a soldier I didn't have a firearm, so maybe staying in the rear with the gear, as they say, might not have been such a bad idea.

This isn't The People's History of the Great War, or an acknowledgement of shared Pan-European and American trauma as much as it presents itself to be. The Germans are the villains. When I'd heard one of the protagonists was German, I hadn't expected to be fighting Germans essentially depicted as Dr. Wily and his evil robot masters, with Baron von Dorf wearing a skull-and-crossbones on his hat like a proto-SS officer.

The German protagonist is married to a French girl with a French baby, and he wants to go home to France.

You are also informed via the history button that the Germans were the first to employ chemical warfare and part of the game takes place in Ypris after a chlorine gas attack, the first such chemical strike, according to the game. In real life, the history button told me, soldiers would eventually learn to use urine-soaked cloths tied to their faces as makeshift gas masks. That would have been an amazing thing to implement in the game. But the game remained steadfastly fixated on inane, lever-based puzzles.

The reason I haven't gone into detail about the gameplay is because it is the least interesting component of the game. Valiant Hearts is a 2D puzzle platformer, in the vein of Limbo or Braid. Although here you can't jump.

You're forced to toggle between characters from time to time. But it doesn't really matter who you are playing as, to be completely honest. I didn't much care about any of them, numbed as I was by the unending deluge of imbecilic puzzles, almost every single one of which involved finding a handle that has somehow become disconnected from a switch, and then reconnecting it and pulling the switch.

There were entirely too many puzzles based around handles. Like something out of the Theater of the Absurd you keep finding precisely the same handle repeatedly, all across war-torn Europe, sometimes stuck up in a tree, sometimes buried in the dirt, and then you, or your dog, carry it around, looking for the switch to place it in.

When I noticed that all of the pigeons in the game were wearing miniature army helmets, I remembered that Quentin Tarantino was accused of making Django Unchained perhaps too boisterous and comic for a film addressing the serious subject of slavery. Tarantino replied to the criticism:

I don't understand filmmakers who say, 'Oh, this is too somber of a subject for me to use my cinematic skills.' Well, what the hell are you there for then? Now, you can't make a blanket rule about that. But no matter what Max Ophüls made a film about, I want him to do it using those big, long crane shots. No matter what subject Josef von Sternberg does, I want it to be all about the art direction. Ultimately, making it less cinematic is, to me, not the way to go.

It's possible that the madcap Beckettian world depicted in Valiant Hearts could have connected you more deeply to that great tragedy using the developers' skills as game creators—had their skills been more unified than they are here. But as it stands, you have a bunch of puzzles that get in the way of very interesting aesthetics.

The bizarre tone isn't a problem. After all, surrealism has been used to great effect in depictions of war before. Gravity's Rainbow, anyone?

But it does feel like the history button and the game's silly world were surgically bifurcated at some early stage of development. It feels like the game as a whole lacked the strength of a competent director's unifying vision. This feels like art created by a talented committee, but, nonetheless, a committee.

So as I trotted through the snow towards Saint-Mihiel on tiny feet, eyes hidden by my cap, looking for another broken handle to connect to another damn switch, I grew increasingly uninterested in Valiant Hearts and its infringement on my mind.

But in the midst of your darkest feelings for the game, there would be a moment of mysticism, when you would find one of the collectible, real-life artifacts—like this message to a soldier who maybe never made it home from the war—and then you realize that a game with these ambitions, that is trying to emotionally bind you to a remembrance of this unholy worldwide mistake, should be forgiven much:

Telegram from New Zealand It's a boy STOP Bryan STOP Mother & Son Ok STOP Miss you STOP