Published Sep 15, 2014War may be hell, but it can also make for a helluva game. After all, what is chess but an analogue warfare sim? War-themed videogames have been around since the beginning, with Spacewar!, developed at M.I.T. in 1962. Twenty years later, they were omnipresent enough to inspire Wargames, a 1983 movie in which Matthew Broderick's attempt to hack into a game company's mainframe to play "Global Thermonuclear War" nearly starts the real thing.
Twenty years after that saw the launch of the first Call of Duty, a franchise that has since sold over 140 million copies and still claims about 40 million "monthly active players" across its ten titles. In 2007, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare brought traditional WWII or Vietnam military shooters into the post-9/11 terror era to become the last gen's most popular genre.
But something rather disturbing has happened to war games over the past decade. Yes, their inherent glorification of war has always been offensive to some, but in the past the visceral violence of war felt as abstract as a game of Risk.
That is no longer the case. The rise of photorealism is causing many to re-examine videogame violence across the board — consider the backlash to the body count left behind by Uncharted's treasure-hunting "hero" Nathan Drake. But treasure hunter isn't a particularly popular profession, while real-world wars are raging in Ukraine, Gaza and elsewhere.
War games are often accused of desensitizing kids to violence, but perhaps the real issue is that they ignore war's tragic horrors in favour of headshot achievements. The military shooter thrill kill cult is an understandable design decision because real war is not fun, but that doesn't mean developers shouldn't also be presenting a fuller picture of war's impact.
Enter Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Ubisoft's summer downloadable triumph from the Montpelier team, which ironically uses hand-drawn animation to present perhaps the most realistic digital depictions of war ever.
Notably, Valiant Hearts is not a shooter. In fact, designer Simon Chocquet-Bottani blogged that in their efforts to make an emotional game about what happens to people during wartime, they decided, "not to have the characters kill anyone. The war kills people, but none of the characters do. We really thought that enabling players to kill someone would lead to a break in the bond between player and the character and would confuse the game's overall message."
Based on actual letters sent home from the front, the game is a side-scrolling puzzle-based adventure set during WWI — the least "fun" war ever, given its lack of clear villains or even a discernable reason for fighting. As we're informed in the beginning of the game, 65 million civilian men were called up in what began 100 years ago this past July as the supposed war to end all wars.
The game begins with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand pulling the various world powers into a war none of them want, and then immediately brings the story home to a family literally torn apart by it. German farmer Karl, married to a French wife, is deported and then drafted. His father-in-law, Emile, is forced onto the French side, though soon becomes a POW and meets a captured American named Freddie, who joined the French Foreign Legion to avenge his late wife. Anna is a Belgian nurse tending to the tragically wounded on the body-strewn battlefield. All four are playable, and provide the player with varying perspectives. A fifth character, the dog Walt, ties everyone together.
Rather than the offering the adrenaline rush of military shooters, Valiant Hearts tends to break ours, as the characters on the front lines in places like Riems, Ypres and Verdun endure the tragedy of trench warfare, the brutality of bombing raids and the insane invention of chlorine gas. Even if we don't kill, we remain surrounded by the dead and dying at all times. The cartoonish animation may eliminate the gore, but the senseless slaughter is clearly drawn.
It's not the first game to question the glorification of war — Spec Ops: The Line did so as well, and in a traditional shooter uniform to boot — but it's an incredibly effective one, essentially an interactive version of the WWI poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" which famously laid waste to the "the old lie" that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.
By balancing engaging gameplay, historical accuracy and a gut-wrenching narrative while making WWI itself the game's Big Bad, Valiant Hearts bravely points a way forward for the art form to transcend the moral ignorance of most modern war games.