Game Culture: Valiant Hearts and the Struggle of Storytelling

I purchased Valiant Hearts: The Great War knowing only that it had a compelling story, with reviewers specifically emphasizing the quality of the ending. That declaration was enough to pique my interest, so I dove in otherwise completely blind, ready for a good time. 

The game focuses on Emile, a farmer drafted by the French army during WWI. Separated from his family, with his son-in-law drafted to fight against him in the German army, Emile has the simple and relatable goal of wishing to reunite his family and continue his normal life. With an immediately sympathetic protagonist and a concrete setting, the groundwork for the story in this game is quite strong. Despite this, the game loses its footing through its execution: the potential for its success is impeded by a host of problems that develop throughout the game until the finale.

The first major problem is Valiant Hearts spends too much time educating the audience about its WWI setting. While showing the player the game has done its research can heighten the experience, in this case, it gets in the way of gameplay. For example, whenever the player finds a collectable, pictures pop onto the screen to show that a new tidbit of information has been unlocked. This requires the player to pause and read information that looks like it was taken from a history textbook. It’s annoying to get a history lesson about what helmets soldiers wore when fighting a giant tank. I think a better way of keeping this element would have made it purely side content, something that can be read from the main menu at your leisure without such a distracting notification and feeling of urgency to read it.

The subplots also take away from the narrative experience, following the same formula: a problem is introduced, the situation escalates until it looks like the player will fail, and then a miracle happens that solves the whole issue and moves the story forward. Usually these will involve a “near fail state” that makes it look like a main character has died only to show their miraculous reappearance a few scenes later! This tactic is effective the first and second time it is used, but it relies entirely on “shock value”. It becomes even less effective when none of these plot moments affect the characters, who feel exactly the same going into the next act as they did at the beginning of the prior act. One main character, Karl, begins and ends his set of ten journal entries by lamenting about his separation from his wife and child. As a character trait, it is fine for him to long for his family, but it seems to be the only thing that defines him.

The game marches on until Emile kills a friendly officer near the end of the game. While this could have been a complex moral moment, the player is handed an easy excuse to justify his behavior. The officer was shown to freely sacrifice his soldiers to achieve victory, so the player is just doing the same to him in the name of self-preservation. Death has already been shown to have little to no impact in the subplots, so this action too feels like it shouldn’t have any greater significance. In fact, it’s no different in tone than a minor arc in which the player destroys an engine in the enemy general’s airship. The game tells the player that the airship is now broken, but the grounded airship is never shown, nor does it have any significance to the story from that point on. To the player, the death of the officer should have followed that same model. However, this is when things begin to get interesting.

The murder of the officer leads to Emile’s execution, which averts all the mechanical and story expectations seen so far. We had been taught that none of the actions ever had consequences and no one of importance ever dies, but yet Emile is now forced through a landscape to his guaranteed death. There isn’t the expected “big hero moment,” where his allies swoop in and save him. There aren’t even educational tooltips; it’s truly Emile alone. In a world where bad things don’t happen to good people, this sequence is shocking. It is however a compelling ending, as main characters, like Emile, always teased the prospect of death, so it wasn’t imaginable to think they could actually die and become just another body.

While there are many elements of Valiant Hearts that do not work, I can see why the ending is the primary focus of discussion. Other games that sacrifice their protagonist do so for the greater good, and it usually seems appropriate for the protagonist to do so. Valiant Hearts instead has an ambiguous ending, where you can’t easily say that Emile was doing the noble thing for the greater good. Anybody playing this game came for the story, and a compelling finale in an otherwise uncompelling world creates a moment that is worth talking about.