Remember This is America, Charlie Brown? The cartoon where the Peanuts gang informed us about the Mayflower while also unmistakably being the Peanuts gang? It’s a solid teaching tactic, the core of edutainment: give us a familiar narrative juxtaposed with real historical events, and in the process teach us something while still entertaining us. Kids love these things. I think. At least I did. I’m still interested in the idea, and Valiant Hearts is a game that’s trying to tap the same well, juxtaposing cartoony aesthetics and narrative elements against the stark, complicated tragedy of World War I, entertaining us while also informing us. This is all very neat, and it won my heart on the virtue of its concept alone.
I get what Valiant Hearts is going for. The only problem is that Valiant Hearts is a video game, and it’s not one I found satisfying to play.
I’ve been putting off this review for a while, thinking long and hard about this game and wondering if maybe I’m wrong to dislike it. I mean, the game– developed by Ubisoft Montpellier using their UbiArt Framework, which lends itself to intimate games and sketchy, childlike graphics– has a lot going for it, and a lot of people really loved it. Inspired by real letters written by people during the Great War, Valiant Hearts tells the intersecting stories of multiple people on both sides of the first World War in its early days: Karl, a German living in France, forced to return to Germany and fight when the war breaks out; Emile, his French father-in-law; Anna, a Belgian student and nurse; and Freddie, a member of the French Foreign Legion, an American who volunteered for war. It follows these characters, based on real people, as their stories intersect and they try to survive the horrors of conflict.
World War I is a part of history that video games rarely touch, because it’s not one that lends itself to the simplistic types of storytelling that video games tend to prefer. It’s a messy and sad time in history, with no clear heroes and no easy narrative arc. Valiant Hearts combines a focus on the complexity and pathos of these events with a fictionalized narrative focusing on an evil German general (Von Dorf, who looks and sounds like someone Indiana Jones would race to find the Holy Grail) and a quest for vengeance, a tactic that seems aimed at younger audience members and those who might have trouble following the rough nuances of the history. This story doesn’t ring as honestly as real history included alongside it, but it provides a narrative through line along which the game can hang its sad, empathetic moments.
The game attempts in this way to teach its players about empathy and the ambiguity of our shared history, weaving in compelling historical factoids and those real letters as part of the experience. It’s a game with a pervasive personality, charming and sensitive like a kind teacher. It’s a really refreshing thing to see, and I feel strangely guilty for not being happy with Valiant Hearts on that alone. This is what I want, right? Smart, thoughtful, empathetic games that push the envelope of what games can be about?
It’s just that Valiant Hearts doesn’t have a through line connecting its mechanics in the same way as it does its narrative. It’s ostensibly a platformer-adventure game, where you go around stages, completing puzzles and generally moving from the left side of the screen to the right. This works well enough, but never really feels good. The puzzles can be obtuse, dull, and overly gamey, and all the player characters move at this clumsy, lazy trot that never fails to deflate any sense of urgency the situation may call for. These elements are broken up by a variety of little minigames and other diversions, none of which are ever fun to play. None of the things you do in Valiant Hearts ever felt like the game: they just felt like a series of diversions getting us from one atmospheric and informative set piece to the next.
I admit that this might speak more to the kind of player I am than the game itself. I don’t have a lot of tolerance for minigames (there’s even a tacked-on rhythm game, the scourge of this beautiful blue planet) and I expect the games I play to be built on core systems that I can learn and possibly master over time. Valiant Hearts just doesn’t seem to have that. While it’s consistently engrossing from a story perspective, the play never grabbed me in any meaningful way.
There’s been reasonable amount of praise for Valiant Hearts for approaching a war-time setting without casting you as a gun-toting hellsoldier. I think people are right to praise that. There is too much gun violence in video games without recognition of the importance and weight of those representations, and finding other ways to interact with game worlds is a worthy and important pursuit. But I think in that conversation we need to reckon with the reasons why those tropes are so dominant in the first place, and I think a part of it is that gun violence makes sense as a metaphor for the win/loss style of play that the vast majority of video games use. It’s an easily recognizable and systemizable set of symbols: I shoot, he dies. He shoots, I die. It’s intuitive and easy to implement in a computer program, and it makes sense as a set of rules to build a game world on. (Chris Franklin has a great video about this idea and the history of it at his youtube channel Errant Signal which you should check out.)
Valiant Hearts is a lovely, smart little game that suffers from the lack of such an easily systematized set of symbols. In their absence, it doesn’t really have anything compelling to tie its gameplay experience together. What we’re left with, then, is a great PBS history special in a beautiful comic-book-style format broken up by minigames and mediocre traversal sections that borrow mechanics from platformers and adventure games without ever using them well. I’m not saying the solution is to put guns in player’s hands at every turn (although being a soldier on the frontlines of WWI without a gun, as you are sometimes here, doesn’t make any sense to me), but it’s not quite this, either.
And, you know, I’m happy that a big company like Ubisoft tried to make a game like Valiant Hearts. I’m happy that people seem to have gotten a lot out of it. But I can’t recommend playing it.
Valiant Hearts was reviewed using code purchased for the Playstation 4. It’s also available on PC and Xbox One.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to function as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on Ovrld and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.