Saturday, April 4, 2015

#85: Valiant Hearts: The Great War (of Tone)

No matter what I seem to play from Ubisoft, whether I like it or hate it, there is always something worth talking about. With Valiant Hearts, the problem is not so much about quality. Though a good game, there exists an internal conflict regarding what messages players are supposed to take away from it. Some sections are clearly aiming for the tone of a pulpy adventure in the vein of a Micheal Bay movie or old propaganda films. A distinctly introspective, more melancholy tone is expressed in other areas of the game. This week, I want to detail how the game elicits these two opposing tones, and how they come into conflict with each other.
Released in June of 2014, Valiant Hearts: The Great War set out with the goal of delivering a tale about the First World War in a relatively unused way. Instead of relying on first/third-person shooting mechanics, the developers opted to utilize the in-house UbiArt engine, used to build 2D games like Rayman Origins and Child of Light, to make the 2D puzzle game out of it. Following the exploits of fictional people whose lives were directly impacted by the conflict, Valiant Hearts aimed to be more mature about its tale.

In many areas, they succeeded in this mission. Segments in the plot, particularly those surrounding Emile, an old man drafted into the French army, and Karl, his German son-in-law conscripted to fight into his national army, do their absolute best to explore how taxing World War I was on the families involved. While the two of them are off fighting in a war neither one has any true interest in, Emile's daughter and her child routinely send messages to the two of them telling them of her struggles on the homefront. There is even a more subtle emotional thread born from the knowledge that the two of them are being forced to fight against one another even though they have no real incentive to do so. This forms the central conflict of their arcs, as both men seek nothing more but to quit the war and return to their family.
Valiant Hearts also reinforces this more sorrowful line of reasoning through other means. As the player explores different locations over the course of the game, the pause menu builds up a collection of facts and pictures from the actual, real life war. The images depict great hardship, with the noticeably miserable faces of soldiers in very uncomfortable positions and conditions. From the muddy trenches, to the amputees, these help teach people about the circumstances that contextualize the game. Though it of course serves as a strong jumping off point for people without a strong grasp of history to learn more, this information also helps convey just how much the people who fought in World War I must have despised the conflict. Combined with the somber music that plays in the pause menu, Valiant Hearts does much to sell the message of “War is Hell.”

Yet, the writers of the game also follow a second, completely separate thread as the story progresses. Where Emile and Karl's tales depict the awfulness of World War I, the other subplots give off a more adventurous feeling. The first follows the American-born Freddie, whose moved to France in order to marry his lover, who was murdered by German soldiers on the say of their wedding. His is a standard-revenge story, with all of the usual trappings. Finally, we get to the story of Anna. A Belgian nurse attending school in France, she joins the war effort as a medic when she learns that her dad has been kidnapped by German soldiers, forced to create diabolical weapons for them. Her efforts to both provide medical care for injured soldiers and to find her lost father take center stage during her segments.
What unites these two threads is that both Freddie and Anna's problems can be traced to the same person. The one who both killed Freddie's lover and abducted Anna's parent is, and I swear this is true, the evil Baron Von Dorf. From the Saturday-morning cartoons most of us grew up on, the Baron represents a bad guy so absurd that no person could reasonably support him. This gives Freddie and Anna, and later Emile and Karl when the characters begin to interact with each other, a clear opponent to fight against in the context of a world-wide war. Whenever he appears, the game makes an abrupt and clear shift to the likeness of a Looney Toons short.

Furthermore, Anna in particular gets another dose of pulp in some areas. As the only playable character who uses a vehicle, Anna's driving segments often consist of her dodging obstacles on the road in perfect synchronization with classic songs like Night on Bald Mountain, Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies, among others. These segments are bizarre in how overwhelmingly energetic and cheery they are compared to most of the game. Even once Anna becomes aware of how bad things are, these segments make her seem absolutely eager to jump straight into the fray. Given what happens to both her and the other characters in the game, this is disturbing at worst and confusing at best.

These two separate tones, one of melancholy and one of adventure, are extremely difficult to reconcile with on another. Valiant Hearts makes the attempt, but never truly follows through. As a result, the game's underlying message is hard to piece together. Am I, as the player, supposed to be saddened by this chapter in human history? Am I supposed to think that war is a great thing that helps the good guys deal with the bad guys in an acceptable manner? Neither one of these questions is really answered by the game, and the writers do not appear to know which side they stand on either way for most of the duration.

Even a lot of the puzzles seem unsure of where they stand on this dichotomy. For example, at one point in the game, the player is tasked with clearing the chlorine gas out of an area so that allied soldiers can advance. To do this, they sneak into the bottom level of a German base. Seeing the large machine pumping out the gas, it is necessary to use the levers to move the pipes dispersing the gas into a position where they can build up pressure, overloading and exploding the system. Chlorine gas is was a serious issue in The Great War, to the point where chemical weapons were banned in future conflicts. Despite that gravity, the game presents uses a Pipe Dream-esque puzzle to present it. The topic lends itself to a serious exploration, yet the segment is one of the lighter ones in terms of tone. This disconnect left me feeling slightly uncomfortable, in a way that I am not sure the designer intended.
That said, no guilt was wrought. After all, nobody died as a result of me solving that pipe dream puzzle. In fact, until the very last part of the game, the playable cast does not have a single kill that can be directly traced to any one of them. Combined with the hand-drawn, exaggerated art style and a fairly vibrant color palette, Valiant Hearts invokes the impression of a children's show. This clashes with the bleakness of the source material. Even in this sense, the game seems unsure about where it wants to go.

Most of Valiant Hearts is spent in this pit of confusion over what message it is trying to convey. Not to say that the game is bad, as it does have many genuinely good moments scattered throughout, but rather that it is noticeably disjointed. Still, there is no denying that it is ambitious in its own way. There is relatively little difficulty in turning World War I into a first-person shooter. In comparison, significantly more challenge exists in building a small 2D puzzle game out of the subject. Rather than take the path of least resistance, they opted to do something unique. The final product is reflective of that, despite not fully succeeding.

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