Ever since Modern Warfare 3 I’ve been trying to veer away from the war-porn FPS scene, which remains just as prevalent in the mainstream, to the extent that even the founding fathers of the genre remain incredibly influential, barring those like Medal of Honour. It’s not that I don’t or can’t enjoy these games any more; I must have sunk days into some of those Call of Duty titles, but it started to feel as if every year I was paying a substantial amount of money solely to increase diminishing returns. I’ve mentioned this before somewhere I’m sure, but to reiterate: since Modern Warfare 1 the aspiration of every single subsequent title has been to somewhat replicate that title’s novelty, and as such, every single subsequent title is mired by the now ubiquitous effort for novelty, and so its own novelty becomes harder to discern. In other words, everyone trying to be edgy ends up with no one looking really that edgy, and instead incrementally bland with every passing year.
But even that apparent effort for deviation we see with recent titles is only a veneer on the same cheap material that all the CoDs and Battlefields share between them, and have done arguably since their inception console generations ago, which is that Clancy-esque glorification and over-romanticising of the War on Terror, World War Two, any real life conflict. These God-awful stories of these games with their God-awful characters have not been God-awfully gung-ho all these decades by pure circumstance, they are meticulously removed from the reality of war because that’s what tweenagers adore, a hyper-masculine ultraviolent power fantasy in which a bullet seems to have the same effect as a hateful tweet- you kinda flinch but you’re okay after some heavy breathing. The amount of times that my suspension of disbelief has been absolutely shafted in these games, and I’ve come to a sudden realisation that this dialogue, this narrative has been developed by a handful of people over the age of 18…
There’s only so much of this Michael Bay sock drawer fodder that you can take before it begins to have an abrasive effect, unless you’re a 14 year old whose grasp on the reality of war flies over your head like one of those bullets. In detached, fictionalised universes it’s tolerable, but when your game is set as a testament to a real section of history or politics then it’s borderline insulting to remove that key element of tragedy. I’m not saying it’s wrong to enjoy these titles- I get it, it’s escapism, and that comes at the cost of some contortion when the game is set during a historical period, but for the series to have become so contorted- with so little effort for realism, anything that attempts to mirror realism, therefore- and that includes the historical or political background itself- seems very pretentious. That ‘No Russian’ mission in Modern Warfare 2… Jesus… it’s so starkly dissonant with the ‘guns are COOL hell yeah *guitars guitars*’ vibe that its inverse equivalent would be if the ‘needs more cowbell’ SNL sketch was tersely crammed into 12 Years a Slave. It’s cringeyyy.
Valiant Hearts isn’t. At all. Valiant hearts is a side-scroller puzzle game that switches between narratively intertwined protagonists of different nationalities during the years of World War One. Surprisingly, a game that features Sims-like unintelligible dialect has managed to poke me in my soft spots the same way that Telltale did in certain moments. It’s drawn art style in no way detracts from the realism it offers, all throughout the game we are given the option to review letters that our protagonists have written, some to each other, and are given the option to review historical facts about the respective chapters that you play through. This combined with the sheer amount of historical artefacts implemented reminded me that this game is more accurately iterative of a historical period than any other war game I’ve experienced.
I think it must be the very option to view the letters and this information that provides the underlying pathos. So much of CoD and Battlefeel’s cringey death scenes and general pathos are hyperbolically overplayed and in-yer-face, but in Valiant Hearts the process of just pausing and reviewing these deeply insightful letters, some of which venture into surprisingly mature themes such as the futility of hope and the futility of nationalism, says more about our assumptions and the ostensible nature of soldiers than any action sequence on the front line can. It’s more realistic that way, for pathos in exposition not to be flaunted but revealed realistically. It’s such a small feature that’s surprisingly smart and extremely well executed through the aptitude of the game’s character development.
This underdog of a game is available on almost all platforms so I’d definitely recommend buying it. I never thought I’d be commending a war game in which your main objective is never to kill an enemy, but in this case the subversion of expectations works incredibly in its favour.