The True Dogs of War: Nation, Language, and Identity in 'Valiant Hearts'

Valiant Hearts challenges the barbaric connotations of the appellation “the dogs of war” by making a dog, the only creature blind to the “essential” identity markers of nationalism and language, the hero.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Publisher: Ubisoft
Price: $14.99
Platforms: PC
Number of players: 1
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Release Date: 2014-06-25

One of the earliest lines that indicates T.S. Eliot's concern in his 1922 poem The Waste Land with the complicated nature of identity in early 20th century Europe is this one: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” The ninth edition of The Norton Anthology of British Literature translates that line from German as, “I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, a true German.”

This line might be the first indication of one of The Wastle Land's most significant themes: the idea that misperception and misinterpretation lead to misunderstanding and a dislocation of a basic sense of humanity and our adherence to the seemingly essential identity markers of nationalism and language that define us. The speaker here in The Wasteland has apparently been mistaken for Russian. This Lithuanian by birth declares his or her identity as a German in the language of the German, yet a more specific national or regional identity is still acknowledged and, of course, there must still be a reason for the misidentification of the speaker in the first place as Russian and the need to correct potential mistaken assumptions that that identity might suggest to others. It's a complicated description of self, made messy by a desire to define one's self by one's “true” tribe.

Eliot's poem, was written just after the close of World War I, and thus in the wake of a catastrophic event very much connected to assumptions about the nature of identity and the desire to draw lines between people on the basis of national identity and language. It struggles throughout its five parts with various situations that emerge among people in Europe (both personally and politically). These situations are predicated on an inability to see beyond surfaces (thanks to misperception and miscommunication) to the shared humanity of people that are otherwise preoccupied with identifying themselves and others by anything but a shared sense of identity. This is all very comprehensible, given that national identity and a division of people by language and custom was all used to justify an astonishing ability to dehumanize and destroy thousands of people during the Great War.

While Eliot chooses to largely explore the sociological and psychological dysfunction of the aftermath of a conflict based on a strict loyalty to tribalism, the video game Valiant Hearts chooses to explore the way that national identity and language barriers lead to a loss of our sense of others' humanity within the context of the conflict itself, the battles of World War I.

The game begins with a seemingly simple and unifying social situation, a marriage between two people, that is quickly dismantled by the divisive nature of political and social identity that would characterize the war. Marie is a French woman married to a German named Karl. The two live and work with Marie's father Emile in the French countryside. As the war begins, these two men who share a love for Marie and a respect for each other find themselves arbitrarily divided against one another by their national heritage. Karl is conscripted into the German army, while Emile is asked to join the French forces that oppose them. Marie is, of course, caught in the middle, corresponding with both men on both sides of the war and caring for both men who are now supposed enemies, her husband and father.

The game further complicates an adherence to identity politics as it introduces a fourth important character, Freddie, a man whose own identity is complicated by his race, his national identity, and his choice of lifestyle. Freddie is a black man, who was married to a white woman (who I believe is French). His wife was killed in a bombing raid by the Germans, and this man, who is also an American, has joined forces with the French for the sake of avenging her death. Emile meets and befriends Freddie as Freddie is being hassled by his own supposed allies, other French soldiers, at a railway station as the two are both en route to the frontlines. That Freddie exists separate even from his own “allies” due to tribalism and identity politics reveals the complex layering of social rules and norms that are at the center of the conflict itself.

All of these complicated identities and the ugly oppositions that they create despite the fact that these are all people who share in common a simple humanity, one represented by the love and respect some of them are capable of despite language barriers and national boundaries, serve as the chief interest of the game's plot. It is these conflicts and the frustration that men like Karl, Emile, and Freddie feel in attempting to treat others decently because they are human beings while still maintaining their obligations as individuals allied to their nation and the “orders” that define what they are “supposed” to accomplish for the sake of their countries of origins, ethnic identities, and positions within the military hierarchy.

The interesting nature of Valiant Hearts is the way that the game, like Eliot's poem, tends to explore these problems of identity through the microcosm of specific situations that arise during the course of the war, rather than through the macrocosmic view of the war as a political phenomenon. Also interesting is the way that the game explores this through its plotting as well as through its gameplay, making frequent complications regarding interacting in the game world between national identity and a human identity a part of playing the game itself.

One of the game's puzzles, for instance, asks Emile, despite his role as a French soldier, to save a German trapped in a mine. Saving him leads to some co-operative puzzles that allow Emile and the German soldier to both return to their respective sides in the conflict. When Emile and the German reach the German's fellow soldiers, it is the German who then saves Emile by convincing his fellows to let Emile go. After all, Emile exhibited a basic commitment to humanity by saving the German despite their being opponents. The game complicates this exchange, then, by making Emile's goal for his next puzzle to procure explosives for his own side, explosives that ironically will become the means of killing the very German that he saved in the mine.

The tragic nature of following the rules of the game and of warfare and the political goals of such are also embedded in a later puzzle sequence in which Karl is asked to don various disguises in order to advance in the game. Karl, who has deserted the Germans, must disguise himself as a French peasant in order to advance this puzzle. However, a more complicated game of disguise and identity swapping emerges, as he makes his way into a French city and has to swap back and forth between his peasant disguise, the uniform of a French policeman, the uniform of a French footsoldier, and the uniform of a French officer in order to make his way in and out of various buildings in order to ultimately acquire a tire for a car that will allow him to escape the city. Not only is national identity a frustrating and seemingly arbitrary one, but as this puzzle reveals, there are layers and layers of political and social identity that divide these people from one another.

Karl cannot pass through the French soldiers in the guise of a French policeman, despite these individuals being on the “same side”. The soldiers don't want to fraternize with the police and vice versa. Everyone wants to “stick to their own”. Thus, an absurdly complex “game” arises in this sequence with Karl dressing and undressing and making sure to make one or the other uniform available at any time to do something a simple as traversing a room in which each “side”, policeman and soldiers, stand divided against themselves.

Ironically, the only character able to avoid the burden of national identity and focus on and be focused on for basically merely “human” motivations is the only playable character that is not human. Walt, a dog enlisted by the German medical corps to aid in saving trapped soldiers and carrying medical supplies, aids every character at one time or another during the game, regardless of what nation that they belong to. Likewise, every character and every NPC is easily taken in by Walt (Walt is frequently used as a distraction to get past any opposing guard characters, be they French or German) because of his inherent sociability and his inability to see or acknowledge uniforms and language. He wants to meet and greet everyone, and everyone wants to pet a dog.

Walt's lack of human “reason”, his inability to read and recognize the language and symbols of human tribes is the most humanizing characteristic of a social world caught up in a very human conflict. He becomes the symbol of hope for the player that all of these conflicts can be resolved by a character that can walk past boundaries and borders and act only out of sympathy and empathy for his fellow living creatures. The only creature heroic enough to ignore social and political boundaries in this version of the Great Conflict is a creature that is more attuned to humanity than the human beings struggling desperately between human symbols and notions of identity, languages and borders that divide them, these “essential” identity markers of nationalism and language.

All images from Valiant Hearts: The Great War (Ubisoft, 2014)

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