Valiant Hearts and Never Alone are what I would call docu-platformers — puzzle-platforming games that seek to educate the player on some aspect of history or culture. As such, they share a striking similarity in approach. They purposefully avoid being literal or realistic, instead cherry picking certain aspects of World War I or Iñupiaq culture that can be easily integrated into the typical puzzle-platformer gameplay. They then use collectibles to expand upon those gameplay moments.
In Valiant Hearts, as I learn the controls in the barracks, the game unlocks additional “Facts” that explain the makeup of troop regiments. When I play as Freddie, an American at the Battle of Marne, the game unlocks more “Facts” about the historical importance of the battle, the use of machine guns, and the role of Americans like Freddie in the French army. In Never Alone, I learn about spirit animals and bolas just as I find a bola of my own and I meet my white fox friend. These games are extremely similar in their approach, yet Never Alone is wildly more successful in its goal of creating a documentary in the form of a game.
The problem with Valiant Hearts is that it tries to be a Tin Tin style cartoon adventure in addition to being a somber exploration of the horrors of war. For much of the game, the four playable characters (Emil, Freddie, Anna, and Karl) are battling against a cartoon villain named Baron von Dorf. This villain rides in a special zeppelin with a special tank, he makes last-second escapes by grabbing onto rope ladders and flying away, he laughs at our attempts to catch him, and he has a super thick mustache, which, as we all know, is a clear symbol of villainy. Whereas the game wants Emil, Freddie, Anna, and Karl to be stand-ins for the average soldier. However, the game then faces them off against an enemy who is very clearly not representative of all German soldiers.
This causes the game to feel tonally imbalanced for much of its runtime. One level I’m learning about how Chlorine gas burns the eyes and lungs while dragging dying soldiers out of rubble, and the next I’m using a church pipe organ to blow dynamite back into von Dorf’s face.
To the game’s credit, von Dorf is defeated before the game’s end. Valiant Hearts wants to show us that war isn’t caused by super villains, and their defeat changes nothing in the grand scheme of things. However, the presence of such a super villain in the story still detracts from the harsh reality the game wants to explore. Valiant Hearts finds its footing after von Dorf is defeated and our cast can finally become symbolic of the average soldier. Without a common enemy to unite them, they splinter off to deal with things beyond the conflicts at the front: hospitals, prisoner of war camps, mutiny, and more. Valiant Hearts refocuses itself on the war and in doing so becomes a better documentary. It just takes a while to get to that point.
By contrast, Never Alone never once feels inconsistent or confused about its goals. Every aspects of its design, from its puzzles to its rewards to its levels and even its story, all circle back to Iñupiaq culture. This is a game about the Iñupiaq people, and it is never not about them.
The story is the easiest point of comparison to Valiant Hearts, and Never Alone adapts an Iñupiaq folk tale into a video game. It doesn’t tell a story about a character experiencing Iñupiaq culture. It tells a story that is directly from and about the Iñupiaq culture. All of its obstacles, conflicts, and resolutions reflect things that that people care about or worry about, so our heroine’s adventure never conflicts with the game’s documentary goals. Nothing in the game feels out of place or incongruous because everything circles back to the Iñupiaq.
It also helps that the tone of the adventure matches the tone of the documentary. The collectibles videos are backed by a dreamy soundscape that matches the gentle atmosphere of the platforming, and there are few outright enemies in Never Alone. We’re mostly battling the environment, and even when we do encounter mystical obstacles, they’re rarely antagonistic. Sure, they get in our way or kill us, but they don’t set out to do those things. The mystical creatures of the world are simply doing their own thing, and the player will be perfectly fine as long as these creatures are avoided.
Never Alone is focused solely on its documentary, making it the more cohesive experience. Valiant Hearts tries to tell two stories at once, a fun adventure story and a more somber documentary story. I love me some Indiana Jones, but an Indiana Jones movie never tries to be an accurate depiction of World War II. That would be ridiculous, and it feels ridiculous when Valiant Hearts tries to do it with World War I.