There’s been a lot of digital ink spilled over the faults of Valiant Hearts, most notably concerning the game’s inconsistent tone and the overall direction of the game. On the one hand, the game wants to be a serious examination of the horrors of war through the eyes of those affected by the first major conflict of the 20th century. While on the other, it wants to be a rollicking, pumped up action ride of pulp sensibilities, mustachioed villain and everything. It’s not so much that the fun, action-oriented pulp storyline featuring Baron Von Dorf is terrible, just that it should have been a separate game from the melancholy “family torn apart” storyline. It’s the back and forth between these two plotlines that diminished Valiant Heart‘s promise.
That’s all well trodden ground and is material that would be quite easily excised from any potential remake. I feel the game suffers from another division of purpose, one that is more subtle and not quite easily extracted from the whole. It’s not so much a single element or series of elements, but a matter of one element that exists throughout Valiant Hearts. It’s a pattern best exemplified by this one overly pandering element: the narrator.
In part, why the narrator doesn’t work is due to what does work in Valiant Hearts. Within the game itself, there is next to no text at all. Word balloons don’t display what a person is saying, but the general gist of what they meant. Basic instructions are given through the presentation of an image of an item or another person that we have to deal with in order to continue. Everything is conveyed through images and iconography.
The best scenes in the game are those that reveal their nature subtly though a confluence of images representing ideas.
With war declared, Anna jumps into a cab and rushes a number of troops to the front line. The sequences is an arcade game of avoid the oncoming obstacle, played to a jaunty horn rendering of Offenbach’s Infernal Gallop. Her zeal and patriotism is evident and the moment represents the stirred up feelings of all the people going off to The Great War in the early years. Then it’s practically a smash cut to a blasted wasteland amid dead bodies with little color and no music. Anna walks forward slowly before a sharp, painful cry comes from somewhere ahead and she tends to the wounded. Just through the iconography surrounding the scenes and the juxtaposition of the zeal of the warriors with the nature of the actual battlefield, we are given a full view of a complete, artfully rendered idea: the promises of a glorious and noble enterprise crashing in against the reality of war.
When Karl has escaped the prison camp and is on the run through the fields at night, we understand the nature of the stealth section through a darkened screen and the occasional flare. We understand the stakes when the revealing light of the flares shows us the growing number of guards around us and in the distance. We use a scarecrow as our movable cover. We are hunted by real people hiding behind a literal strawman who is ignored. The pressures and all encompassing nature of the war machine is represented as a danger to the individual, and we have a reaction to that, even if we don’t see the deeper subtext beyond the fact that Karl is in danger and we want him to make it because we like Karl.
Later when Karl has to make it through a checkpoint by donning a series of disguises, no more complicated than putting on a new uniform, and is allowed to pass into different areas, we see the irrationality of the rational and highly organized system of the military. Despite his face appearing exactly the same to anyone he passes, whether he’s wearing the uniform of an infantryman, a police man or a captain, he has fundamentally changed into a different person due to how those around him treat him. We are not who we think we are. We are who others think we are. All of this is represented through nothing more complex than a series of fetch puzzles.
These are not simple ideas, but at its best, Valiant Hearts manages to deftly communicate them. These concepts come across thanks to the power of icons and the meanings that we imbue an image with, beyond its name. A red cross is a call for help, specifically medical help. It’s a cry of pain and one of urgency. We know the man will die without Anna’s aid. We know this because we know the red cross and what it represents. One of the best design decisions made in Valiant Hearts is limiting the use of written and spoken words to convey the nuance of human drama as well as the nuance and complexity of state sponsored suicide on a societal level.
And in the middle of all that is the narrator, lavishing us with needless exposition.
That great visual juxtaposition of jaunty, arcade patriotism against the grey-brown horror of war is overlaid with the narrator’s observation: “When Anna arrived at her destination, she discovered the truth with her own eyes.” As if we couldn’t tell what Anna was feeling through the close-up of a dead solider that the car stops in front of. The narrator stops talking after this single sentence, but what exactly was its purpose? Valiant Hearts is already showing us its point, why does it feel the need to tell us as well?
With the amount of effort that the developers put into animating the characters and a willingness to break away from the middle distant side-scrolling camera for important narrative moments, in-game direction, and to clarify the relationship between the game’s themes, it’s a shame that the game then goes on to explain what we are looking at, undercutting much of the impact of those visuals. I can’t help but feel that the developers were afraid that the players wouldn’t understand their point if they didn’t directly spell it out. A justifiable worry to be sure, but even if they don’t get the deeper conceits, they can still understand the emotional journey as suffered by the characters.
While that’s the complicated complaint regarding the narrator, the other is far easier to explain. Throughout the game, we are pulled away from the human drama of Emile, Karl, Freddie and Anna as Valiant Hearts zooms out to the grander conflict and the narrator switches away from stating the obvious and becomes a military historian. This is the other divide of Valiant Hearts. While it doesn’t know whether it wants to be an action romp or a serious meditation on the effects of the World War on individuals, it also doesn’t know whether it wants to be a humanistic piece looking at individuals or a historic teaching tool in the vein of a History Channel program.
It keeps wanting to connect the greater war to what these few people are going through. Yet, all the power of the story is communicated when the game stays focused on the characters. The tactical movements of the front or the result of this or that battle are inconsequential to the individual caught up in the maw of the machine. That’s the message that Valiant Hearts keeps pushing, yet it still wants us to know the important bullet points of the greater conflict. It’s a pity because Valiant Hearts already had a method in place to deliver that information — through the optional collectibles that impart facts about the war.
The narrator is best used when setting a scene and the characters get shuffled to a different part of the front and we need to know where we are. At times, he is even informative about parts of the first World War. I never knew about Vauquois and the battle going on in honeycombed mines beneath the village’s hill, and it was a delight to learn about. Yet, the introduction doesn’t add anything that couldn’t already be inferred from the rather neat vertical panning, showing off the various mine shafts, one atop another. For what little framing that is added, I feel the game would have been better served by staying silent and putting greater effort into the visual storytelling to get these points across.
I’d like to imagine a version of this game where the only clear words spoken come from the victims of the war. At the very end, during Emile’s walk to his execution, in voiceover he narrates his final letter to his daughter. Imagine the power of those words after several hours of having heard no others. Up to this point, the world around us is one of images and vague sounds. As the game reaches its climatic final somber moment, it drifts into the annals of history, and we are returned to the present carried on words from the past. The reading of the letter is reminiscent of those from history programs and would have done that job effectively.
There’s nothing offensive or otherwise bad about the narrator’s use, but it ended up being a crutch. The amount of creativity and artful presentation of information shows the developers are capable of stretching their storytelling abilities, but whether due to a lack of time, money, or imagination, we come back to a lazy design choice. There’s nothing quite as sad as a piece of art that doesn’t go the distance to become great, especially when both the goal and path to get to it are both in sight.