I can’t take much more of this. I’m staring at the next trench I’m supposed to march to, separated from me by about 20 yards and a sea of endless machine gun fire. It’s hopeless. I’ve watched nearly all my comrades fall beside me today as we’ve attempted to breach enemy trenches, and I don’t think I’ll survive another push. I’m going to die — I’m certain of it. I stare at my commanding officer, who’s waving a pistol around while screaming that we continue our advance. I realize I hate him. I look forward again. Then I look down at the dull, heavy shovel I’m holding in my hands. This is it. This is how it will end.
Ubisoft’s “Valiant Hearts: The Great War” does not start off like this. The opening emotional tone of this World War I story is one of quiet sadness and potential loss. When I sat down to play it for the first time, I was expecting and ready to feel those things — in fact, I’d chosen to play this game because I was already in a melancholy mood. I do that often: I pick games that fit with my present emotional state and needs. This time was no different. So when I booted it up, I was ready to connect with the story and feel its sadness. As I listened to the hauntingly beautiful opening piano melody (seriously, go listen to it), I felt my body settle deeper into my chair. This is perfect. Bring on the feels.
The ‘feels’ didn’t quite arrive that night, though. While it’s opening premise and fantastic soundtrack hint at impending tragedy (Emile is separated from his daughter to serve in the French army), it’s earlier levels and gameplay sometimes felt incongruent. The game starts at the beginning of the war, and it was full of energy, excitement, and hope. Soldiers yelled and cheered as they shipped out from their hometowns. Officers pranced about with clean, sharp uniforms. Chippy trumpets blared to encourage troops onward. Interestingly, even the battles felt clean. I spent time playing as Emile and Freddie, two soldiers in the French infantry. As I played through the first few levels, I rarely saw fellow comrades fall, and there was little blood to found anywhere. I guess this is the family-friendly version of the war, I thought to myself.
The gameplay felt sanitized in the beginning as well. You control one of four main characters (five if you count the dog, which of course you do), and you spend most of the game solving various puzzles. This soldier needs water, but the water pump is broken, and I need to retrieve this certain tool and reconfigure the pipes to make it all happen. The battle scenarios tend to feel a little more active, often asking the player to sneak past enemies or to help fellow soldiers move past obstacles. Actual combat enacted by the player is more of a rarity, though it does happen on occasion throughout the game. It gradually becomes clear that this game is not about fighting as much as it is about surviving. Personally, the gameplay was interesting enough to keep me moving forward, but it was never a part of the game I particularly enjoyed (except for the fantastic driving sequences).
Toward the end of Chapter 1 (of four total chapters), I stopped playing and asked myself if I wanted to continue. My connection with the characters was building slowly, but the gameplay had left me feeling uninspired. Actually, one of the more interesting parts of the game for me is that each “level” is based upon a historical battle or situation of the war, and real-life facts and pictures accompany each part of the game. They are entirely optional to look at and read, but I found myself taking time to learn more often than not. The more I read, the more immersed I became in the experience. I decided I was still interested in continuing the experience of the game, but I needed a break.
Two weeks later, I was back for a reason that surprised me: the music. I can’t praise the soundtrack of this game enough. It was expertly and wonderfully composed for this game, and it consistently excels at setting the right mood for each moment. Certain melodies had stuck with me over the last few weeks, and I wanted to hear them again (I’ve embedded one of my favorites below). So I booted Valiant Hearts back up and played Chapter 2.
(Note: significant spoilers upcoming.)
Chapter 2 started differently, as it featured more gameplay as the character Anna, who is a nurse. I found myself traveling to different army camps and battlegrounds, tending to the wounded and trying to save lives. It showed a different side to the story than the first chapter had, as the painful reality of war began to become more apparent. Soldiers tried to keep morale up as they shivered in trenches. Weaponized gases and their horrors were becoming more widespread. Battles felt more about survival than progress.
While the chapter began with me trying to save lives as Anna, it ended with me as Emile executing a failed combat mission that ends with the sudden death of a friend. I was so blindsided I didn’t believe it at first. The game asked me if I wanted to start Chapter 3. I put the controller down and turned off the TV.
I didn’t play the game again for the next two months.
Last January, I stared hard at the ‘Valiant Hearts’ game icon displayed on my TV, wondering if I should open it up again. I tried to figure out why I’d stepped away for so long. I knew people would die when I started this game. What’s the problem? I didn’t feel particularly sad about the sudden death; I felt more annoyed by it than anything. I eventually realized that my reaction wasn’t about the event of death, but more about how and why the death had happened. When main characters of movies or video games die in battle, it is often a significant moment full of meaning and narrative force. In ‘Valiant Hearts,’ this wasn’t the case. My brother in arms didn’t sacrifice himself so that I might live. His efforts didn’t seal a hard-fought victory on the battlefield. It didn’t create a motivational force for my character Emile. No — this death felt random and meaningless. The mission had been a failure. Nothing changed - the war simply continued churning forward. I returned to camp a defeated man, faced with more battles that suddenly felt incredibly empty.
I couldn’t help but wonder how often soldiers of war might have felt this way. There are so many large forces outside of your control, it would be easy to feel powerless, even with a powerful firearm in your hands. At any moment, your friend beside you could be gone, and it might feel completely arbitrary and devoid of meaning. Maybe your comrade died while valiantly fighting next to you; maybe they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The machine of war doesn’t care about your sense of meaning and purpose. Someone else will inevitably fill the now-empty boots, and war will relentlessly move forward. I resented this reality, and Valiant Hearts’ blunt portrayal of it had made me resent the game as well.
After sitting for awhile, I decided to resume the game, mostly because I wanted to see it through. Maybe I was hoping to find some meaning in the end, or at least some sense of a comforting moral or conclusion. This play session turned out to be my last, because I finished the last two chapters in one go. Looking back, that last half of the game felt like a blur. Two themes of the experience stick out in my mind: deterioration and desperation. Conditions of war continued to deteriorate into bleaker realities. The characters began to express their own sense of growing desperation in different words and actions, as they feared the war may never end. I realized I was firmly attached to the characters by this point, and I found myself desiring most what they also desired: an end. They were all worn down to the end of their rope. Hopes of survival and reunion with loved ones began to feel unlikely. I shared each character’s anxiety about how their story might end. I began to experience my own sense of desperation: a desperate need to finish the game, not because I disliked it, but because I, like the characters, needed resolution.
Resolution arrived in the form of my opening paragraph.
(End-game spoilers below. If you’re set on experiencing the end of the game for yourself, stop now)
Remember how I mentioned that war felt sanitized in the beginning of the game? That wasn’t the case in the final missions. Instead of marching through puddles of rain, I stepped through pools of blood. I hid behind piles of bodies for protection and cover from enemy fire. There were no chirping trumpets, no rallying cheers from my battalion, no sense of progress or purpose. Just another crumbling shelter or pile of the deceased to scramble to. The game’s portrayal of war had gradually shifted throughout the game until all illusions of grandeur had been stripped away and all that was left was an ugly reality.
So there I was, surrounded by death and certain of my own as I stared at the impassible battlefield before me.
As I stood there, armed only with that heavy shovel, certain that this was how the game (and my character Emile) would end, I realized that my commanding officer had momentarily moved in front of me. The same officer who’d commanded my fellow comrades forward to their death. The same officer that was screaming at us now to continue forward and step out into a sea of bullets. The game never told me what to do - I instinctively knew. I raised my shovel and crashed it into the back of the officer’s head.
It was a strangely cathartic moment. In that instant, I (as Emile) finally felt a small sense of control over my own destiny. I never questioned the morality of the decision. In the madness of war, attacking my own countryman seemed like the best option. I should note that the game does not actually present this moment as a player choice — this is how the story is written. Despite this, I still felt the heavy weight of Emile’s dilemma and ultimate choice as if it were my own.
The cruel irony of how this game ended will stick with me for a long time. As soon as I fatefully raised Emile’s shovel, I knew how it had to end, though I dared to hope I might be wrong. After surviving through countless battles and against improbable odds, Emile’s life is finally taken by his own soldiers (including a close friend) while he stands blindfolded against a wooden stake. It’s an incredibly poignant and emotional scene that still forces my jaws to clench up, even when I re-watched it in preparation for this article. As Emile heavily trudges toward the spot of his execution, his last letter to his daughter is narrated in heart-breaking fashion:
As the war ends for me, I have no regrets.
I’ve seen too much horror. I hope fate has been more merciful to you.
Our time on Earth is brief, and mine has been filled with so much joy,
that I can only be thankful for how much I’ve been blessed,
most specially for the wonder you brought into my life.
This letter is my last.
I’ve been found guilty by a military court for the death of an officer. It was not my intention to kill him.
War makes men mad.
Though I failed Karl, I know my sacrifice has not been in vain.
I fought for my country and my liberty, my honour is assured.
Since it is the will of God to separate us on Earth, I hope we’ll meet again in heaven.
Keep me in your prayers.
Your loving papa,
Those “feels” I’d expected when I started the game? They’d arrived.
A Freudian Trip is a 20-something psychologist by day and a Halo 5 bullet-sponge by night. This is the second thing he’s written since his dissertation. He’s thinking of writing more experiential-themed posts like this one, so please chime in if you have thoughts on that. His cat Mosby thinks his articles are too long, but additional sources of feedback are very welcome.
You can follow him @aFreudianTrip, if you’re into that sort of thing.