Many games dig back into historical conflicts for context, but World War I isn't a hugely popular subject—it presumably doesn't offer as many memorable moments or such clearly defined foes as the second World War, nor does it have the divisive legacy and more modern setting employed by Vietnam War-inspired experiences. Regardless, whenever a real-life war is tapped for a game setting, you're usually armed with a weapon, pointed at opposing soldiers, and told to kill. That's war.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War sees things a bit differently, acknowledging the human side (and toll) of such battles. It's a cartoon-like game with fabulous hand-drawn characters and settings, no intense gore or realistic depictions of death to be seen, and it unfolds via puzzles and simple interactions. To top it all off, the game was inspired by real letters that soldiers and their loved ones—the developers' great-grandparents in many cases—exchanged nearly 100 years ago.
Expectedly, it's also a very interesting game—one that's alternately sad, charming, heartwarming, and thought provoking. Following a well-received console debut in June, Valiant Hearts is launching on iPhone and iPad on Thursday, and the slower pace and simple interactions make it an ideal fit for mobile touch devices. I spoke with Ubisoft Montpellier's Yoan Fanise, content and audio director of the game, to discuss its intriguing origins.
Heart to Hearts
Montpellier is one of mega-publisher Ubisoft's key internal studios, located in the titular city in the south of France, and in recent years it has been tasked primarily with creating gorgeously hand-drawn 2D games using the UbiArt engine—notably the vibrant and hilariously fun Rayman platform-action titles. Why shift towards putting that game engine to use for such a grim, miserable setting?
"World War I is a subject that matters for us, and it's a subject that was not treated often in video games—there are so few video games that talk about that," says Fanise. Some of the team members' ancestors had either served in the war or lived through it a century ago, and the employees were able to source letters that their great-grandparents had sent and received along the way.
"We had hundreds of letters from them that we could read and discover in fact what happened, day by day," he adds. "It was like a diary, because they had dates and we could rebuild the story of what happened."
Granted, Fanise admits that France's key role in the conflict made nailing the tone for an accessible, widely available game a particularly tricky endeavor: "It's a bit dangerous, because we didn't want to talk up any French allegiance. The game is for all countries, so we wanted to make sure that it's not one point of view."
That approach comes through in the narrative, which focuses more on personal relationships between soldiers and their loved ones than motivations for war, or the perceptions of right and wrong. When the war breaks out, Karl is deported from France, away from his wife and child, and then drafted into the German army. His father-in-law, Emile, is pulled into the French military, but when they meet on the battlefield, they're not enemies, despite the opposing uniforms—they're family.
Pained letters from separated lovers and family members not only gave Ubisoft Montpellier rich source material to work from, but they also inform the presentation and emotional sense of the game, with the letters framing the scenarios that follow. And it was those real-life letters that helped steer the studio away from making just another violence-filled war game.
"From the beginning, when we read all of those letters, we wanted to show the emotions and feelings of the characters instead of showing them killing people," explains Fanise. "It would be nonsense to allow you to kill people when we talk about the feeling of the fear of being killed, or even the fear of being forced to kill someone. In some letters, people were really scared of the moment they would encounter the enemy."
Opting not to pursue an intense action approach also makes Valiant Hearts a particularly great fit for touch devices, even though it launched on controller-based platforms first. You'll tap and hold to move your character, as well as swipe and tap to interact with onscreen items (such as turning a wheel or cutting barbed wire), which all proves very intuitive and easy to pick up.
At times, it comes off like a streamlined take on the point-and-click adventure genre, complete with multi-step puzzles to solve, and such games really thrive on touch devices.
Valiant Hearts began development on iOS devices at the same time as other platforms, so there was no need to reconfigure the console or PC experience for touch interfaces. However, on the App Store, it's not sold as a complete game with a larger upfront price tag. The initial $5 purchase includes the first chapter, with the other three sold within for $4 apiece, or $9 for the bundle.
Whatever platform players choose to experience it on, Valiant Hearts: The Great War does a nice job of telling a personal and engaging story using a large setting that really hasn't been explored like this in an interactive medium. However, as with making the game feel universal to all players, Ubisoft Montpellier opted not to be heavy-handed with any sort of message or grand takeaway.
"We wanted to make sure that the game had no judgment on what happened in the war—even the ending—so we didn't want to force the player to specifically think about something at the end," says Fanise. "There's no real moral message. We don't want you to think about something being bad or good."
Still, while they didn't want players to depart the adventure with a definitive perspective supplied by the narrative, Fanise says the team is glad that players are thinking critically about the war, and conflict in general. Some players have written in to say they've played the console or PC version in front of their kids, which helped facilitate discussion on the merits of war and whether they would serve if needed.