Valiant Hearts – The Dos and Don’ts of Story Telling

Inspired by the letters and photos of veterans of the first World War, Ubisoft Montpellier set out to create a puzzle adventure game that tells the story of four characters (and their clever dog) as they attempt to reconnect a German soldier with his French wife.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War starts with the deportation of the German farmer Karl from his home in France. After Karl’s wife’s father Emile gets drafted to the French army, he attempts to connect with Karl. Emile quickly befriends an American volunteer named Freddie and a Belgium nursing student named Anna and they decide to help Emile with his quest.

The interesting setup and emotional dynamic gives this game a solid foundation but once the game involves the player the story slows and becomes flat. Here are some DOs and DON’Ts for telling a story through a game:

DO: Make the Gameplay Related to the Story

Valiant Hearts is a side-scroller puzzle adventure. Players navigate through war stricken landscapes putting together various contraptions, avoiding detection, driving without hitting obstacles, and point-and-click-esque puzzles. The stress-free gameplay in Valiant Hearts is closer to something a mechanic or an immigration officer would experience. Each of the playable characters in the game seem to wander around as they wish without much hint of danger. A World War 1 game should be about strategy, decryption, Christmas football, or chaotic running and gunning.

It’s understandable that Valiant Hearts wanted a new and refreshing approach this war setting, but they threw away too many key factors. A good story generates empathy and to do so one must complete the same types of tasks as the character represented. Videos games allow for a closer connection than any other medium. It’s important to use this advantage.

Valiant Hearts could have included a map view between each of the stages and allowed the players to pick where they went next. With this, they could have each character in a separate place on the map that and each would unlocked things for the other characters (a bit like in the Mega Man games). This addition to the gameplay would teach players about how control of territory during the war and how/why the division line moved. Each character’s story would become more engaging because each their overall role in the war would be more important.

DON’T: Switch Views Too Often

In almost all segments of Valiant Hearts, the player controls one character as they accomplish their current goal. This allows the player the time to connect with that character and learn their motivations. In one segment, the player controls Anna as she arrives at a gas-bombed Marne. She saves people who are stuck or hurt and the player understands her need to help the wounded. The sound of appreciation each injured soldier makes after she bandages them is very rewarding.

In a later segment, the player must change views between Freddie and Emile to navigate through the level. This allows for an interesting puzzle, but the player feels a disconnect from these characters. They become tools for solving the puzzle instead of characters using the tools.

Portal 2 is a puzzle game that includes a two characters mode. Many of these puzzles could be solved by jumping from one character to the another but Portal 2 doesn’t allow this. The developers decided that for players to play in this mode, they must use online multiplayer. By doing this, they enforce their strong characters and create some truly memorable moments. Since this was likely out of scope for Valiant Hearts, the game’s creators should have removed this gameplay.

DO: Use Appropriate Art & Music

The art in Valiant Hearts is beautiful and fresh. Its colour palette is reminiscent of media of the game’s time. It keeps everything clean and understandable. Despite the lack of such beauty in the first World War, this game is intended for players of all ages and a certain distant must be kept from reality. The visuals in Valiant Hearts find an excellent balance between the grotesque war imagery and a sell-able all-ages game.

Many war combat games that have been released recently lack the scale of mortality of war and while Valiant Hearts is a game about the little moments, it was was able to subtly show massive graveyards and piles of dead bodies without using it for its shock-value.

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The music and audio effects are also incredible. The main menu music immediately places the player in a timeless France and sets up the pace of the game. The background noises always immerse the scene especially the scenes in which there are bombs falling and soldiers are yelling and screaming. It’s never over-the-top and tacky but always enough to be meaningful.

DON’T: Ignore Pace

Valiant Hearts can be very slow moving. Despite fires and toxic gas everywhere, the player feels as though they can take them time and contemplate the current puzzle. The first World War was filled with tough decisions and its participants were not able to achieve their goals in their entirety. This game could have used this to their advantage and pushed the players to only take one path when they’re at a fork. The character shouldn’t be able to infinitely move around a burning three-story house.

To achieve a sense of panic without causing too much frustration the game simply needs quicker respawns and more checkspots. This might not fit the patient-puzzle atmosphere that Valiant Hearts set out to achieve but the first World War cannot be accurately portrayed without causing stressful situations.

Another war-based game, Banner Saga, also has a very slow pace but it handles it very well. The player has infinite time to deal when moving characters and when responding to dialogue, but it works because the game makes it feel like time has frozen in this moments. When the party moves across the landscape the slow pace makes the game feel epic and the travels feel long and trying.

DO: Let the Player Make Choices that Implicate the Story

In Valiant Hearts it’s hard for the player to feel as though they are participating in the story. Giving them meaningful decisions and having to deal with the results is the best way of engaging a player. Allowing players to change the course of a story that’s already established might seem like a bad idea but it depends on the scope. In terms of war strategy, these decisions could be used as a learning tool that shows what worked and what wouldn’t have worked.

Since this game is based on single characters and not the placement of troops, the decision mechanism could still have worked. At one point, Emile and Freddie and they jump into a car with Anna. In truth, the decision to abandon their other comrades and go with Anna would have been tough for Emile. He was doing what was best for his daughter but he was leaving his countrymen behind. This gameplay feature would also have the benefit of adding replay value to the game

DON’T: Abuse Secondary Gameplay Elements

Hidden throughout Valiant Hearts are optional items that the player can collect. Each one of these items contains a backstory that describes how they were used in the war. For example, the player will find an army helmet with holes punctured through it that is labeled as a brazier. The text that describes the item says that since the metal helmets weren’t very good at stopping bullets, they would sometimes be used as heating devices. Forcing the player to create a brazier out of a helmet would have made for an excellent puzzle that would have doubled as a learning experience.

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These items are completely optional and easy to ignore. There is too large a divide between these secondary items that tell the actual story of the war, and the story in the game. Instead, the player must use pick up gears and levers and use them to unlock irrelevant and repetitious puzzles.

Secondary gameplay elements should fit within the game and not be thrown in as an afterthought. This would make the story more compelling as everything is significant and can be used to influence gameplay.

Despite its beauty and incredible audio, Valiant Hearts misses some excellent opportunities to tell the story of the first World War. The game misses a wonderful opportunity to let people experience a war that is almost a hundred years old and slowly fading from memory.

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