Short takes — Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Beneath the emotional power of its storytelling, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a surprisingly sneaky game. In a sense, its stories are fairly conventional — a family separated by war, a man seeking revenge for the death of a woman, and a woman working to save the lives of the broken men brought back from the battlefield. But in each case, the conventions are tweaked somehow. The young man is not the hero, and is in constant need of rescue. The hirsute, portly man in red and blue is not trying to save a princess, or even his daughter, but his son-in-law. The man seeking revenge is an African American who has emigrated to France. The woman who nurses the young man back to health is not his lover, nor does she have any desire to be. Each of these stories reflect the real experiences of real people often overlooked in conventional war stories.

And underneath all this, there are the objects. Masked as collectibles, Valiant Hearts has smuggled a wealth of research into real artifacts and the unique ways they were used and repurposed. Inkwells and handmade pipes. Food tins and letters home. Dog tags as they were invented and improved. So many bodies to identify. Improvised gas masks. As time passes, history becomes entrenched in narrative, narrative in convention. With beauty and guile, Valiant Hearts: The Great War gains a few inches back.

This piece was originally published on Kill Screen as part of “High Scores: The Best of 2014” on December 22, 2014.