How Valiant Hearts drives you to the breaking point
Can we just talk about how amazing Valiant Hearts is? It’s absolutely freaking amazing. I mean, just on an overall design level, it somehow manages to take World War I setting, puzzle adventure gameplay, cartoon stylistic, semi-gibberish voices in gameplay, heroic ‘hell yeah’ war moments, dramatic war moments, humanizing both sides of war moments, musical vehicle levels, and put it all together in a way that works and makes you go through one hell of an emotional ride. It’s so hard not to tear up. And the dog. Probably one of the best game dogs ever. But it’s not the dog I’m going to talk about. I’m going to discuss one of the last levels in the game – Chemin des Dames, and how it drives you to the edge.
It’s hard to talk about Chemin des Dames without the context of everything that happened previously with Emile, one of the main characters, who we control in this level. It would take quite a while to do so in detail (better just play the game 😀 ), but in broad terms, Emile is fed up by the war. He’s sick, he thinks his son-in-law (who’s German and married to his daughter) is dead, at one point the French army unjustifiably court-martialed him for desertion after he escaped from a German prison camp (though then pardoned him and sent back to the front lines), and he has seen enough horrors, including having to blow up German soldiers who have helped him to survive collapsing tunnels. So understandably, by this point Emile is not very keen on participating in what would become one of the bloodiest failed offensives of World War I.
The level begins with our officer commanding to gather up three people to go with us. They’re nameless NPCs we see for the first time, however unlike most nameless NPCs, they have distinctive non-generic looks. This distinction helps to build connection with them over the course of the level, even when we don’t know anything about them.
As we go towards the front lines, the atmosphere darkens – on our way pass by a lot of soldiers carrying wounded. And our officer? Well, he’s all good at being in the front in the (relative) safety of French territory, but as soon as we get into danger zone, he always stays behind, commanding us to go first straight into the enemy fire, all while waving his sword and his pistol at us. This is the beginning of animosity towards that character.
So as we get to the battle zone, we have to go from tunnel to tunnel while avoiding enemy machine gun fire. Tunnels, and this is important, are established as an absolute safe zone – while you’re in them, you can’t be killed.
Soon enough, that point is being proven by introducing another cover – wooden planks that are so easily destroyed by machine guns that you can’t stay behind them for long, you have to be always on the move.
Then we lose (though not fatally) our first squadmate as he tries to cut barbed wire that’s blocking the path. While the officer behind us keeps pushing us forward and the Germans fire machine guns, we take the officer to the safety of the trench, and then move on further.
In a bit, we have our first digging section in the level. I want you to notice how digging underground in this particular moment is a concept of safety from all the hell on the surface, this is important for raising tension in the future.
Then there’s another section of avoiding enemy gunfire behind destructible walls. And I want you to notice how all this time, and this is true for the rest of the level, there’s not a single German soldier that we encounter directly. It’s just us pushing forward on the command of the officer, and trying to survive. There is some battle going on the background and foreground, so some parts of the French army do achieve some success, but because we don’t do anything except, well, moving forward and hiding, this starts creating a feeling of despair.
Soon enough we get to the second digging section. Now, this one is not totally safe anymore. There’s bombshells stuck in the dirt that explode on touch, so you have to dig in a way to avoid them. This is just the first step of making previously safe locations unsafe.
The next scene is rather depressing. It’s a huge pile of bodies. There’s still somebody alive in it though, and as we take him out to safety he joins as the third person of our crew. What follows next though I think is great from the perspective of creating emotions.
So, previously, we used as cover manmade structures – tunnels and wooden walls. But now we need to use as cover pile of bodies of our fallen brethren. This subversion of what is used as cover creates a very powerful emotional context. We still hear the yells of that officer who commands us to push forward as we hide behind that body pile, while Germans shoot at us, which adds to the animosity to that character, he really starts to get annoying. And then, we have to climb another pile of bodies to get into the tunnel.
This tunnel is special. Because this is where all hell breaks loose. A bomb falls on it, and destroys the top. And more bombs follow it, so you better get moving. Tunnels are no longer fully safe.
And then as one of our fellow soldiers sets up dynamite to clear rubble on our path, the side-walls of the tunnel get destroyed by machine gun fire, killing him in the process. So from this point onward, tunnels cease to be safe spots. You will get bombed from above, you will be shot at by machine guns, everywhere. And that officer keeps pointing a gun at us so we’d move forward.
Now there’s just two people left, and the last digging section of the level begins. Not only we have to dig through the ground while avoiding shells that got stuck in it, the ground gets destroyed by bombs that fall from above, and also as we move more shells get stuck in the dirt forcing us to change our path. If you stand still for a couple seconds you’re most likely gonna die because those bombs just destroy the ground formation we’re digging through.
After that very intense moment, there’s a little bit of a breather as we go through the desolate battlefield. But it’s calm not for long, as soon enough we get to positions where Germans can fire at us.
And we have to use a cart full of bodies as cover. And the soldier that we’ve saved from one such pile dies as he pushes it to make it rolling. I would like to note that every death of our fellow NPCs from our crew is accentuated with zoom-in, slow-motion, and a shot or two of changed color palette.
During the last gameplay section we have to control a cart of bodies ourselves, by stopping in cover at the right moments to avoid enemy fire.
After we get past that section, we finally with our last surviving teammate get into a safe area where there’s nobody firing at us. Except that it’s a twisted sort of relief, due to us being surrounded by hundreds of dead soldiers. Still, the atmosphere is incredibly calm, especially in comparison to all the previous sections we had to go through.
The calmness is interrupted by a bomb that fell, the explosion causing Emile to get knocked out for a little while. There’s absolute silence, that then gets interrupted by the officer we all know and hate leading soldiers onward as we wake up. We get back to an area full of enemy fire. The officer, as he tends to do, stays behind safe cover and commands everyone to charge under the deadly fire.
Soldiers die, some are afraid and don’t want to go out there, one of them being our teammate, the only one who got this far with us from the beginning of the level, others being dead or wounded. The officer is not happy.
He takes his gun, and starts shooting at the soldier’s legs, thus making him retreat and getting closer and closer to the deadly enemy fire. And then happens a moment that all players I’ve seen just do naturally.
They hit that officer with their shovel. The blow is lethal even though Emile didn’t want it to be. But that’s beside the point. The point is, the moment is scripted in such a way that you can’t get past the officer, and the only way to progress is to hit him. But players don’t spend time to figure out what to do next, they just do it.
Because the level made players go past their breaking point just like the whole situation made Emile go past breaking point.
Chemin des Dames introduces concepts of safe zones, and then one by one makes those zones unsafe, while raising the overall intensity of the enemies attacking you. The level introduces unique NPCs, some with their own role, like barbed wire cutting or dynamite placement, and then takes them away from you. And all that while there’s some asshole constantly pushing you into deadly fire. And then when you think it’s all over, that you’re safe, the commanding officer starts pushing you back into the deadly fire and then starts firing himself at the only remaining member of your company with whom you’ve went through all that experience. It’s just natural to go all ‘fuck you’ on that person.
What makes the aftermath of this even stronger is that the players, just like Emile, don’t expect the hit to be lethal. Because throughout the whole game, you don’t actually kill anyone directly. You never fire a rifle at a person. Grenades are thrown to destroy barriers or barricades, and if there’s a person there, they always run away. Your attacking move with all characters is hitting, and it’s just knocking out people. It fits with the overall style and tone of the game, and you’re used to it.
Which is why it’s so powerful that at this moment when you hit the unreasonable, so to speak, officer, you kill him. To me that’s such a great subversion. One that also leads to a very sad and tear-inducing ending. And I think this is why Valiant Hearts can make this mix of serious and goofy elements work so well.
At the very beginning of the game, Emile had the same kind of constantly yelling and pushing officer when he was going through combat training. It was kinda funny. But at the end the same kind of officer is even more dangerous for you and other people than for enemies.
There’s a whole puzzle revolved around giving a sock to a person in exchange for ink. Standard adventure game fare – find a way to get a dirty sock, figure out how to clean it and then to dry it out. But just think about the context. You’re in a military camp and you’re looking for a sock as a trade item, because at that moment it’s the most valuable thing for the guy demanding it. That’s depressing.
There’s a whole arc for one of the characters, Freddie, about getting revenge on one of the German generals, and pursuing him to beat him to a pulp in a Quick-Time Event. It’s bombastic and heroic. But then you get a flashback scene of why this arc happened in the first place, and the context changes. While in parallel to hunt of this comical villain, we get scenes where we as Emile work together with a German soldier, who saves us from dying. And shortly after we witness how we helped the French army blow up a ton of soldiers, that helping German including.
This is why I think Valiant Hearts is such an emotional ride. It takes all these elements that don’t seem to work together, but plays around with them in such a way, playing something straight here, subverting something there, that in the end it all clicks. And I love what it does with all that, Chemin des Dames being just one of the examples.
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