Does Valiant Hearts show the limits of how much games can teach us?

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On Saturday it was the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the shot that started the First World War. To coincide with the occasion, Ubisoft released Valiant Hearts: The Great War on Xbox Live and PSN.

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The game – thankfully – doesn’t take the traditional war game approach of first person shooting, and instead appears much more thoughtful. Instead it is styled like a comic-book and sees the player progress through beautiful 2D landscapes solving puzzles.

What’s remarkable about this approach is the learning it enables. The game follows the intertwined stories of four or five people (depending on if you count the dog) affected by the war on both sides of the trenches, switching perspectives between characters. The villain of the piece is the fictional General Dorff, modelled on the real life General Erich Ludendorff.

What’s surprising is how much is packed in, learning-wise: a narrator at the start of each chapter offers context, and the game offers insight into life on the trenches, in a POW camp, in a bombed out town and so on. And despite the cartoony graphics, it is clear that you’re going to experience and learn more from it than you would mowing down endless bad guys if it were a Call of Duty game. Perhaps I just play too many similar AAA games with a “combat” focus, but it was refreshing to see a story told in a game in a slightly different way.

And whilst the game should be rightly celebrated for doing something a bit different… it did make me wonder if the game is also illustrative of the limits of what a game can actually do.

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After all – though Valiant Hearts is an interactive experience, it is not a hugely complex one. The puzzles are not massively challenging, and it is more about triggering the correct events in the right order. At times, it feels more like reading a storybook – not that this isn’t an enjoyable experience. But is it a game?

The game itself concedes that not everything can be communicated through the mechanics of the game – at certain points you can hit a button and the game will pop up with a photo and some brief facts about something that actually happened: be it supply chains, how a battle turned out and so on. Interesting stuff for a history nerd like myself, but something that could easily be overlooked by most players.

The obvious comparison to draw is with TV. How come you can tell more complex stories, or teach more effectively through TV shows?

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Having thought about it, the one key advantage TV seems to have over games is that in games generally speaking the player has to always be doing something (Metal Gear Solid’s feature-length cutscenes excepted). So if the point the game wants to make can’t be conveyed through the medium of shooting, jumping, or driving things become tricky.

Take The West Wing, which was a TV show set in the White House which was almost entirely about people having meetings and arguing. Though it might sound dull on the surface, the show was able to maintain viewers interest and teach them something in the process – with episodes centred around, say budget negotiations or trade deals. It was common to see it described as a “weekly civics lesson”.

To do something like that in a game would be nearly impossible – unless you want a very linear corridor walking simulator. The way the West Wing makes boring debates easier to stomach is by using a technique that we’ve known about since the ancient Greeks: the dialectic. Set two characters up to have an argument and they can discuss ideas – and watching the back and forth is a great way for viewers to understand complex arguments.

And as far as I can tell… this is something that cannot be done in games. Whilst Valiant Hearts does a good job of transmitting what the experience of war in terms of how people lived, it is unable to get a handle on anything more complex. There’s no way of conveying through the medium of actions, say, the competing narratives that explain the causes of the war or the debate over whether it was just to go to war in the first place, and so on.

And so perhaps it is best we can accept what games as a medium can do. Sure, it is possible to get other learning experiences from games (hand-eye coordination, how to stab someone in the neck, etc), but let’s admit it: If you want to learn about the history of the international system, or what Thomas Aquinas thought made a just war, you’re probably best off reading a book or watching TV.

James O’Malley

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