When I was in high school, I learned shockingly little about Canada’s role in the World Wars. I’m hoping that I flounder alone in this gap, and that my lack of education is due to the fact my grade 10 “history” class was flipped to become All Referendum News All The Time. It was 1995, and the Province of Quebec was aggressively seeking independence from the rest of Canada.
Spoiler: Didn’t happen. Sorry, Quebec. I understand your pain, but if you want to join the grand ol’ club of “Britain Effed Us in the Butt,” the end of the line is over there.
No, over there.
See, it wraps around the world a few times.
While I’m superduper glad former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been ousted in favour of Pokémon Professor Sycamore lookalike Justin Trudeau, I never quite agreed with the common criticism about Harper bringing attention to Canada’s roles in past wars, particularly our roles in the First World War and the War of 1812. I’ve run into a troubling number of people who believe Canada had no role in armed combat until we threw meat-money into Afghanistan — and that ignorance is within our own borders, not exclusively beyond them.
So I’m OK with our current passport commemorating a few of our fights, and I’m OK with our current $20 bill featuring Vimy Ridge.
Granted, despite Canada’s tendency to mumble “Oh, it’s nothing really, you’re welcome,” we’re still prone to our flashes of smugness — and that goes double for when we recall our combat history. Harper’s Mother Canada statue and author Douglas Coupland’s War of 1812 chess-themed statue are beyond tacky. When my parents and I visited the Nancy Island historical site over the summer (it’s literally down the street from where we vacation), my father pointed out how there’s not a negative word about Britain’s role in the War of 1812: The United States is thoroughly the aggressor, and Canada is the meek victim.
There’s also no word about how we thanked the aboriginals for their vital contributions towards our country’s defence by stealing their children and destroying their culture via Residential Schools from 1876 clear up through 19-mother-fucking-96.
But the celebration of war tends to be one-sided like that. Remembrance, the act we should be performing, lays everything bare.
Remembrance in lieu of celebrating should be the order of the day as far as war-based games are concerned, but if video games are famous for one thing, it’s their expertise at turning the Second World War and the never-ending Middle Eastern conflict into multimillion games of Cops ‘n Robbers. Bang bang, shoot Nazis. Bang bang, shoot brown people.
Hi, we’re Activision! We’ll spin our magic far enough to let you see the pattern on your soldiers’ boot laces and the scorch marks on spent bullet casings, but for God’s sake don’t make us use Google to learn what language is primarily spoken in Pakistan. That shit’s beyond us.
Activision keeps company with Ubisoft at the forefront of the “evil AAA empire” — the pantheon of premium game developers that seek to take players apart nickel-by-nickel via in-app purchases, DLC, and bugs, bugs, bugs. Ubisoft’s position isn’t unwarranted, mind. Its gentrification of Watch Dogs broke a lot of hearts, and the glitches in Assassin’s Creed Unity broke a lot of minds.
But bad decisions by a game company don’t erase the good ones. Same as a studio that’s best known for putting out games that are focus-tested into oatmeal-flavoured glop isn’t necessarily incapable of releasing a game that’s thoughtful, heart-rending, and, God forbid, genuinely educational.
Ubisoft released Valiant Hearts: The Great War in 2014. Its E3 trailer stunned the fidgety games press into rare silence for a few minutes. Of course, we recovered quickly enough to condemn the fact the game wasn’t slated for a Wii U release.
You still won’t find Valiant Hearts on Wii U, but you can find it nearly everywhere else, including mobile platforms.
Gameplay-wise, it’s not a perfect puzzle / action game, and the implementation of the know-everything Lassie-smart dog feels odd, to be honest. Not that I’m talking shit about Walt, mind you. Walt is a good dog. I guess it’s just impossible to base a game around a historical event without some avenues getting weird. So, yeah, sure, let’s have a quick-time event / rhythm sequence based around dodging bombs. May as well.
Besides, Valiant Hearts dutifully offsets any instances of apologetic goofiness by providing very thorough exposition for each camp and battlefield you find yourself on. These easily-digestible snippets of information offer up background on generals, famous soldiers, and even explain how trench architecture varied from country to country.
For someone like myself who knows distressingly little about the First World War, it’s valuable stuff. And since the information is parceled out alongside specific battles, issues, and hardships being suffered by the characters on-screen, you’re all the more driven to read up on the gristly details of the trenches.
For instance, as you play you inevitably come across your first gas attack and must solve the puzzles necessary to turn that vile shit off. As your character suffers, you’re morbidly inspired to wonder what’s going on with their body. This is where Valiant Hearts’ optional reading material offers up its “Hows” and “Whys.”
Note: Said exposition taught me soldiers combatted the devastating effects of mustard gas using pee-pee soaked rags — a technique discovered by a Canadian soldier. See, I never knew that. Why isn’t that a CBC Heritage Moment? I don’t think the content is too risqué. We already have that one with Jenny Trout and the medical school donger.
I don’t have the day-to-day supply of spoons necessary for taking on the endless argument about whether or not games are art. At the end of the day, does it matter? I think ’70s Fun House art of barbarians riding white tigers is fucking amazing, and while I’ll gladly resuscitate any Renascence enthusiast who’d collapse at the news, I won’t argue the point with them. Why should I? Barbarian tiger-men are for myself, and for the artist who creates them for people like myself. Nobody else needs to be involved.
If I die on a game-related hill, it’s going to be for titles like Valiant Hearts. Games that teach while they tell their story. Games that remember humanity’s violence, but don’t celebrate it.
Not because they’re obligated to remember, but because they want us to remember.