Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a game about a German war dog that betrays his country. The canine traitor, Walt, spends the duration of the game working for a French guy and a US trooper as they try to get revenge or rescue their loved ones or something from a German guy. While these two merely serve as a backdrop to Walt’s mission to bring down his former Motherland, the pair represent the already over-represented human element of the first world war.
For whatever reason, the player controls the humans rather than Walt. Personally, I didn’t get used to the idea of playing as two characters whose motivations and actions were basically meaningless, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there will be a minority of gamers who think this second person style of gameplay is ground-breaking. As much as I applaud the developers for this (perhaps) innovative narrative style, I feel as though dogs are so often portrayed as mere sidekicks – mindless helpers whose only job is to find treasure or help you in combat. This was their chance to make a difference.
However, they did not. Despite being the most vocal of the cast (with a variety of whines, growls and barks), and with the most confronting backstory (betraying his fellow countrymen, embarking on a quest to stop Germany from acquiring themselves an empire), Walt is, like every furry companion before him, left to play fetch.
Despite being as capable (or arguably more capable) than the two humans that accompany him on his journey, it is they that solve the puzzles that, by design, cannot be solved by any creature that is not in the possession of opposable thumbs. Fortunately, the puzzles (such as they are) aren’t too difficult; rather, they firmly straddle the vague line between ‘task’ and ‘puzzle’. Sure, it’s not going to test your intellectual capacity to any fine degree, but it never makes you feel as though you are simply the errand dog (or I suppose in this case, errand boy) that is simply doing odd jobs in order to see a credits screen.
It actually forms a second purpose – as every puzzle is located within a fairly small stage, it gives the player far more time to admire the art of Walt and the environments he inhabits. I was taken somewhat by surprise when I learnt the game was hand-drawn, yet, simply looking at Walt would be enough to inform the hardest skeptic that even the most passionate coder could not do for this dog what a loving hand could.
That sense of love, and further, care, is core to reproducing the caninity (or humanity, if I must argue for all sides) of the Great War – representations of human grief, gratitude, and suffering, whilst hyperbolic, nevertheless command the emotive response that the FPS genre struggles to do to this day. Unfortunately, the suffering is human-centric – while both playable humans are likely to die, worrying about Walt is moot.
However, I’m very willing to entertain the notion that this is some kind of genius mechanic wherein player are forced to see the absolute fragility and inanity of human life, and countered importance of dogkind. It is obvious to see that if the dog dies, it’s the end of the story. On the other side of the dog/human equation, if a human dies, they simply come back, marking the tragic cycle of human life and death during those horrific years.
Unfortunately, my playthrough of the game was not without its fair share of glitches, the annoyance of which was exacerbated by the fact that, no matter how far through the puzzles I was, would mean that I had to restart them. But a look at Walt’s charming face soon settled my annoyances.