Wolfenstein, Valiant Hearts and the promise of better narratives in war games.

Wolfenstein: The New Order and Valiant Hearts share a (tenuous) connection which is they are both about historical wars. Wolfenstein’s might be about a fictitious WW2 where the Nazi’s won and Valiant Heart focuses on a WW1 that has one foot in reality and another in story, but this link is hopefully the start of war games looking towards narrative as a way of engaging gamers outside of the usual online battlefields.

Pictured: Some sweet, sweet character drama... With robo-Nazis

Pictured: Some sweet, sweet character drama… With robo-Nazis

Now it’s time for some not so brief history. When I got Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for my 16th birthday, the overwhelming excitement came from the fact that this was a first person shooter set in the present. The fact that this was a mini-revelation back in the heady days of 2008 is a great indication of just how starved of innovation military FPS’s had been. Sure you had a Brother’s In Arms here or a-game-I-never-played-but-it-looked-pretty-cool there, but overall, Christmas was a choice between Medal of Honour’s WW2 inspired shoot-a-thon and Call of Duty’s WW2 inspired lead laced fun. It was all a little tedious, even by the age of 16.

So a step in to the present day with COD 4 meant new weapons, environments that bullets could pierce and a story that wasn’t scanned from history textbooks. While the enduring/boring conveyer belt of sequels has erased the memory that Modern Warfare brought a narrative worth actually investing in, it really shouldn’t be forgotten that MW’s first campaign was exciting and a shot in the arm for a story starved game like me.

Come on, you have to admit this is still a little good

Come on, you have to admit this is still a little good

Okay I probably have nostalgia goggles on, but playing the scene where a nuclear bomb detonates and you’re forced to watch your character die a particularly horrifying death was something I had never experienced in a FPS to that point. The pacing and dialogue might have leaned towards Hollywood, but it had enough smarts and subtle moments to suggest that the narrative in sequels could evolve into an examination on the effects of war. If you played Modern Warfare 2 or 3 after, you know this didn’t happen and the series jumped into silly rollercoaster mode.

That isn’t meant to be too much of an insult; I’ve still played every COD campaign since because of the original Modern Warfare, but where that game tempered its set-pieces with quiet moments of genuine and earned emotional horror, later games tried to carbon copy them with increasingly tasteless results.

That No Russian mission was a cracking idea

That No Russian mission was a cracking idea

Basically, what Modern Warfare gave, it also took away. Skip to 2014 and this leads to those two very different war games that I’ve played recently and which points towards a maturing appreciation for war as a narrative tool in games and not as pure popcorn entertainment and gameplay driver.

Wolfenstein is a very odd example in that it is tremendously silly and philosophical, often in the same breath. This is a game where you travel to the moon to get nuclear codes and where a character tragically reveals her true self through audio diaries; a game where the main character hisses “Nazi scum” into the ear of dying solider while ruefully clinging onto his suburban dream away from violence; a game where you have just as much incentive to turn yourself into the ultimate killing machine through gameplay perks as to hurt for letters and clippings that flesh out the world and give you a great sense of the loss and pain of this alternate history.

It’s all a great big bunch of messy contradictions, its cake and eating said cake never that far from each. But the humanity mainly wins out, thanks to an ending that follows through on its promise and isn’t concerned with franchise building – unlike another great game story I wrote about – and the way it puts character over action.

Wolfenstein is different from most military shooter stories in that lead B.J. (now that’s a name that will never get old) Blazkowicz is a fascinating character who isn’t infallible. He may be one of the best soldiers to grace this separate universe, but he is routinely questioned by his comrades in arms – Wyatt scolding him for saving his life or guitarist J challenging his view of America’s purity – and spends most of the game questioning his place in this world. That might sound a little too easy to praise – after all Band of Brothers and The Pacific do exactly the same – but in the context of the game and the genre; it felt refreshing to have the general insanity of Moon robo-nazis tempered with real emotional stakes.

Real. Emotional. Stakes.

Real. Emotional. Stakes…

Compare that to recent Call of Duty’s, where characters have long since become exposition dispensers – how much of Ghosts plot can you actually remember? – rather than people worth caring about. There was also the icky America tub-thumping marring the end of Black Ops and MW3’s descent into late night schlock that wouldn’t be out of place in a Seagal movie. Battlefield 3 wasn’t immune either, where we watch a disappointing collection of one dimensional characters slog their way through the usual Modern Warfare checkpoints on the box. Terrorism? Check. “Safe” villains? Yes, sir. Shady government forces standing in the way of the hero? Um, of course.

Now those games weren’t meant to be played as a pure single player experience. Wolfenstein is. In that sense, comparison and criticism is a little unfair if not unwarranted. What Wolfenstein does compare to is Ubisoft’s recent downloadable title Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Both games are single player only experiences that use war to explore wider issues. If Wolfenstein’s is the loss of freedom, innocence and violence becoming your only language and the old classic “the cost of war”, then Valiant Hearts is just a tad slightly more optimistic in its exploration of what the cost of war is.

Fuck yeah, adorable dogs!

Fuck yeah, adorable dogs!

Now those games weren’t meant to be played as a pure single player experience. Wolfenstein is. In that sense, comparison and criticism is a little unfair if not unwarranted. What Wolfenstein does compare to is Ubisoft’s recent downloadable title Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Both games are single player only experiences that use war to explore wider issues. If Wolfenstein’s is the loss of freedom, innocence and violence becoming your only language and the old classic “the cost of war”, then Valiant Hearts is just a tad slightly more optimistic in its exploration of what the cost of war is.

Crafted as a puzzle-adventure, you take control of four different characters who have links to each other from 1914-1918. What separates Valiant Hearts from nearly every war game is it’s totally dedication to character (and the fact it isn’t a shooter, but that’s a different ramble). Emilie is an elderly French farmer conscripted for the war effort and his relationship to Karl, his daughter’s German husband who is drafted for the German army, is a rare relationship explored in games, where the line between hero and villain is not simply down to the colour of uniform. It’s no coincidence every level comes with facts about that time period during the war, it focus as a piece of work is remembering the tragedies that is usually forgotten behind the atrocities of the war itself.

For instance, the Somme would be a horrifying experience in any videogame – yet Valiant Hearts amplifies the horror in way personal to its central character, Emilie. Not only does he witness countless amount of death – one horrifying scene sees a mountain of corpses for to navigate around, but its defining harrowing blow comes from his act of mutiny. It’s intimate and the fate of the world – so usually your primary concern in a war game– dissolves into the background as the horror of what this act means unfolds.

Here's some more of the adorable dog as a bonus.

Here’s some more of the adorable dog as a bonus for getting this far. Cheers!

Both Wolfenstein and Valiant Hearts push their characters before the action and it’s hard not to respond to this in a positive way. It’s refreshing to have relationships and characters to invest in around the bullets and if Valiant Hearts sacrifices gameplay for this – which it does to some extent, it’s puzzles will rarely tax you and in many ways it’s more an interactive history lesson than instant satisfaction escapism – it feels like it’s better for it.

Wolfenstein is still a big AAA shooter, for its moments of quiet humanity you still shoot Nazi-robo-dogs and cackle with hard-earned glee when piling through set pieces. But it’s a step towards an appreciation for narrative outside of gameplay, which is a huge plus for me.

In a few ways it was a shock to me when I found that Wolfenstein, blockbuster shooter, had every right to be compared to Valiant Hearts, thoughtful indie game. It’s an encouraging sign that a FPS can be single player focused, have developed characters who reveal depth as the story drives through its ridiculous, ridiculous beats because it wants you to think about the cost of the war. The real, human, psychological cost; not the body bags your avatar leaves in its wake. If more war games follow in this wake, then perhaps the days where the only battlefields that dominate the conversation of war games are the online ones might finally be numbered.

But seriously, I just like using the phrase "robo-nazi"

But seriously, I just like using the phrase “robo-nazi”

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