The Poppies of Flanders

It’s been almost a year since I finished Valiant Hearts but I was thinking about it recently. Set in the First World War but not a shooter, the game was made partly to commemorate the centennial of the start of the Great War and partly to show off Ubisoft’s UbiArt Framework engine. It is also the only game that has made me cry because of its content (as opposed to something awful happening to me while playing it). If you have not played it I recommend that you do, its available almost everywhere, Playstation 3 & 4; Xbox 360 & Xbox One, Android and iOS. It is not that difficult as a game; the rhythm game sections are difficult as it progresses and the puzzles can be obtuse (I got stuck at a section where I was supposed to aim a howitzer through pictograms for a good ten minutes). But it is an interesting examination of the First World War.

The First World War is overshadowed in our collectively consciousness by the Second, especially in the US. It makes a degree of sense though. Americans were spared the worst of the trenches and social upheavals that the Europeans were subjected to. And the Second World War was so devastating, killing 60 million people compared to the First’s 38 million. And we tend to see the whole period as the inevitable lead up to the Second and the later Cold War. It is taught to us as such in school. I remember being taught that the First World War was inevitable due to the tension in Europe and the web of alliances. But the First World War is the closest the modern world has to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, though it was much more sudden and far more violent.

The First World War finally swept away the last connections our world had with the Medieval world. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, a remnant of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, whose ruler held title to an empire; nine kingships one of which was apostolic; one archduchy; one grand duchy; seventeen duchies; a grand principality, two principalities and three princely counties; four margraviates; four counties; a grand voivode and three lordships; collapsed into a patchwork of new nations. The Ottoman Empire, descendent of the Turkish nomads that swept across the Middle East almost a millennium before then and styled the Kaysar-i-Rûm (Ottoman Turkish for Caesar of Rome) was smashed and divided among the British and French. The Caliphate, an institute that could be traced back to the Companions of the Prophet and the cause of the schism between Sunni and Shia, abolished shortly after the war. The Russian Empire, another to claim the title of Caesar and style themselves as the heirs of Rome fell in civil war. The German Empire, the youngest Great Power and the most powerful state in Europe, another to style its sovereign as Caesar was destroyed by the war and the peace.

The game ends in the execution by firing squad of Emile, a middle aged French grandfather conscripted in the French Army in 1914. My crime was striking an officer with my shovel because I did not want another soldier to die needlessly. The Nivelle Offensive was a bloody mess. The trenches were made out of the bodies of soldiers. The men were exhausted and filthy. Walking wounded were with me in our futile attempts to advance. The poor man was terrified and refused to walk into an enfilade. The officer was firing his revolver at the soldier’s feet. I could not take it any more. I had to do something. So I struck him. I did not mean to kill him. It was an accident. Freddie, the African-American volunteer, who had served with me since 1914 and who had saved my life and I his more times than I could count. He saluted me before I faced the firing line. They all saluted me and then they fired.

I broke down and cried after that. The whole game had been leading to this. It did not even prompt me that hitting the officer was an option. I chose that. It was the first time in the game that you definitively kill someone. Freddie seeks revenge on a German Baron who killed his wife in Paris when the war started and decides when the Baron is helpless in front of him to let him go, the Baron was demoted as a result. The Nivelle Offensive chapter of the game is surreal. Bodies are everywhere, it is like a twisted ant farm as you traverse the trenches and see the cross section of what you are walking through. Your squad dies all around you and in that final moment I could not bear it.

The First World War was not the deadliest war in European history proportionally. The Napoleonic Wars killed more French relative to the population. The Thirty Years War reduced the total populations of German states by approximately 35% compared to the about 3% of the German population in the First World War. But the Napoleonic Wars were spread out over 12 years. The Thirty Years War took aptly three decades to wind its way through the total number of Germans alive on the planet at the time. The First World War took four years, three months and 14 days to consume 15 to 18 million lives (1.61 to 1.92% of the total population of the belligerent nations combined) and that is excluding the Spanish Influenza pandemic (which killed 3-5% of the total world population out of less than two billion).* And the main cause of death in the First World War was not disease or starvation, which was more likely to kill someone in the Thirty Years War or Napoleonic Wars than battle. It was being killed on the battlefield or dying as a result of wounds sustained in battle.

Valiant Hearts follows the arc of the First World War in terms of time and mood. The Battle of the Marne is on open fields, the sun is shining, the plants are alive, the buildings are damaged but not devastated. Then it descends into the industrial hell of the Western Front. In terms of a game it is kind of simple, a puzzle and rhythm game. But it tells a story of the most traumatic event in human history, especially in the Western world. This game tells the story in a way that most games would not. It is not a power fantasy, you are not the unrelenting god of war laying waste to comic villain drones that hapless attempt to stop you. You are one of four people, a French grandfather, an American expatriate, a Belgian Nurse and a German farmer. Sucked in a living hell trying to survive as the world is turned upside down. And in the end, I just wanted to not see another man be killed pointlessly and was executed for it.


* – A small note, the last person to die in combat in the First World War was an American, Henry Gunther, killed on the 11th of November 1918 at 10:59 AM. Based on what I have read it sounds like an indirect suicide.

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