From 1914 to 1918, Europe was ravaged by a war that cost 16 million lives. Though World War I is often overshadowed by World War II in history classes and pop culture, it remains a formational event of the 20th century.
Ubisoft Montpellier has taken personal stories of the Great War from the families of the developers and from their community and created a gameplay experience that is intimate, compelling, inspiring, emotional, and historically accurate. Their upcoming game, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, comes out on June 25th on consoles and PC. The brief time I spent with the game at E3 revealed a beautifully animated world with simple but engaging puzzles—it was a short demo, but it got me invested in how the story will unfold.
I spoke to Kevin Erwin of Ubisoft Montpellier about the educational potential of Valiant Hearts and, most importantly, what happens to the dog.
Pixelkin: Can you explain what you did on Valiant Hearts?
Kevin Erwin: I’m the community developer at the Ubisoft Montpellier studio, so I worked with the community and also on some of the collectible items and historical elements of the game.
Pixelkin: That’s one of the things that interests us the most about the game, as a website that’s dedicated to families and also to education. Do you foresee Valiant Hearts being used in the classroom?
Kevin: Yes, and we’ve actually had Facebook posts from educators saying “Oh my god, this is what I want to use in my classroom.” That was one of the main goals of the developers when they created the game—to make this subject matter accessible to a wide range of people…It’s still World War I, so there’s violence to war. But when you play the game as the four different characters, each of whom has his or her own objectives and goals and background stories—it’s very story-driven. And you never kill. None of the characters kill. It’s the war that kills.
Pixelkin: I played it yesterday and you have quite a diverse cast of characters. Was that one of the considerations when you were making the game?
Kevin: Yeah, when you treat historical subject matter like this you don’t want to take sides. This is a real thing that happened, it was horrific, it tore apart Europe.
The contrast between the art style and the fact that it was a horrific gruesome war—it seems like a strange contrast. But we wanted to give players this emotional experience and take them across a whole range of emotions.
Pixelkin: I was bawling when I saw the trailer. That killed me a little bit.
Kevin: With the dog? Well the dog is actually an essential character in the game. Not only does the player become emotionally attached to him like any pet, he goes between all the characters and he’s part of the gameplay. He helps you solve puzzles, he can fetch things, he can pull levers and things like that.
Pixelkin: I think I know a lot of people who are concerned about the well-being of the dog throughout the game.
Kevin: No animals were harmed in the making of this game! But an interesting anecdote is that the dog’s whining and barking are all live recordings of one of the sound engineer’s dog. A Shar Pei. Which—it’s more of a doberman type in the game. But it works!
Pixelkin: That’s really cool. Going back to the conceit of the game involving letters from the homefront—how did that come about? Did you seek out genuine WWI letters?
Kevin: Paul Tumelaire, who is the art director, started drawing these characters and creating this world about five years ago. He’s very passionate about the subject. And Yoan Fanise, who’s the content and audio director—he was talking to his grandmother about making this game. They were just getting started and she was like, “Oh I’m going to go grab these albums of postcards and letters.” So the dev team members had personal connections, family connections to the war, and a lot of their letters inspired certain stories and events that happened.
And then also we did a community contest in which community members submitted World War I memorabilia from their families. And we picked two, Paul drew them and integrated them into the game, and so when you pick them up you get a little story about this particular soldier.
We have over 100 collectible items that tell you interesting factoids—like that embroidery was a big deal in the trenches…and then there’s the in-game encyclopedia that gives you more context. Every single level and environment in this game is a real battle or historical event. We have a partnership with the Mission du Centenaire, which is the French government organization for the commemorative 100 year anniversary. They have a historian on staff who we consulted with for every detail. And the in-game encyclopedia uses colorized archival footage from the Apocalypse World War I documentary. So it’s really interesting, there’s a lot of stuff to do in this smaller game.
Pixelkin: Really, I think that small studio efforts like this are a wonderful way to explore world history. A game like this can show such an intimate slice of history and I think that we don’t get enough of that. Especially after the 75th anniversary of WWII—WWI is even farther away, and people forget about it.
Kevin: Yeah, especially in the States. Americans got into the war later, and it’s a war that’s not as close to us as in Europe. So it’s nice to be able to bring this era through this game and make it accessible to a greater audience.
Pixelkin: If you could tell people one thing about Valiant Hearts, what would it be?
Kevin: Get ready for an emotional journey, and to learn a lot of cool stuff!
Read more about Valiant Hearts in our write-up of the best games from E3.