In the United States, today is Veterans Day. But in the rest of the world, it's Armistice Day, to commemorate the end of World War I. This is an excellent reason to brush off a game from earlier this year, the rare title with a morally serious treatment of war.
It is called Valiant Hearts, and unlike the vast majority of military-themed games, it's not a first-person shooter. It takes place in World War I, which only a handful of games have done, especially compared to the hundreds of World War II titles. In fact, while you do fire some artillery on a couple occasions, you never pick up or use a standard firearm. It's a notable absence for a game about war.
Instead, it's a beautifully animated side-scroller, and the gameplay is just a handful of easy little puzzles on which the excellent art design, music, and story are built. It centers on four people and a dog: Emile, an old French farmer; his son-in-law Karl, a German citizen; Anna, a Belgian student and battlefield nurse; Freddie, an African-American expat living in France; and a medical rescue canine. As the war draws near, Karl is deported to Germany, and then drafted into the German army. Emile is drafted in the French army, while Freddie enlists in the same. The plot centers around them as they try to survive grim trench warfare and prison camps, and keep each other safe.
The story flails a little at times, most especially in the antagonist of Baron von Dorf, a cackling Snidely Whiplash-style character at odds with the generally serious and non-partisan tone. But, spoiler alert, he is defeated about two-thirds of the way through. Immediately afterward, both the artistic strength and the emotional resonance of the game grow by leaps and bounds, leading up to an absolutely gut-wrenching masterpiece of an ending.
With the von Dorf character, the Germans are ostensibly the "bad guys" of Valiant Hearts. But ultimately, the war itself is the real enemy. The French military comes out nearly as badly as the German one. Towards the end Emile is forced at swordpoint to round up some of his injured comrades so they can be fed into the meatgrinder that was the Second Battle of the Aisne, a French offensive which cost that nation roughly 190,000 casualties.
Video games have returned again and again to World War II, probably because it's a cheap and easy grist for the power fantasy mill. Utterly evil antagonists are nice if you want a player to feel fine about massacring them by the thousand. (Yes, the Nazis were bad, and yes, by 1935, it was a war that needed to be fought.)
Modern war games are even worse, often little more than thinly papered-over jingoistic agitprop, possibly because they're often made in collusion with the weapons manufacturing industry to sell more guns, like how cigarettes used to be planted in movies.
But despite all the right-wing fever dreams in recent Call of Duty releases and its brethren, America's recent wars in reality have looked a lot more like the one depicted in Valiant Hearts: stupid, pointless, cruel, and disastrous. Two days ago, the president sent 1,500 more troops to Iraq to do...something. Nobody, including President Obama himself, seems quite sure why.