The Valiant Hearts series is a novel take on the familiar setting of World War I. Instead of focusing on armed skirmishes and large-scale battles, it hones in on the lives of those on the frontlines, the lingering trauma that war casts upon them, and the unexpected bonds found in dark times. Despite the smaller-scale storytelling, its more emotional take on living through war is a welcome change of pace.
Released in January as a Netflix Games exclusive, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is the long overdue sequel to Ubisoft’s war-time narrative-adventure game from 2014. Along with the return of protagonists Anna and Freddie, the sequel also includes a new character whose story focuses on the African American service members in the famed 369th regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters.
We interviewed Ubisoft manager of inclusive games & content Maya Loreal, and product director Guillaume Cerda, about the making of Valiant Hearts: Coming Home and the potential video games have with bringing stories and underrepresented figures into the spotlight.
“It’s in our game’s DNA to tell the story of these ordinary people becoming unsung heroes,” said Cerda about Valiant Hearts; Coming Home. “And what better example than the Harlem Hellfighters, especially with the feats and efforts they are recognized with, even after a century following the end of World War I. Their stories fit in well with Valiant Hearts. We’re always saying that it’s not a war game, but it’s a game about war, being caught up in the turmoil of it.”
Revisiting The Past
Coming Home picks up after the original game’s events in 1917, with the United States entering the war and further expanding the scale of the conflict. As returning characters Freddie and Anna continue to survive with their fellow French soldiers, Freddie’s brother James enlists in the US army to join the war effort, going against his brother’s wishes. Along with facing the brutality of one of history’s most chaotic wars, James and other Black soldiers in his unit also contend with daily encounters of bigotry from their fellow service members at home and abroad.
The strength of the Valiant Hearts series lies in its focus on the human condition, along with the bonds of family and friendship during times of war. Much like Freddie’s experience from the original game – whose story was inspired by real-life WWI hero Freddie Stowers – James’ story is about the experiences of a Black soldier during the early 1900s, and what unfolds is a tale that’s rich and emotional.
Aside from 2016’s Battlefield 1, the Harlem Hellfighters have had little presence in other games focusing on World War 1. In real life, the Harlem Hellfighters, often known as the 369th regiment, comprised enlisted African American soldiers who wanted to join the war effort for the United States. However, the American military instead sent the 369th regiment to work with France, as American generals and other soldiers refused to work alongside Black servicemen in the racially segregated army.
The all-African American regiment was welcomed into the French military with open arms, and they would become a key segment of the French armed forces, helping to achieve victory in battles across Europe and in Northern Africa. The Harlem Hellfighters were not only exceptional in combat, but they also provided much-needed morale to the French and American military forces. In addition, several regiment members were talented Jazz musicians, and their music would lift the spirits of allied soldiers. It would also lead to the booming popularity of Jazz music in France during the 1900s.
A Fresh Perspective
James’ story in Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is compelling, and it pulls from the real-life experiences of Harlem Hellfighter James Reese Europe. Europe was a Jazz musician before entering the war, and he experienced many hardships during the war as well as in the racially segregated United States. Yet, despite that, he brought humanity and comfort to his fellow servicemen with his Jazz music and upbeat attitude – so much so that he became a celebrity in France after the war ended.
Speaking with Maya Loreal from Ubisoft, she explained the work that went into bringing James to life, and honoring the members of the 369th regiment in Valiant Hearts.
“Right from the start, the team intended to represent the experiences and the struggles [the 369th regiment] towards equality in the context of racial segregation,” said Loreal about incorporating the experiences of Black soldiers into Coming Home. “We did a lot of research to ensure we brought those stories to life. We partnered with Dr. John H. Morrow Jr., who is a scholar specializing in the history of the Harlem Hellfighters, and with the non-profit The 369th Experience, which is continuing their legacy. We see this as a long-term journey to make sure that we were celebrating those who hadn’t had a voice in history, and who had been overlooked.”
Coming Home delves into James’ story from the beginning of deployment to the end of his time in the war, highlighting many Black soldiers’ struggles in America. For instance, during a segment in James’ training for the war, he has to face racist drill sergeants who bark orders at him while demanding he enter the Blacks-only side of the barracks for his orientation. While in gun and performance training, the White soldiers are given rifles to practice with, whereas James and other Black soldiers have to run drills with brooms and other bricks instead. The sequence ends with James watching White soldiers stand in formation and raising the American flag, while he has to clean up the obstacle course.
Even with Valiant Hearts’ emotive and colorful art-style, you can sense the hostility and resentment that James experiences in his story. Thankfully, it’s not just tragedy and humiliation that he faces. In Valiant Hearts: Coming Home’s more hopeful and upbeat moments, we see James and the fellow members of the 369th division have pure and unbridled moments of joy amongst themselves, which is a rare sight for a game set during a war. Taking cues from the real-life James Reese Europe, the protagonist, and other characters come together to bond over a shared love of Jazz, which is an intractable rhythm-based sequence with music composed by musician and historian Jason Moran.
These moments are spaced throughout the game, and they’re always great moments of uplifting for the characters, showing that there is more to them and their stories than just suffering and hardship. Valiant Hearts: Coming Home shows its Black characters finding their joy in bleakest of times, and it’s a welcome and much-needed sight for video games.
Finding That Joy In Dark Times
Even today, we often see stereotypes and other harmful depictions of what it means to be Black in media – whether in a fantasy realm or in contemporary settings. Regardless of the setting, depictions of Black characters in media come from a real-world basis. Valiant Heroes: Coming Heroes shows a level of earnestness and warmth for its Black characters, which carries so much weight when you consider the real history and even in our present times.
“What worked so well with the collaboration with the 369 Experience and the dev team was that it was such an organic back-and-forth,” said Loreal. “It led us to explore other paths and also to acknowledge the full cultural resonance of that moment in time [during World War I], and what it means today. Working with Dr. John H. Morrow Jr. also brought a lot of insight into the specificity of the voice we needed to bring to the African American soldiers during that time, and it provided so much authenticity to the game.”
Much like the original game, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is a moving and effective narrative game that portrays a particularly brutal period of history with a bittersweet sense of hope. This sequel not only lives up to its original story and characters, but it also shows that video games have a growing potential for telling stories about marginalized groups, and getting players to empathize with the perspective of an outsider and how it connects to real life. Simply put, to play as a Black character in a game about one of modern history’s most brutal wars just hits different.
Even with games that have several times the budget of Valiant Hearts: Coming Home, this sequel to a 2014 game manages to give more honesty and emotion than so many other titles in its genre, and it’s admirable to see a game punch above its weight. There’s always that prevailing hope that a medium you enjoy will continue to evolve. Games like Valiant Hearts show that video games can indeed offer something more.
Alessandro Fillari is a news writer for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @afillari.
Go to Source
Author: Alessandro Fillari