14 min read

Q&A: Telling human stories of the Great War with Valiant Hearts

Two lead developers on Ubisoft Montpellier's Valiant Hearts explain why they made a cartoonish adventure game inspired by soldier's letters and other somber artifacts of the First World War.
We've known about Ubisoft's downloadable adventure game Valiant Hearts since the company brought it to the Ubi-Art Developer Days event last fall, but it wasn't until the game cropped up in Ubisoft's bombastic E3 press conference this month that I came to appreciate what a significant anomaly this somber downloadable title is amidst the company's 2014 lineup. It's no surprise that the game is built on the Ubi-Art Framework, Ubisoft's proprietary 2D toolset that previously powered Rayman Origins and Child of Light. Ubisoft's Xavier Poix told Gamasutra that it was built to allow Ubisoft developers a chance to refresh themselves by creating small, "profound and intimate games" with unique visual design, and Valiant Hearts appears to be just that. What's more surprising is the trio of Ubisoft Montpellier developers who successfully sold their CEO on Valiant Hearts and guided the project from prototype to full-blown production have a history of working on major franchises across multiple genres: Yoan Fanise, Paul Tumelaire and Simon Chocquet-Bottani have credits on everything from Assassin's Creed and Rayman to Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, so Valiant Hearts -- which is being advertised as a story about letters, love and sad dogs in snow during the First World War -- was a new challenge for all of them. The game comes out this week, so Gamasutra caught up with both Simon and Yoan via phone to learn more about how Valiant Hearts was made and what challenges they faced in tackling a completely new genre with a drastically smaller team.

How did Valiant Hearts come together?

Yoan: First it was all Paul; Paul [Tumelaire] started the project three years ago by drawing some characters, making some concept art, and in fact the project was very small, it was more of a solo project at the beginning. About a year and a half after that, we really started the project in earnest when Simon and I joined Paul to start building the story and start thinking about the gameplay. But it started as just art. Simon: After the end of Rayman Legends, which Paul and I both worked on, we really wanted to start this project because we knew that 2014 would be the centenary of the Great War. But at first the direction of the project wasn’t that story-driven; we thought that building on the early artwork would be a good opportunity to create a unique game that was driven as much by history as by story and gameplay.

It seems like a sharp departure from your previous work. Why make the switch?

Y: Because Paul's artwork was really intense and filled with real emotion. World War I is something we really, how you say...we really care about. It’s really intense for us, this subject, because we live in France and a big part of World War I happened in France. It’s something that really touched us, because most of our families were involved in that war. So this subject is really close to us because it happened to our families. It happened to our great-grandfathers. S: For me, I was already working on Rayman Origins and then Rayman
"Moving to something new and discovering something about our past made this project really special for me."
, so I saw an opportunity in this game to really challenge myself. Before both Rayman games I’d been working on From Dust, and before that I was working on the Michael Jackson dance game (Michael Jackson: The Experience), and I really like trying new challenges. Y: It’s funny to notice that Simon and Paul were coming from Rayman, and one of the design decisions we made while making Valiant Hearts was to not allow you to jump. So that was...interesting. S: Yes Rayman was really focused around gameplay skill: dexterity, that kind of stuff, but I really like the idea of jumping into something really different, something that was really more story-driven, more centered around emotion, where the gameplay should really be focused on adding to the story, rather than focusing on challenging the player’s dexterity, alacrity and skill. And of course, the First World War, for a lot of French people, is something we learned about from our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers. We also learned about it at school, but only certain parts of it -- so having an opportunity to discover more of it by working on this game, reading letters, doing research, is really weird because you learn a lot of things you never saw when you were a kid -- you know a few stories, you know about a few fights, you know some names, but when I started to do some research about the project, I found a lot of information I didn’t know about, and it really feels like I learned more about my own story. I think that moving to something new and discovering something about our past made this project really special for me.

Was it tough to work around a subject that’s this serious, and this close to your own family history?

Y: I think for us, it was something positive. The goal of the game was to help people remember this war, so it felt like a sort of duty to help them remember that. It was important for us not to create a game that was only fun; it couldn’t be a first-person shooter without emotion, because of course the subject is more real for us. But it’s true, when we were reading all those old letters and documents, sometimes you read some letters that are really deep and very sad, and sometimes you feel not very well. But you have to remember your purpose.

Did you bring any of your own personal history into the game?

Y: No, in fact the characters are all fictional in the game. We drew inspiration from everything we learned, especially from our families, but we wanted to keep the game fictional to not cross the line between reality and fiction. But some of the collectibles you will find, they are based on the real objects and the real letters that we found. So for example, my great-grandfather’s real dogtag is in the game.

So why make this a cartoonish puzzle game, instead of a more serious narrative-driven experience like, say, Gone Home?

S: Well, we had a few reasons. We decided the game was going to revolve around human beings, and the game will focus on the fact that you play a normal human, not a superhero; a farmer, a husband, a son, who has to fight in the war. To do so, we had to find a kind of gameplay that wouldn’t feel overly powerful. So that’s how we came to decide on a puzzle game -- though of course it’s more of a puzzle adventure, since you always have direct control of the character. It’s a slow-paced game where you control a character and you have to feel this character is human -- for example, we really based the gameplay around immersion. When you have to use a lever or a wheel, you have to hold the button and mimic the motion with your fingers to make the object move. So the puzzle game was the genre that allowed us to focus best on this kind of feeling, which is ‘I’m a normal human being, with no special abilities. I can’t make three-meter jumps, I can’t shoot two hundred bullets,’ and so on.
Also, we noticed that when you focus on puzzles, it only takes a small amount of action to make the player feel like something huge is happening. So when you play an action sequence right after a small puzzle, the action sequence feels much stronger than it really is. We knew from the very beginning that the pacing was very important, and we wanted the game to cause the player to really take their time and understand the surroundings, because we chose to add an encyclopedia so that with one button press you have access to information about the place where you are and what really happened there on that specific date. To allow access to that, we had to allow the player time to see what’s around them and time to understand things. It’s really a choice we made to help the character feel like they’re living the story of this normal human, a farmer or a student, having no choice but to fight in the war.

This seems like a bit of a dramatic jump from Rayman and Assassin's Creed.

Y: In Montpellier, we already have this spirit of umm...not-so-big video games, and we have this culture of being a bit crazy and a bit artistic. We really aren’t afraid of challenges, and this project was particularly challenging.

How come?

S: With every project we try to bring something new to it. But this was the first time, at least for me, that I tried so many new things. We have the historical aspect, the narrative aspect, the gameplay aspect, and four characters with four different stories. So it was challenging for a variety of reasons, this project. Usually when we try to make a game we try to bring something new, but...not this much. Y: We really started from a blank page. We had some key artwork, but that’s it -- we had to build everything else from scratch. It was hard.

And how did your past affect your work on Valiant Hearts? It seems like neither of you have worked on a puzzle game like this before.

Y: For me it was very difficult, because I was coming from the audio side; I was director of audio on Assassin’s Creed, which was quite different. But the idea was to tell a story, and the three of us are not script-writers but we still wanted to tell a complex story, so we had to discover how to to do so. We had to discover very many things, really, including how to design this kind of game, so we read a lot of documents for research. All of the documents from LucasArts, for example! Because they were very interesting in terms of how they built their games, those old adventure games. I think I found one of them on Gamasutra, actually. S: On the design side, we had those documents and also of course I’m a gamer so I already play a variety of games, and I really like diversity. When I was working on Rayman I had a lot of game ideas, so when I had the opportunity to work on Valiant Hearts I really tried to find a type of gameplay that could fit with what we wanted. I think in my mind, my inspiration came from games like The Cave, Machinarium, Limbo...the kinds of games that most of us play on the team. So we got all this inspiration from what we read, what we played, and we wanted to build our own experience, so we tried to start with that and match it up with a story that’s historically
"We decided the game was going to revolve around human beings...a farmer, a husband, a son, who has to fight in the war."
accurate. The story in our game, it’s based on real history with real locations and everything. Real events were a huge source of inspiration for us -- you just have to do some research in some historical documents, read about people’s real accounts, and it will give you a lot of good ideas about things like how gas masks were used, how the bullets and the rifles felt, that sort of thing. It was a huge source of inspiration. Of course, we didn’t really pull direct inspiration from any one game -- we really wanted the experience to fit the emotion we wanted the player to feel. So we took our gameplay sequences and we fit an emotion to them -- fear, emotion, sadness, happiness, we decided to set an emotion for every sequence in the game and in terms of design, we tried to make gameplay that fit with that emotion. We would set emotions and say ‘well, in this sequence, I want the player to be happy. I want the player to be sad. I want the player to be fearful, I want the player to feel powerful,' and so on. So emotion was one of the central parts of the game that we used to build the gameplay. We really tried to make the mechanics adaptable, so the gameplay will never radically change -- you control things the same way, you pick up objects the same way, that kind of thing -- but contextually, it can really adapt to a situation. You can have stories, you can have an action sequence, you can have a puzzle, and the core gameplay stays the same but the feeling around it will be more emotionally-driven towards one emotion or another, depending on how you use it.

What challenges did you face in applying all that research to actual design?

Y: For me, on the story, the main advice I remember from my research was that they all say you have to start at the end. So basically, we agreed on the end of the script, then we worked backward to the very beginning of the game.

How did you build that within the limits of the Ubi-Art Framework? Any custom middleware or workarounds?

S: We have some specific things we developed to emphasize the comic book aspects of our art style -- we have systems that allow us to add comic book-style transitions on the screen that can show you things that are happening far from what you see, because of course a 2D game is very restrained in terms of what you can show on the screen. So by adding these kinds of...I don’t know what you’d call them in English… Y: Viewports, sort of like comic viewports. S: Yeah! so we can show you things that are happening in other places on the map and it appears with a kind of comic book aesthetic. We also developed a kind of dialogue system with animated bubbles, because in the beginning we didn’t want people to talk. As soon as you make people talk you have to make them talk in their own languages -- German, French, English, that sort of thing -- and we felt that it would be weird for the player to understand one army and not the the other armies, and even weirder if they did speak more than one language -- so if we made the player French he’s not supposed to understand the Germans, but if he is a German player then of course he will say ‘ah, I understand the Germans!’
So we created a gibberish language, and what everyone says is actually represented in a comic book speech bubble with icons -- like an arrow to say go this way, that sort of thing. We also have a tool that allows us to quickly generate a lot of soldiers with different faces. So an artist only has to draw like ten different faces for an army, and when we generate them in the scene every soldier has a different face. So we can quickly build a landscape with army variety, because they won’t have the same face but they’ll have the same outfit, the same waypoints, that sort of thing. The Ubi-iArt framework is very interesting because it’s a very low-level engine, which means you can really control a lot of things. So it helps us easily build a wide variety of puzzles with really simple systems and mathematical logic. It’s not very restraining -- it’s not like we can only do a few types of puzzles. It’s really open-ended.

So how are you feeling, here at the end of the project?

Y: I can’t speak for everybody, but for me I’m just watching Twitter and every forum post about the game. And of course, nobody has played the game yet, so it’s...very strange. S: I’m very happy, and very proud. But I’m still very stressed, you know; in this game we tried a lot of new things, and it’s very difficult to anticipate how people will react to that. I hope they will enjoy it, because then they will also enjoy a history lesson -- every place you go, every event you see, is something that actually happened. So even if you don’t know it, you’re learning something. That’s one of the goals we had at the beginning of the game -- it was to be a kind of hidden educational game. It’s our first experience really writing a real narrative experience too, so I’m really stressed out right now.

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