We recently spent some time with Ubisoft’s latest UbiArt project, Valiant Hearts: The Great War. It was a few hours which could seemingly put a lump in my throat at will, when it wasn’t trying to make me chuckle during a moment of levity or digging up facts about the First World War that I have long forgotten since my time in school.
Following this, we had the opportunity to sit down with Guillaume Cerda, an Associate Producer in a small team at Ubisoft Montpellier, to talk to him about the game and ask about the inspirations which were behind its creation.
TSA: What was the inspiration behind doing this game?
Guillaume Cerda: The project started with Paul Tumelaire, our art director, some time ago. It was basically at the very beginning on the UbiArt Framework, Michel [Ancel] told him, “I’m creating this engine. Do your own game.”
He was passionate about the First World War, and about history in general, so he started to create Emile and the Germans. At the beginning it was only a prototype, but we had someone else from a Ubisoft studio, Yohan Fanise, who was at the time an Audio Director on Assassin’s Creed 3, and he said to Paul that he loved what he did and that he was really passionate about the subject too, because it touches him personally.
TSA: Yes, and I think it was said before that this is a subject which is really personal for the whole team?
Guillaume: Exactly, and especially Yohan. His great grandfather was in the Great War, so he brought to the studio all of the letters that his grandmother gave him, and he said to all of us to take a look and read it. You can imagine how emotional it was when we read the letters, and how a soldier in his trench was writing this. It was very beautiful handwriting, even as he was stuck in the mud. I remember the first time I read these, it gave me chills, actually.
Aside this, he also got military documents about it, and they were just very cold. It was just facts, you know? He lost his leg and it was just “leg lost”. It was pretty dark to just have this on the document.
Basically, this is the inspiration, and the emotion that we had conveyed with all this were the origins of the project with Paul and Yohan.
We all loved the art style Paul was doing, so we decided to go with a puzzle-adventure game, and this art style allowed us to treat a very serious subject with a kind of light hearted feel with the comic book aspect.
TSA: Although the inspiration was these letters, I believe this is an original story and cast of characters?
Guillaume: Yes. Everything is fictional, except the fact that you are going through the famous locations and the real battles. That’s why historical accuracy was key for us, and even if the characters were fictional, they were inspired by real people.
Freddie, for instance, is inspired by the Harlem Hellfighters, and his name is a tribute to Freddie Stowers, a US soldier who received the Medal of Honor, I think it was 70 years after his death. And Emile was inspired by the poilu, who were the French soldiers in the trenches with the big beards.
TSA: All the French soldiers have these big beards!
Guillaume: Yeah, that’s why the French soldiers were called the poilu [trans: hairy one], with the moustache and the beards, etc. and Emile is one of them.
TSA: Was it wanting to get the story to pass through so many locations and battles that made you have a wider cast of characters?
Guillaume: Yeah, what we wanted to do with all the locations and the way we could go to all of them, was to have those crossed destinies. We also wanted to go to the other side, so we also have the German character, Karl, who is the husband of Marie, Emile’s daughter.
So we have characters of different nationalities and in different locations, and all their destinies are linked and will cross at points in the game. Each one has their own motivations, actually: Freddie is seeking revenge, Emile is trying to save Karl from the war, and Anna tries to save her parents.
TSA: There’s some interesting shifts in the way that you tell the story, where you have a narrator at some points, but it also has a lot of non-verbal storytelling. How have you tried to mix these elements together?
Guillaume: The key thing we wanted was to have an emotional adventure within the core comic book art style. To do so, we use the comic book frame to show action outside the screen, speech bubbles with non-verbal dialogue to give you objectives and missions.
But to tell a story and convey emotion we also needed a narrator and the letters, which, as we said, we were inspired by those letters from the First World War. We want those who read the letters to have the same emotions we had when we were reading the one’s from Yohan’s great grandfather. That’s why we have the different ways of telling the story.
TSA: Mixed in with quite powerful moments, there’s also the lighter and comedic moments, this has surely been a tricky balance to strike?
Guillaume: Yeah, it was very challenging balance to find!
At the beginning of the game, it’s kind of comical and very colourful, with places like the train station with the soldiers dancing. That part is comical and was an image of the Great War at the time; people were almost cheerful to go to war, because they thought it would be fast and that they would win the war easily. Then they got stuck in the trenches and the war became quite horrible.
In the game, we wanted to have the same feeling, so it’s very colourful at the beginning, but the more you progress in the game and in the war, the more things get much darker.
For instance, with Anna, I remember the first time I played with her there were just bodies everywhere with really heavy music, and it’s really not the same atmosphere that I had when I was playing the game at first. It’s something intentional, obviously, but what we trying to do is have players go from smiles to tears at different moments in the game.
That’s why we have caricatured characters, where the French are all eating cheese and baguettes, and where we have cliches for us we have them for the Germans too, but we needed to balance this with the darker moments.
TSA: How supportive have Ubisoft been in letting you come up with this idea and working as a small team, and will games like this and Child of Light continue to be made in this way?
Guillaume: I don’t know for the future, but we felt really lucky when we presented the game to our management. We explained our vision for the game, the emotions we wanted to convey and that it would be more than just a game, with historical facts, etc. and we were really supported and had the opportunity to create this small game in a big company. We felt lucky and proud to work on a game like this.
What we said to convince them at the time was that we will do this game in the Great War, but this is not a war game, it is a game about the war, focussing on human beings and not the war. You won’t kill anyone, and when you say you’ll do a game about war without being able to kill anyone and without being able to shoot, that’ pretty challenging!
That’s the idea that everyone loved, to focus on the humanity and not on shooting people.
TSA: Finally, I remember from when the game was announced, that you hadn’t quite decided what the dog’s name was going to be in the game. Did you actually give him a name in the end?
Guillaume: Aha! It’s the same name that we had at the time, but that we didn’t tell to everyone: it’s Walt. I think you can hear it in the gamewhen Emile is calling him.
We kept the name because everyone loved it, and after a while Paul said, “Okay, guys, I love ‘Walt'”, and we all said, “Me too.”
TSA: It’s one of those little details that will stay in the background, is it? Because the characters go a lot of mumbling and gruff voices.
Guillaume: Yeah, we use a lot of gibberish, but sometimes you can here an english or a french word mixed in with the grumbling!
Thanks to Guillaume for taking the time to speak to us, you can read more about Valiant Hearts in our preview that went live earlier today.