Valkyria Chronicles Is Still a Different Kind of Game About War

Games Features Valkyria Chronicles
Valkyria Chronicles Is Still a Different Kind of Game About War

[Note: This article contains some spoilers for Valkyria Chronicles.]

Whether it’s annual entries in the Call of Duty series, the latest beleaguered Battlefield offering, or any number of realistic combat sims on Steam, the videogame industry has been pumping out works about war for decades. In many ways, this high output is unsurprising. Last year Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 showed that this subject matter continues to make a lot of money, and based on NPD figures, it was the highest-selling title of 2022. According to an NPD analyst, a new installment in the franchise was the top-selling game in eight out of 10 years from 2008 to 2017. 

But despite the frequency and popularity of games about war, a remarkably small number of them have anything thoughtful or interesting to say about the subject matter. Most are multiplayer-focused experiences that use this premise as little more than set dressing, a pretense for why its player characters are killing each other in endless deathmatches. Many strategy games are presented via a detached, zoomed-out perspective, the various factions carrying the interchangeability of figurines in a tabletop wargame with different stats, these sides at least partially divorced from their original political context. That isn’t to say there isn’t any narrative or theming happening even in these decidedly “game-y” contexts, but commentary and traditional storytelling generally aren’t the focus here. Instead, like with chess, war is simply the setup to contextualize the rules.

However, there are some games that at least attempt to engage with the myriad complexities, moral questions, and horrors of armed conflict, and a few that even do a decent job at it. The textbook example for the latter case is Spec Ops: The Line. Its clear critiques of other works in the space, like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s infamous AC-130 mission, have made it the subject of numerous think pieces. Other examples are Metal Gear, This War of Mine, Far Cry 2, or arguably even the campy but oddly affecting MachineGames-produced Wolfenstein entries. But there’s another that runs counter to even these examples, a title that 15 years ago proved to be a unique take on war in videogames: Valkyria Chronicles.

Set in a fictionalized version of mid-20th century Europe (called Europa in this case), it takes place after the continent’s two major superpowers become locked in war. Trapped in the middle is Gallia, a tiny neutral nation with a rich supply of natural resources, which is invaded by the autocratic empire known as the East Europan Imperial Alliance. We follow members of the Gallian militia, Squad 7, as they battle to save their home from these would-be conquerors.

While a World War-inspired backdrop isn’t particularly unusual for a military-themed story, this spin works more as a pastiche of WWI and WWII. It borrows overtones and visual cues from both, like trench warfare, factions ruled by monarchies, tanks, and beach stormings. However, more than just this novelty, one of the game’s biggest points of differentiation from its “gritty” and “realistic” peers is its use of a picturesque art style that resembles a mixture of watercolor illustrations and pencil sketchings. Specifically, its creators have said that the World Masterpiece Theater was a central point of inspiration, an anime series that adapted popular children’s stories like The Adventures of Peter Pan and Anne of Green Gables. Tying into this vibrant look, there aren’t any displays of gore here, and while there is a plethora of shooting, killing, bombing, and death, its violence is muted enough to warrant a T rating. This lack of vividly depicted carnage, which is often found in its blood-soaked peers, is significant because instead of relying on shock value to make a point, the game needs to do so through other means, such as its writing. 

Early on, there is a scene that exemplifies its approach. As Welkin Gunther returns to his hometown of Bruhl, he reunites with his sister Isara and meets Alicia, a local who has become a member of the town watch. Welkin and Alicia are reminiscing about the place they grew up when a trio of Imperial soldiers suddenly appear, indiscriminately killing civilians, until the two stop this initial wave. But instead of celebrating this first victory over their invaders, Alicia mournfully tells her subordinates to bury the bodies of their compatriots and enemies. This sequence is defined by a sense of grief, conveying that this first battle isn’t only tragic due to these deaths but because it foreshadows all the pointless bloodshed and destruction to come. This encounter may have been a victory, but these characters know that this invasion means that their lives will never be quite the same, that they will lose loved ones and the things they’ve held dear. Tonally, there is a gentleness to this scene that is absent in most gruff military shooters.

This reticence towards conflict never fades throughout, largely because we follow a crew of non-professional soldiers who are only on the frontlines because they have little choice. For instance, Welkin is a college student with a deep love of natural science, which results in many passionate spiels about arthropods directed towards anyone who will listen. While he is the son of a famous general from the last world war, he initially has no interest in becoming a soldier. When he eventually joins the Gallian militia, he is surrounded by others who were plucked out of their daily lives and given few options but to fight against this empire trying to absorb their country for its Ragnite (basically oil in this world). Alicia was a baker, Isara was an engineer, and others were singers, farmers, and anthropologists, but they’re all on the battlefield so they can hopefully one day return to what they want to be doing. While most Call of Duty games, especially the modern incarnations, follow “perfect” professional soldiers who are generally unbothered by the act of killing, here we follow a group desperately trying to get to the other side so they don’t have to do this anymore. At one point, Welkin responds to his new tank pilot, who admits he’s afraid of fighting, by saying that these feelings are a good thing and that he feels “like getting used to the horror of war means losing hope.” Although these statements may come across as platitudes to some, the consistency with which the cast expresses these views makes things feel genuine.

Related to its characters, much of the narrative’s tension as a war story comes from the sense that any of them could be killed at any moment, which matters because it largely does a good job of endearing us to them. Welkin’s fondness for nature makes him a loveable dork, and we eventually learn that studying the natural world is so special to him because the outdoors was the only place where his father could shed some of his grief over what was lost in the last major war. Alicia opens up about how she never felt she would find family due to growing up in an orphanage (her parents died in the First Europan War), but she attains this in Welkin and the others. And in many ways, Isara is the heart of Squad 7, her engineering abilities, drive to defend her friends, and dreams of liberation for the persecuted ethnic group she is part of making her impossible not to root for. She succeeds in slowly breaking down the racism of some of her squad members, coming up with clever devices to protect her compatriots as she pilots their tank through several battles. And then, mid-conversation, she is suddenly killed by a sniper. Welkin vows to realize his sister’s dreams, rebuild their hometown, and honor her memory by making a way toward peace. This moment is crushing, and the possibility that other central characters could meet the same fate hangs over the remainder of the proceedings. 

While none of these elements of Valkyria Chronicles’ storytelling, like its empathy, introspection, or the fragility of its characters, are unique in the grand scheme of war fiction, they stand out compared to its videogame peers, which so frequently fail to engender investment in their conflicts. If there’s one scene that likely shaped the aesthetics and feel of military shooters more than any other, it’s the D-Day beach storming sequence from Saving Private Ryan, a segment meant to demonstrate the realities of war through grisly violence. Medal of Honor was directly inspired by this, partly because of Steven Spielberg’s involvement with its development, while Call of Duty and many other shooters would also follow suit in attempting to replicate this moment. However, on top of failing to deliver the same sense of war-deglorifying carnage captured in the original, these imitators also lack that film’s pathos or ability to connect us with the humanity of those involved. The Medal of Honor and Call of Duty games are so focused on throwing the player in the middle of firefights and so disinterested in anything but a procession of escalating set pieces that their attempts at recreating this chaotic depiction of the battlefield feel more numbing than rousing. By contrast, through dedicating so much time to developing its cast and displaying how this war uproots their lives, Valkyria Chronicles evokes the same emotional investment accomplished in successful films and literature about armed conflict.

However, this isn’t to say the game doesn’t have its shortcomings. For one, it arguably falls into the same pitfalls that most media depicting war does, in that it fails to fully represent its atrocities. Francois Truffaut has an oft-cited quote that colors much of the discourse around this subject: “Some films claim to be antiwar, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an antiwar film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” In the interview this quote comes from, film critic Gene Siskel interprets these words in the context of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, saying that film argues “war isn’t hell; it’s just the men who run them are frequently hellish,” and that “every war film, just like every war, has its heroes, and that, too, seems to cut across any antiwar sentiment.” In other words, in this view, film, and other storytelling mediums, are incapable of doing this subject matter justice because they can’t capture war’s unconscionable realities and frequently lionize its participants as heroes. 

While I think this slight Truffaut comment perhaps has an outsized influence on discussions over what the word “antiwar” means in the context of media, in this case, Valkyria Chronicles does occasionally enshrine our protagonists in an arguably overly heroic light. While in the context of the story, these people are defending themselves from an imperialist invader, this tale is quite literally framed as if we are reading it from the pages of a patriotic history textbook, resulting in aggrandizing that has some uncomfortable parallels to the glorification of less admirable struggles. That said, this could also be interpreted as a commentary on how even those who don’t want to be presented via hagiography can still end up being characterized this way. 

Another problem is that the game’s idyllic aesthetic sometimes undercuts its ability to portray the realities of its conflict. For example, at one point, our characters are sent to liberate a concentration camp where members of a persecuted minority group are being interned by the Imperials. While Isara and the other’s reactions convey the inhumanity of this place, the game’s painterly art style and avoidance of graphic imagery mean it can’t fully visually express the horror of what has happened here. Tying into this scene, the narrative can also have unsatisfying answers to what people should do in response to this type of persecution, and its pacifistic undercurrents feel naïve in the context. Thankfully, it ultimately argues that fighting back is justified, like when you send the monstrous Imperial general who oversaw this camp to the bottom of a ravine, but it can be too eager to try to make us empathize with the side that is carrying out these atrocities.

However, despite these issues, there is one major area where Valkyria Chronicles feels entirely distinct from the massive videogame franchises which set the tone for digital depictions of military campaigns. Compared to its peers, here, war feels finite. By the end of the story, there is peace, and even if things will never be the same for these people, the characters who survived return to their lives or build new ones. While there are numerous Valkyria Chronicles games, each entry occurs during the same Second Europan War, just at different points and following other perspectives. By contrast, installments in the Call of Duty series come equipped with a fresh justification for why the US is engaged in another conflict, its representation of a world filled with countless enemies mirroring the jingoistic principles that justify endlessly increasing military spending and hawkish foreign policy. While the members of Squad 7 don’t believe their battle will be the last one ever fought, they are still hopeful that people can be better. At one point, Welkin says, “Even if we can’t completely eliminate war, we can learn to live together as one people,” surfacing the earnest optimism at the heart of this tale. Valkyria Chronicles’ portrayal of armed conflict may not be perfect, but in a sea of military shooters that reflect the paranoid views of a superpower that perceives itself as under constant attack from hostile actors, this game’s vision of a war with an end is depressingly novel.

Elijah Gonzalez is a former games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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