We tell a lot of stories about war. The appeal is, in one sense, straightforward: war checks off nearly every box in the dramatist’s playbook, replete with high stakes, clear protagonists and antagonists, and themes of heroism and loss. But the pendulum swings the other way, as well: wars don’t just make for good stories, good stories also help us cope with war. In order to wrap our minds around these big, bloody catastrophes, fraught as they are with inscrutable ideological and economic motivations, we construct simple narratives to bring coherence to the incoherent. Videogames hold a particularly vested interest in reducing the complexity of war. They ask the player to take an active role in the carnage and so must take pains to make her actions feel justified, nestled into the digestible conceit that war may be hell, but someone’s gotta do it. Without a clear us-versus-them story behind it, a war game becomes not only uncomfortable to play, but can provoke a deeper anxiety about the morality of killing in the name of god and country—the very anxiety war stories are intended to reduce.
Sometimes a conflict is so confusing that attempts at creating a straightforward narrative strain credibility. In his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Sigmund Freud introduced the bizarre notion of a “death drive,” an innate human compulsion toward oblivion that rivals our desire to experience pleasure. Even at the time, Freudian psychoanalysts struggled to accept or even understand the bold assertion that people unconsciously crave their own demise. But for Freud—who had always been interested in the universal properties of the psyche—there was no other way to account for what he had seen out his Viennese window for the past several years, as the entire European continent seemed determined to burn itself to the ground during the First World War. Historians and artists still struggle to paint a clear picture of WWI, which may be why we see relatively few modern artworks exploring the subject. The lack of an agreed-upon narrative can be particularly thorny for videogames; clear disambiguation of sides is needed if the player is to feel like a hero and not a monster when lobbing grenades into a crowded trench. Notably, Electronic Arts has chosen to set their upcoming Battlefield 1 during the First World War, though some have questioned the wisdom of this choice for precisely the reason that WWI remains a muddled and morally ambiguous event in the annals of time.
The European campaign of World War II was more easily funneled into a binary narrative of good versus evil that has held up well for the past 70 years. There is a reason, for instance, that the Call of Duty series has featured no titles set during WWI but four during WWII. The unprecedented human atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers and the megalomaniacal personality of Adolf Hitler laid the groundwork for an unambiguous tale of heroes and villains. But as in all war narratives, a few frayed threads were left dangling in the aftermath. As I have discussed elsewhere, the principal concern to emerge from WWII in the United States was in reconciling the evilness of Nazism with the universal qualities of human nature promulgated by Freud’s psychoanalysis. If German citizens were people like the rest of us, how is it so many of them were led down such a dark path? Does that mean that we, too, have such darkness lurking within? The issue of accountability became paramount; those with the capacity to do evil had to be distinguished from those who do evil. As Americans, we weren’t only trying to figure out what made us different from Nazis. We were nervously trying to pardon ourselves for how we had ended the other half of the war in Japan. Yes, someone dropped those bombs. Yes, they fly the same flag as me. No, they are not me.
Humanism was a psychological perspective born out of this post-WWII anxiety. It challenged psychoanalytic assertions of universality by focusing not on the species but the individual: every person is unique, derives her own sense of meaning out of life, and is responsible for her own choices. In contrast to the deterministic aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis—which held that people are bound to enact unconscious desires, whether toward pleasure or self-destruction—humanists emphasized notions of freedom and personal responsibility. But despite emerging as an attempt to understand and even prevent the rise of fascist power, humanism did little to shift our specific narratives about WWII. In our minds, it is still a simple story of good and evil.
Valkyria Chronicles (2008/2016) is, like so many others, a game about WWII—but with a few tweaks. Imagine the story as you know it, but this time both the Axis and the Allies are self-interested conquerors; the real heroes are the neutral Swiss; Jews are hated for their dark hair and alleged warlock powers (that one adheres distressingly close to history); and the entire war is actually about securing a natural resource called ragnite, which can do everything from heal the sick to power tanks. Oh, and pure-blooded Aryans shoot energy bolts out of massive stone lances. Historical accuracy is not the game’s objective. All names have been replaced with fantastical alternatives: Europe is “Europa”; Switzerland “Gallia”; Nazis “The Empire”; Jews “Darcsens”; Aryans “Valkyrians.” But these cosmetic alterations should not obscure the astonishing aim of Valkyria Chronicles, a contemporary Japanese game about the European campaign of our species’ most documented global conflict that attempts to turn the traditional narrative of that conflict on its head. Specifically, it reconstructs the WWII story through the lens of humanism.
The plot of Valkyria Chronicles follows Welkin Gunther and his ragtag militia as they move from auxiliaries to crucial linchpin in the war against the Empire. The game takes place in Gallia, Welkin’s home country, which is rich in ragnite but neutral in the colonial pursuits of the eastern Empire and western Federation that surround Gallia’s borders. The obvious historical correlate is Switzerland, whose declared neutrality during WWII is typically viewed through modern eyes as shameful; by doing nothing when one side was so clearly more hateful and destructive than the other seems tantamount to, at best, ignoring reality for the purpose of self-protection, and at worst a tacit approval. In Europa, however, objective morals are replaced by an ethics of individuality. Gallia’s lack of political ambition is repeatedly contrasted with the crass and dehumanizing acts of mainstream Europa on either side: The Empire is most deplorable for its military blitzes and Darcsen concentration camps, but even the Federation stoops to kidnapping Gallia’s princess in the hopes of using her as a bargaining chip. While the rest of the world tries to force its will on others, Gallia is heroic because it is only interested in being itself.
Welkin, notably, is not a career soldier; like the rest of the team he commands (simply named Squad 7), he is a private citizen conscripted into service at the outbreak of the Second Europan War. Despite the tactical brilliance he demonstrates over the course of the game, Welkin is actually as un-soldierly as they come: he is a naturalist, fascinated with how disparate flora and fauna can coexist in flourishing ecosystems. More than once he steps from the heat of his ragnite-powered tank to comment on a patch of flowers, not only for its beauty but its resilience in the face of surrounding death. He urges his teammates to keep the sanctity and specialness of life in mind, even as they prove increasingly adroit at shredding their way through Imperial detachments.
Gallia is not portrayed as a unified front of do-gooders, however. The royal army takes every opportunity to make the drafted militia feel small, and even more there are early tensions within Squad 7 itself. Some are pacifists, some embattled soldiers who served in the First Europan War; some hate Darcsens, some are Darcsens. The bulk of these differing perspectives are played out in the game’s main story among a few central characters, but the humanistic notion that every person is unique is driven far deeper into Valkyria Chronicles, from its side-plots to some of its basic play mechanics.
Though the plot plays out in a linear fashion, delving into what makes each major character tick—that is, what makes them unique—is often left to the discretion of the player. Some cinematics are optional; the player may choose to view them or not, knowing that the only benefit of doing so would be understanding the motivations of both Gallians and Imperials a little better. Irene Ellet, Squad 7’s embedded journalist, periodically offers bonus levels for sale which focus on fleshing out a given character’s personal journey. The optional content makes the player volitional, rather than someone simply compelled into a fatalistic march toward the game’s conclusion. If you want to know the full story, if you want to know who these people really are, that is your decision—the game will not make it for you.
A conventional war narrative might similarly flesh out the main characters of its central plotline, but Valkyria Chronicles also wants to remind you that every soldier, no matter how small their role, is a singular human being. Anyone that you put on the battlefield, as well as anyone you leave behind on the bench, has a name, a backstory, a handful of best friends, and specific personality quirks—everything from “Pollen Allergy” to “Fancies Women,” which serve to buff or debuff as appropriate during battle. Unlike other squad-based titles like XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012) or this year’s Darkest Dungeon, which allow you to rename and modify incoming characters to suit your godlike whims, Squad 7 is preset. They are who they are, it’s up to you to get to know them and figure out how this group of individuals can best work together.
Players are asked to be more tactically granular than other class-based games by appreciating that not all scouts or snipers or shocktroopers are alike: one may prefer the solidness of a paved road while another feels more herself with grass under her feet; for one, a hail of bullets triggers a surge of adrenaline, while another would rather defend the base than charge into the fray. All characters receive stat boosts if they are physically close to their friends (unless they have the “Lone Wolf” quality, in which case they have no friends), who are culled from the master roster.
In the end, it must be said, the great attention paid to uniqueness often does not pay off on a tactical level. In my two playthroughs of the game (once in 2008 on the PS3, once this year on the remastered PS4 version) I rarely felt the idiosyncrasies of my team made the difference between failure and success, or even varying degrees of success, on any given mission. I still have my favorite squaddies, however, and that may be the more important point. Though Valkyria Chronicles seems to encourage you to assemble a team based on a complex statistical analysis of how personality and friendship bonuses will stack with one another, what you mostly end up doing is building a community of people you like.
I always bring Nadine the engineer with me, because I like having at least one Darcsen around. When a mission calls for sniper support, I invariably choose Marina, even though some of her quirks make her unreliable, because she just seems cooler than the other snipers. I refuse to enlist the lancer Nils as one of his traits is “Misogynist.” Each soldier has her own potential micro-story, which will reveal itself or not depending on how you play. When my beloved scout Juno died during a brutal skirmish, she cried out her secret affection for Welkin before collapsing. This had no bearing on the main plot, it was only meant as a window into Juno’s small, tragic story—one that I was responsible for telling, firstly, by choosing to enlist Juno, and secondly by putting her in harm’s way. Being imbued with individuality that does not especially translate into strategy transforms the characters into more than tools of battle; they become people.
Anisimov, Aleksandr (2002) Kiev and Kievans, Kurch
That Valkyria Chronicles is a successful humanistic reimagining of WWII creates a conundrum. Do we want the traditional narrative of this war to be questioned? There is value, surely, in maintaining Hitler as an emblem of evil within our cultural consciousness, in dehumanizing Nazis as they dehumanized millions of others. But Valkyria Chronicles maintains that missing the individual for the group can be a slippery slope, one that runs all the way to our planet’s hellish, molten core. In a scene toward the end of the game, a Valkyria named Selvaria—who fights for, and is in love with, the invading Emperor Maximilian—sacrifices herself in order to wipe out Gallia’s central army. Though the source of the blast is fantastical Valkyrian magic, the result looks a lot like a mushroom cloud. This is Valkyria Chronicles’ only allusion to that other WWII campaign, the one that ended in two bright flashes of radiated light, the one that snuffed out over 100,000 Japanese lives instantaneously.
If dehumanization is a means to wage war, simplification is a means to rationalize it. And doing so cuts both ways: whether every Jew is a rodent or every German a monster, it makes them easy to kill and it makes their killing easy to justify. Valkyria Chronicles reminds us that a reliance on simple narratives makes us beholden to the narrator, who is typically the victor. The Valkyrians, it turns out, were savage conquerors who struck such a blow against the native Darcsen population in ancient times that they were able to rewrite history and paint themselves as saviors. The player moves through Valkyria Chronicles as though it were a history book, but one that is trying not to gloss over ugliness or paint with a broad brush; a counterexample to the Valkyrians’ whitewashing. The allowance of complexity and humanity into our tales of war is offered as a means of avoiding reductionist explanations that can persist for generations and lead to future carnage.
The game does not take the naive stance that by avoiding simplified stories we can avoid killing altogether. Welkin, the nature-loving pacifist, leads Squad 7 to victory after victory, and can in turn receive medals from Gallia’s princess for killing 250, 500, and 1,000 Imperial soldiers. But by walking us through a familiar story with a novel focus on individuality and choice, Valkyria Chronicles sets itself apart as a war game more interested in cultivating human bonds than putting bullets in enemies’ heads.