VBG: Valkyria Chronicles and the Whimsy of War

Mirror’s Edge, The World Ends With You, de Blob; add Sega WOW’s Valkyria Chronicles to the list of great 2008 games that you didn’t play. The game delights from the outset with its watercolor-esque visuals and character-driven narrative, hiding a versatile yet utterly accessible turn-based strategy system beneath its pretty face. Valkyria Chronicles is the game that keeps on giving, with the last session of my 30 hour playthrough taking me from the small through the not-so-small hours of Sunday morning. Until then, I hadn’t forgone sleep for a video game in quite some time – damn you Everybody’s Golf.

Like Uncharted 2 and LittleBigPlanet, Valkyria Chronicles is a PS3 exclusive that stands out by being almost inimitable. Unlike said exclusives, however, Valkyria Chronicles remains largely underappreciated. Then again, it was never going to do big business. It is a console-focused, PS3-only turn-based strategy title meshed with role-playing elements and quasi-real-time third-person shooting. It doesn’t exactly scream familiarity, does it? That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t feel bad about not playing it, though – because you should.

Thing is, for all of my glowing preamble, one thing about Valkyria Chronicles really got up my bonnet: its fictitious, alternative-reality version of World War II.

Let me explain: just before said small hours playthrough, I’d watched Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, one of 2007’s great films that you didn’t watch. Actually, you’re probably far more cultured than me. Who am I to judge when I’ve only just gotten to Persepolis and Valkyria Chronicles?

Anyway. Persepolis is the animated adaptation of Satrapi’s graphic novels of the same name. Similar to Valkyria, Persepolis’ visual style–black-and-white with bold, blacked out figures–is fantastic. But beneath the compellingly unusual visuals is a dark, heartfelt recollection of Satrapi’s extraordinary life, a life that saw an Iranian girl grow up through war, revolution and total oppression, a young lady try to hold on to her identity in the ostracizing West, and a woman uphold her principles in the malevolence of her domineering, sexist homeland.

When compared to Satrapi’s life, my own heritage and childhood doesn’t feel very British at all. As I’ve mentioned before, my parents are Iraqi, but I was born and have spent nearly all of my life in England. For obvious reasons, I’ve never visited Iraq. I would define myself as British first, simply because my home is what I know, but watching Persepolis made me uncomfortable with that concept. When Satrapi moved to Vienna, having grown up in Iran, she found it hard to fit in. She even lied about her nationality to a boy she liked, claiming that she was French. Like I’ve said, it’s not the same in that I’ve never lived in Iraq, but I too have lied about my heritage out of this peculiar kind of shame. I’ve tried to say, “I’m British” – because I am – but people then asked where I was really from. Unlike Satrapi, my face was capable of belonging to a number of other nationalities, so I was often able to say Turkish or Greek – Sinan is a Turkish name, after all.

You may well scorn me, and indeed I know better than to hide my roots these days, even in Britain’s hullabaloo over immigrants and the aftermath of the Iraq war. But I was only a kid really, like Satrapi was. When you’re so worried about fitting it, identity is something that’s troublingly easy to sacrifice.

And that’s what bothers me about Valkyria Chronicles. Maybe this will come off as melodramatic, but I feel like it sacrifices the identity, the principles, and the realities of World War II in order to fit in with the gaming crowd. In short, to be entertaining and fantastical.

The adaptations within Valkyria Chronicles’ false reality are obvious: the timeline beginning at 1935 E.C., the Nazi-like uniforms of the East Europan – not European – Alliance, and the appearance of concentration camps. In the game’s case, these camps are for the dark-haired Darcsens, not Jews.

I do understand it, in a way. Japan does not look back on WWII with pride, and a fictionalized portrayal of the war keeps the spotlight off of that. It’s worth noting that Iraq was caught between Germany and Britain itself at the time, political upheaval seeing it essentially switch sides twice during WWII. My point being that many countries will look back on the war with regret, and not just those of the Axis. Far too many people died tragically, whether for the right cause or the wrong one.
My problem with Valkyria Chronicles is that it goes too far on the side of whimsy to deal effectively with any of the sobering issues inherent to WWII. It’s hard to take the game seriously when your squad is talking about a little, winged piglet one moment and castigating someone for being Darcsen the next. While phenotypically attributing the dark hair color to the Darcsen race underlines a good point about the superficiality of racism, failing to do justice to the horrors that the Jews went through in WWII is a true failing and is frustratingly callous.

There’s a scene where, after returning from a successful mission, the squad finds the burnt remains of a hut where the Alliance had forced Darcsens into. Darcsen-hating squad member Rosie sees a child’s doll in the rubble, causing a near-instant reformation on the spot. That scene ends with her helping to clear out the rubble in search of survivors. Mere seconds later, jaunty wartime music plays while the squad merrily talks about their accomplishments thus far. It stops just short of glossing over the fates of the millions who died in concentration camps, but it has to, otherwise the whimsy also dies.

Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the bizarre intersection provided by the later introduction of Norse mythology into the proceedings, or the is-it-sexist-or-isn’t-it nature of the short skirts, pretty ribbons, and delicate, little girl Japanese voices of the Gallian women that fight alongside the men in battle.

If gaming wants its Persepolis, its Schindler’s List, or its War and Peace, it’s going to have to do something that I’ve not seen it do effectively yet: make us take stock of conflict. Make us realize that people actually died. For all of its forthcomings, the first Modern Warfare remains the closest gaming has gotten to that. But even then, by not keeping true to the identity or the realities of the Iraq War, it failed.

But maybe Valkyria Chronicles actually represents gaming keeping true to its identity. An identity of desensitization to violence, an identity of romanticizing war by fuzzing it up with whimsy and fantasy. Maybe it is the perfect representative for the just-a-game movement, because it stays spectacularly fun despite its deeper flaws. Maybe gaming simply doesn’t need a reality check, though I’d like to think that it does. That it’s just a little bit ashamed about where it is now. That deep down, gaming knows it wants to be so much more. The question is, who’s the one in denial?

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