Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War is making waves in the videogame hobbyist community already, despite having only been officially revealed earlier this month. It’s a title that stands apart from the run-of-the-mill releases not just through its visual style, but also its unique take on the subject matter. War is everywhere in videogames, but it’s rare that the experience is about the people ahead of the heroics.
Following the announcement of Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Electronic Theatre had the opportunity to sit down with Adrian Lacey, IP development director for Ubisoft Studio France, and discuss the videogame in great detail. It’s clear that Lacey is invested in Valiant Hearts: The Great War in more than just a professional manner, and Electronic Theatre simply couldn’t blame him for doing so. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is set for release in 2014 and Electronic Theatre will keep you updated with all the latest details.
Electronic Theatre: So, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is obviously a brand new IP. Can you give us a little bit of a background on it?
Adrian Lacey [AL]: Well basically what we did is – something you may or may not know – Ubisoft’s videogame called Rayman Origins was developed a few years back on the UbiArt framework engine, which was designed and developed by Michel Ancel. To give you a bit of background, because that will help, UbiArt framework: the idea behind it was very much artistically focused, creatively artistically focused in Montpellier. We have a lot of traditional artists, classic artists from comic books, and cinema and story boards and that kind of stuff, and one of the big things from Michel is he always has these concept arts and wonders how he could bring those to life. That was the original idea around Rayman: it was that wonderful world around Rayman, how he brought it to life and so on and so forth, and with this technology, what happened was it allowed artists who really expressed themselves easily without worrying about how many polygons there are, doing motion capture, rendering times of two days and such before you could actually play. So we wanted something that was really flexible and what we found was this, so in other words now I can draw a picture, I can drop it in UbiArt, but then I can play with all the levels, I can play with all the layers, and that was the philosophy behind it.
When we were doing that, one of the artists and his team, one of the former artists on [Beyond Good & Evil] – a former artist on Rayman Origins – he started playing with this idea of World War I. Now World War I; we’d been sort of looking on-and-off at for five years. Obviously, it’s a very difficult subject to treat but he came up with this sort of comic book style of it. It all kind of re-taught us a new way of how to deal with it; really dramatic events and really scary events in terms of a World War. Something that’s so intense and then bringing it to life through this quirky comic book style, and that’s how and that’s how it came forth.
Electronic Theatre: There are several characters in Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Can you tell us a little bit about each one? Do they cross paths at some point?
AL: Absolutely, well. So Paul Tumelaire, who is our creative director, he started going through some of the characters and he sort of characterises them and that’s the style that he took. And then we started to do a lot of research into letters and a lot of the team – core team – there’s Johanna, who’s our audio director and producer, he started bringing in stuff because his great great grandfather was in the war, so he had old medals and he had like letters and all of this kind of stuff. So we started just going through all these letters and about real people, because you have a perception of war, and here we were seeing it through a different set of eyes. And that’s how the characters sort of came about, because we wanted to inject that sort of emotional side and the letters were giving us inspiration, we were starting to discover real things about the war about real messages of love and things like that and then we started forming characters. So, lets bring it to my point: that’s how we came to the characters of Emile, who’s a French cook, his daughter lost her love of her life, who was sent to the German front, he was a German guy who was living in France and he was sent obviously on to the German side, while she was French. Emile, her father – who is one of the main protagonists in the first part – decided to join the army and try and find Karl because he wanted to heal her broken heart. Then he encounters a second character which was based on a real African American character from the Highland Hell Fighters. The Americans come in a little bit later in the war but we were loosely inspired by a soldier called Freddie Stours, and now we’ve made him into a French Foreign Legion soldier. His wife died in the bombardment of Paris and he goes on his journey. So those are two of the characters, then you have George who’s a British aviator, there’s Karl whose the German soldier whose the love of Emile’s life. Then there’s Anna, who’s a Belgian nurse, who goes in the trenches and saves her boys.
Electronic Theatre: There also appears to be a dog?
AL: And of course, I call him Walt. That’s my name for him, everyone tells me he hasn’t got a name but Walt’s the dog and Walt was inspired simply because when we were looking at these letters, how they were transporting letters to the trenches, the funny thing about it was the dogs were used to send letters but they were also used to create this sort of relationship with the soldiers. Because they were seeing so much death and violence and all this kind of stuff, but the dogs reminded them home. It created that empathy towards an animal because war is tough and that is something that still exists today; it’s a psychological tool for soldiers to come into contact.
Electronic Theatre: So the dog plays a part with a character?
AL: Absolutely. He’s takes you on the journey. He takes you from 14 to 18. He’s with you the whole way through.
Electronic Theatre: With just one character or does he…?
AL: He goes with the characters, because all your characters intertwine on their journeys, and the story intertwines, so you’ll cross. In there you’ll find Freddie, and Freddie will take over and then the dog will join Anne, and it’s sort of this wave of…
Electronic Theatre: I’m predicting that Walt may actually be the star of the show here! So we’ve only seen a very tiny snippet of gameplay but it looks interesting. Many people will assume from the style that it’s a sort of platform or an action videogame, but it looks more to me like a point-n’-click?
AL: It’s definitely puzzle, that’s what we call it: we call it a 2D puzzle adventure. The puzzle… we want to use the puzzle mechanic as much as possible. It’s the kind of natural pace of the game anyway and we want to create this kind of dynamic of puzzles and we will use different elements of the pad. There are a little bit more action or platform elements; say Freddie, he’s a bit more brutal, he jumps and runs and he sort of blows up stuff, that’s a different aspect but in the pacing as a whole, we use more puzzles than anything else, it’s not so much point-n’-click.
Electronic Theatre: Now, when you say you use elements of the pad, obviously we’re talking PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC as well I believe?
Electronic Theatre: But not current generation at all?
AL: Current generation we’ll probably do as well. It’s a digital only game so…
Electronic Theatre: A digital-only release gives you the choice of more videogames coming about. Do you think Valiant Hearts: The Great War would be possible in a retail only market?
AL: Yeah, I think, maybe, it’s hard to say that kind of stuff. We’ve seen the success of other games who have gone retail. Today we’re just happy to be making it. We are happy for the opportunity to make it. I think digital platforms… people are used to them now and people are excepting [different things] of them. Other games, sometimes they go in a box, if you look at Minecraft, like that in a retail… it’s kind of crazy! So I think there’s room for both. I think the fact that the digital, at the moment, it gives us that liberty. It’s an interesting subject: it may be appealing to you, it may not. It’s hard to know whether a retail box would change that.
Electronic Theatre: So, have you decided how to distribute Valiant Hearts: The Great War? Are we going for a single build or are there going to be chapters?
AL: That’s the big thing, the major focus for us today was build the story the narrative around characters, chapters and scenarios. That way after that the business model, that’s for the business guys to decide. The way we built it… it is in episodes and whether they are all combined in twelve hours or fifteen hours of gameplay or whether they are broken up into sections, it’s out of our hands. It’s about the experience. It’s about the consumers not the pricing.
Electronic Theatre: So you mention the team there, I gather it’s a fairly small team?
AL: Yeah, we are about fourteen.
Electronic Theatre: And how long have you been working on the project?
AL: Well Paul probably longer than most because he was doing to art ahead of time. Probably about six months max.
Electronic Theatre: It seems like quite an undertaking for a team of fourteen. Are we still quite a way from release?
AL: I think we need a few more months, yeah. I think we definitely need a little bit of time. I think what’s great about small team – having worked on games that take three, four hundred people – you’re much more flexible. In small teams you are able to iterate, you are able to try new ideas, you are able to throw things out there, it’s a different creative approach and I think that’s what [UbiArt] framework allows us to do, but also what a small team allows us to do.
Electronic Theatre: So have there been moments where you are developing the gameplat that you thought have been fantastic and at the last minute decided it’s not going to work?
AL: Constantly. Constantly. Everything single day.
Electronic Theatre: Walt was a cat at some point?
AL: [Laughs] Yeah, Walt was a cat and he just kept walking off and scratching his tail!
Electronic Theatre: Having gone from this big two, three hundred man team down to fourteen men, is there anything you feel you would have done differently? Is this the way you see your career going? As an individual?
AL: As an individual? No, I think it’s about trying new things and for me games like this are a great way to explore different angles of creativity, also to be able to tackle different subjects, it’s great to be able to tackle World War I. I’d dreamt about doing World War I stuff for ages. It’s a change so it keeps you fresh; it keeps you on your toes. And I think that’s – from a career point of view – there may be a big game tomorrow, whatever, for me this could be the big game of tomorrow. You never know and that’s the fun thing about it. It’s keeping… it’s changing constantly and keeping those creative juices flowing.
Electronic Theatre: Coming from your background with a videogame like Valiant Hearts: The Great War though, did you come across much resistance from Ubisoft?
AL: That’s where we were really lucky and at Ubisoft we are extremely lucky. Our boss – our big boss – gives us the liberty to try new things. I was surprised: I did expect more resistance than we actually got. I think Paul’s art work and the creative visionary that works here opened it up straight away. People understood it; people understood where it was going and I think that was a huge help. I think internally people were just like ‘wow, it’s interesting – emotionally – it’s really adding value to games and it’s really giving a unique experience.’
For a slightly different audience as well, the styling has opened up different things where traditional, say a core shooter, may not be as appealing towards women or older people. Here it’s actually; we are seeing it actually appeals to a very wide audience. Which we wouldn’t have expected because it’s that comic book style. Because it’s, I didn’t know… it also allows us to explore ways to communicate with people and bring new horizons to games.
Electronic Theatre: I also think that, in my personal experience, it’s often easier to have an emotional connection to a player if you’re not going for photo realism all the time, because if you are going for photo realism it’s easily flawed.
AL: I couldn’t deny it. The habit with realistic games is you’re judged on your polygons, and it’s not the number of polygons that make you laugh or cry. And I think we’ve proven that with Valiant Hearts. I think we’ve proven that in the past as well of course, but I think whether it’s the Rabbids or whether it’s something else: grab it by the horns. It’s great… it’s great to explore it. I love a super realistic game, I can’t deny it, but I think you can also have the other way. It’s like a book or movies it doesn’t always have to be that AAA blockbuster to give you an emotional attachment.