Valiant Hearts: Coming Home, the sequel to the award-winning Valiant Hearts: The Great War, is available now exclusively for Netflix members on the Netflix mobile app. The game tells the stories of four ordinary people dealing with the overwhelming nature of war, including James, a member of the Harlem Hellfighters, the first mainly African American infantry unit to fight during World War I. Though the game’s characters are fictional, they are inspired by true events. Ubisoft News spoke with Manager of Inclusive Games and Content Maya Loréal and historian of World War I Dr. John H. Morrow Jr. to find out how they helped to ensure that the stories told in Valiant Hearts: Coming Home are respectful and historically accurate, and to learn more about Black history around WWI.
Valiant Hearts: Coming Home tells the story of James, a Harlem Hellfighter. Why was it important to tell the story from the perspective of a Black man?
Maya Loréal: Videogames are a unique medium allowing players to experience and see the world through perspectives and emotions that differ from theirs. Valiant Hearts is about ordinary people getting caught in the war. The team wanted to show another side of World War I through the Harlem Hellfighters, the first African-American regiment. They enlisted to fight overseas, as did 360,000 other African American men, and fought with bravery and dignity. However, it took a long time for their contribution to the war to be acknowledged. The Valiant Hearts team wanted to shed light on their incredible journey. It mattered to them to pay tribute to these unsung heroes, tell their stories, and make their voices heard in an authentic way.
Who were the Harlem Hellfighters exactly? Why are they so notable?
Dr. John H. Morrow Jr.: The Harlem Hellfighters were the 369th US Infantry Regiment, originally the 15th New York National Guard. They never lost ground to a German attack and lost no prisoners to the Germans, establishing the best record of any regiment in the American Expeditionary Force. They were also famous for the superb Harlem Hellfighters Band, led by the renowned Black composer and bandleader James Reese Europe, which introduced jazz to Europe.
How does James’ story fit in with the entire narrative of Valiant Hearts: Coming Home?
ML: I don’t want to reveal too much, but what I can share is that James is looking for his brother Freddie. Like so many African Americans, he also wants to prove his worth and loyalty to his country in the context of segregation in the US. We follow James in his journey throughout WWI. We have this interesting dynamic of parallel stories: James is on a quest for his brother, while the 369th regiment is on a quest for recognition.
The game opens by saying that when the US joined WWI, 360,000 Black men enlisted “eager to show their patriotism in the hopes of returning home heroes.” Was it really that simple? Or were they drafted just like everyone else?
Dr. John H. Morrow Jr.: Of the 400,000 Black men who served in the army, some 360,000 of them served as engineers building and repairing roads, railroads, and bridges; stevedores loading and unloading ships; or laborers. They were invariably draftees. Some 42,000 Black men served as combat soldiers in regiments numbered 369 (Harlem Hellfighters, originally the 15th New York National Guard), 370 (originally the 8th Illinois National Guard), 371 (a South Carolina draftee regiment), and 372 (a composite National Guard regiment of Black men from smaller Guard units). The Guardsmen were volunteers – they chose to fight, and did. The 369th amassed the best record of any regiment in the entire AEF in WWI, which is why they received a Congressional Gold Medal in 2015.
Upon returning home, were Black WWI vets treated any better than they had been before the war?
JHM: Upon returning home, American veterans encountered a United States in the grips of reaction. White Americans were determined to prove that nothing had changed for Black citizens, so these Black veterans met that in the form of race riots in American cities and lynching in the American South. About 10 were lynched upon returning South while wearing their uniforms.
When the US held a draft for the Vietnam war, the government met resistance, particularly from the Black community who didn’t want to fight for a country in which they were second-class citizens. Why was there so much more support for WWI?
JHM: In WWI, Black Americans went to war with the hope that their willingness to shed blood for the country would gain them full citizenship (as it should have). It didn't. By Vietnam, after a post-World War II experience that was marginally better than WWI, they were under no illusions.
Dylan C. Brown wrote the narrative for the game. What was he able to bring to the project?
ML: Dylan C. Brown brought his talent and solid track record as a scriptwriter in TV. This was a great collaboration for the team. Since the beginning, they were aware of how important having an African American creative perspective would be to authenticity.
Music plays an important role in the game. Why is that something important to portray? What role did music, specifically jazz, have on the lives of enlisted Black men?
JHM: Music was not just important to the Black soldiers; white soldiers enjoyed it as well, and the Europeans took to the new rhythms, bringing the Jazz Age to Europe as well as the United States. The documentaries of the Hellfighters band performing before French civilian audiences in small towns show Black soldiers clapping while a few show off their dance moves to an approving audience. They are all clearly enjoying themselves, and the men often draw in some French civilians. Everyone, from French General Petain to the poilu (French soldiers), appreciated the music, and the band played in Paris to audiences that included generals and politicians.
This was a true piece of Americana that brought joy and memories of good times at home to the Black soldiers. White American soldiers really enjoyed the music when the Band played before them, and American generals requested the Band for concerts. Let's face it: When the music's in the groove, you've got to move.
Maya, Ubisoft’s Inclusive Games and Content team is still quite new. When did you begin work on Valiant Hearts: Coming Home? What was your team’s goal when engaging with the development team?
ML: We had started working with the Valiant Hearts team in April 2022. The team had a very solid creative vision. They reached out to us to make sure they were respectful and authentic of the African American experience during WWI, and wanted feedback on some of the choices they had made. Our role, as Inclusive Games and Content, was to guide and empower them to make sure the game had a meaningful take on the context and resonated. Advancing inclusion in the games we create is a great opportunity for our teams.
Inclusive Games and Content had a number of back-and-forth discussions with the Valiant Hearts team and encouraged them to explore some opportunities in the game. We also made sure to support them by providing some cultural perspective and recommendations as well as reviews. Finally, we suggested that they get in touch with experts in the US. The team worked with Stephany B. Neal, Executive Producer of the 369th Experience – a nonprofit dedicated to honoring the legacy of the regiment that was recommended by the Charity and Sponsorship department – as well as Dr. Morrow, to make sure they had the right approach and knowledge to tell this story.