German version here.
It’s 1933, Hitler has just become chancellor and a resistance group is fighting for their own survival and that of the people in their lives. The anti-fascist strategy game Through the Darkest of Times throws us into this situation and asks: What can we do?
There already have been several reviews of Through the Darkest of Times, which has been funded by the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. The most apposite review for me being the one written by Sebastian Standke on his blog Game Curator, because it finds words for all the tragedy and emotions. Fortunately, there have even been reports in the more traditional (online) feature pages, which mostly have little to do with videogames.
That’s why this post is not the usual mix of personal impressions and review, but more an analysis of game mechanics and other stylistic choices Through the Darkest of Times makes to position itself clearly as anti-fascist. I think it is very important to highlight these positive examples of games taking a stand – and to use them for orientation.
First, we roll our character, this concerns gender (binary), appearance including skin color, profession / class and our political attitude. For example, we could be a monarchist, social democrat, anarchist or conservative and so on. Class and politics influence our character’s values, which are empathy, propaganda, strength and general knowledge. The level of these values determines the success and failure of our missions. Class and attitude also influence who we can convince at all: If we want workers and unionists to support us, it is easier if we are part of the working class ourselves.
To provide a bit of variety to get us started, the game adds two additional, random characters to our resistance group right at the beginning. In my first round there was randomly generated Werner Herzog, who unfortunately didn’t stick with my group for very long. Turns out there can be disputes between group members with different backgrounds which have to be moderated…
Our group can consist of up to five people. We then assign different tasks to them each round. For this we use a stylized map of Berlin that shows us the different missions available to us at the moment. By doing this we manage the three main resources: money, supporters and the group morale. We need money for missions and going into hiding when a characters‘ wanted level gets too high. Supporters donate a little bit of money and open missions on the map. The game ends when group morale has dropped completely or when World War II ends.
Mission success or jail?
Some missions require us to do certain other things beforehand: paper is required to print leaflets and stolen uniforms are needed for complex covert missions. So, players need to plan and take steps ahead, which can be quite difficult to do. Our people are sometimes spotted or might even get arrested. Sometimes they are released due to a lack of evidence, but prison outbreaks are an important option, as prolonged prison periods can often be fatal.
So, we must weigh the risk of our actions constantly. Risk increases over time due to historical events; the game is divided into several chapters and always skips a few years in between. Between chapters and the individual rounds there are narrative sequences and dialogues that tell us more about the fate of various characters. From newspaper titles and excerpts of speeches we learn about society’s decline and cruel law changes.
Game mechanics and narrative intertwine
As I said, it’s not easy to keep your group alive, let alone to carry out a larger mission. When I played for the first time, I often just went from one prison break to the next. Large actions are rare and, even when completed, do not change the situation or the course of history. This may be frustrating for some players, because we are so used to other titles letting end the Second World War all on our own. Thankfully though, Through the Darkest of Times is not a saviour fantasy, we have to take a more realistic approach of smaller steps.
Small steps and the difficulty are absolutely appropriate to the setting and therefore – a short excursion into game studies – a case of ludonarrative consistency. This actually means nothing other than the game mechanics (ludo) supporting the games‘ narrative or corresponding to it. That doesn’t sound very special at first. But if the opposite is the case, if narrative and mechanics do not match – this is called a ludonarrative dissonance – the result is the game being unclear about its message. That can lead to the message being perceived as an exaggeration or simply as something „annoying“ by players.
Example Tomb Raider
The most prominent example of ludonarrative dissonance is the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, in which a young Lara Croft is shocked that she has to kill a deer. Nevertheless, a little later she goes on an outright killing spree against all of her opponents without this being something for the game to address. Many players couldn’t take this initial shock seriously afterwards, after all, the game mechanics had never taught them that killing was supposed to be a moral and emotional challenge. Ludonarrative dissonance can also be a stylistic device in individual cases. However, this doesn’t work for a game like Through the Darkest of Times which is aiming for realism and a serious tone.
„Alerta!“ How to give a game attitude?
When I first heard of Through the Darkest of Times about a year ago, I had mixed feelings: a strategy game about a fictional group of resistance fighters during the Nazi era? Yes, please! But would the developers position themselves clearly enough and demonstrate the necessary sensitivity? These are both things video games often lack. Because, too often, as Christian Huberts very well describes in his article for ZeitOnline (in German, but there are plenty of other good options), they follow a false promise of neutrality and non-politicization. For the developers of Paintbucket Games, however, it is extremely important to oppose this, and it shows.
First things first: The historical events in Through the Darkest of Times are very well researched and the situations in the game are all based on real events. So, there is no conceiving of brutal situations, which ultimately would play on the cards of Holocaust deniers. For example, the series Hunters has recently been heavily criticized by the Auschwitz Museum for this very reason, as can be read in this tweet (the screenshot may be disturbing for some).
The choice of artistic means
The game takes a refreshingly clear stand. This is mainly due to the decision that the Nazis are not playable and are therefore always the opponents, not presented as an equal option. But it is also due to many artistic decisions and details. Some examples:
1. Victims and survivors are almost always characterized as more than just that, their stories, hopes, doubts and fears are given space.
2. Even when violence is named or shown, there is never anything voyeuristic or an exaggerated artistic stylization about it that anyone could indulge in.
3. The Nazis‘ anti-Semitism is not simply “forgotten” and left out, which is often a problem, especially in games. The difficulty here is, of course, not to simply reproduce hatred or hateful messages, but to show and teach about the systematic approach of spreading them. Without the clear positioning of the game as is given here, that would not be possible.
4. The graphic style is a tribute to artists like Käthe Kollwitz and George Grosz, the soundtrack consists of 20s Swing. Instead of using Nazi aesthetics, the game explicitly uses artistic means that the Nazis wanted to destroy. Not only do narration and game mechanics intertwine, the artistic choices also support the statement.
5. As I wrote earlier, Through the Darkest of Times is not a saviour or heroic fantasy. The course of history cannot be changed, some actions go wrong or seem insignificant in the face of the Nazis‘ atrocities. The emphasis is on small things that can be just as important for those directly affected.
6. The perpetrators are not portrayed as woodcut-like evil or stupid fools, like it happens so often, but in all their creepy, gruesome human-ness, be it over some apple pie and coffee or in the air-raid shelter. This makes some scenes seem more casual and harmless at first, but the danger is by no means downplayed.
A few words at the end
Taken individually, these things might be small. Together, however, they send a coherent message: Never again! We remember! And we can all do something, no matter how insignificant it may seem at first. It is sad and shocking that a game taking such a clear stand really stands out. I hope that the consistently positive reviews encourage further developers. And I hope that Through the Darkest of Times will actually be played, because after all it doesn’t happen too often that a game uses its resources so wisely. That it is so full of empathy and at the same time so enlightening. The game alone cannot replace history lessons, museum visits, archival work and commemoration, but it can point to all these things, arousing interest and awareness. I think that is invaluable!
I’m looking forward to seeing how this approach will show up in the next game of Paintbucket Games. The Darkest Files is supposed to investigate Nazi crimes in the post-war period. The Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg has already granted funding for The Darkest Files, too. I am not aware that there is already something comparable, I am very excited for it!