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Impact Games Saving World

Pixels against Totalitarianism

In vogue today: truth-twisting, hate-mongering, intolerance, and demagoguery. If left unchecked, they’re a sure-fire combination for dark times. To turn back toward the light, we need to remember the history of evil – and there are games for that.

Defending and spreading the truth leads to a better world for all, and impact games are well suited to do just that. Games can empower understanding when they make a conscious effort to be meaningful.

The union of audiovisuals and interactivity, when successful, makes learning about our shared reality more enticing and, I do believe, holistic.

All games teach you something: “The button makes the mustachioed plumber jump” is likely only relevant inside a certain game, but “exactly how deep, overbearing and multifaceted is the suffering caused by totalitarianistic systems” has meaning. Meaning for the real world, meaning for humanity.

Flirting with fascism has become disturbingly normal in the west. In China, the government is already running concentration camps. Russia went straight off the deep end and viciously attacked and brutalized Ukraine.

Forgetting history makes us repeat it, so let’s fight the onset of that dementia while we can.

From power fantasies to stories of powerlessness

A twisted hype for totalitarian rule kicked off the Second World War. In games, that time is usually handled through the pixely iron sights, by virtualizing battlefields, putting you in the shoes of a heroic soldier in glorious firefights. War is an easy context for thrilling action games, they’re an easy sell. Shooting at skull-adorned hats and swastikas do not call for rationalization or deep thought.

The evil of totalitarianism is not limited to war of aggression, nor the ramifications to bullet holes and explosions. In the backstage of the theater of war we destroy truth, liberty, diversity, and in the end, humaneness. Regular, good people are sucked into a maelstrom of suffering without end.

The horrors of Nazi Germany begun slowly, and ended even slower, if at all. This enduring pain is the topic in today’s double-feature of games Through the Darkest of Times and My Child Lebensborn. They both are award-winning indie games – one from Germany, one from Norway – and complement each other with their chronology and the subject matter.

Darkest fades in early 1930, when Hitler is just about to seize power. The game depicts the resistance of decent people during the ever-increasing desperation. The events of Lebensborn happen a bit later, in a post-war Norway, and it deals with a misguided retaliation on innocent children and their caretakers.

In both of the games you play the oppressed underdog. The games are similar in how they make you experience a desperate state of humanity without power, where only grit and hope against logic can compensate for the utter lack of options. What you gain as a player is a better recollection of the insanity of our not-so-far past.

Through the Darkest of Times

Paintbucket Games, HandyGames (2020)
iOS, Android, Xbox One/X/S, Steam, PS4, Switch

Screenshot of Through the Darkest of Times.
Screenshot of Through the Darkest of Times.

In case you weren’t particularly taken with Hitler and the national socialist party in Berlin in 1933, you probably were quite alarmed. This maximally stressful situation is what Through the Darkest of Times is about. The indie-powered game has you running a small resistance group consisting of ordinary people, trying to keep the hope alive through what feels like the end of times.

The gameplay consists of tactical decisions on the Berlin map, where you manage the resistance group, sending them on missions. The map phase alternates with small, well-written story events with a choose-your-own-adventure vibe.

In the strategic level, you try to make due with very limited money and resources, to keep the resistance from getting snuffed out. You cannot stop the war or the tidal wave of fascism, you only try to survive long enough. The board-gamey strategy side has you collecting money, recruiting members, printing leaflets and trying to keep your people out of jail, and later, out of the morgue.

The history of the Nazi Germany is covered in story bits, where you experience the tightening grip of totalitarianism, events like burning of books, secret police raids and the disappearance of truth, the escalating oppression of minorities and the total inhumanity of the “Final Solution”.

Visually, the game has an intentionally simplistic style, which mostly utilizes shades of gray. It naturally fits the theme, but also tells a tale of a small team with limited resources.

Regardless of the modest audiovisuals, the game manages to tell a gripping story of normal life suffocation under Nazism, and the slow creep toward inhuman totalitarianism. The choices you have to make during the historic events from the summer Olympics to the Night of Broken Glass, is a good way to instill empathy toward those having to endure unbearable lose-lose situations.

The game is available on nearly all platforms. I played through the game with iPad and iPhone, because the turn-based nature makes it easy to play in small chunks.

A phone screen is a bit too small for comfort, but using cloud saves to switch devices made it convenient to play on the road.

My Child Lebensborn

Serepta Studio, Teknopilot, East2West Games (2018)
iOS, Android, Steam

Screenshot of My Child Lebensborn.

When the second world ended, it did not end for everyone.

The Norwegian developer of My Child Lebensborn have said the genre is a “grim tamagotchi”, which is aptly put. Instead of a cute critter, you try to protect and nurture a small child, orphaned by the Nazi’s Lebensborn project, and now bullied and discriminated against because of history they had no say in.

The grim topic, unfamiliar to me beforehand, discusses a collective trauma in Norway. The mistreated-from-birth children of Nazi soldiers were mistreated also after the war, because the anger against the Nazi regime was unjustly directed to these innocent kids and their caretakers.

In the game you try to find a balance between caring for the child and (lack of) money and time, in a small town where the “Nazi kids” were hated as scapegoats. The game’s story is a moving combination of the stories of real people and events.

The developers hope the game instills more empathy and sympathy than a linear documentary film could, because you actively experience the situation and decisions yourself. The game manages to create massive frustration, as the child you’re trying to raise is bullied by other kids and adults, with you pretty much powerless to help enough. (And, this was real life, not so long ago.)

The game mechanics are based on a tamagotchian “eat, wash, sleep” cycle, enhanced with multiple-choice dialogue moments. The story unfolds through speech bubbles and letters in the mail.

My Child Lebensborn is technically pretty nice, with hand-drawn 2.5d art. Naturally the tamagotchi genre is quite simple to play.

The rare and important content of the game tells stories about the Lebensborn living at the outskirts of society, but it also pushes you to think more broadly about the wrongs stemming from anger and bitterness, and the sad, too-invisible ramifications to innocent children.

It takes about 5 hours to complete the game, available on the App Store, Google Play and Steam.

Low resources in-game and out-game

The lack of “fun” in these games needs to be consciously balanced with the knowledge that the player will emerge more wiser, more empathetic – a more mature person, willing to stand up for what’s right. The dark times have not gone away and will not stay away without the good folk staying vigilant, and taking action.

From a game business perspective, these games showcase the biggest hurdle with impact games: it’s near impossible to reach a perfect combination of truly meaningful content, addictive gameplay and top-quality production value. The ice-cold reason being money – the further you venture from mass market entertainment, the harder it is to earn enough to sustain a large development team.

Deep, tough-to-digest and sometimes uncomfortable content is usually inversely correlated with easy money, so absolute top tier of production value is often out of reach.

In other words, if Through the Darkest of Times and My Child Lebensborn were to be totally uprooted from our real history and actual events – the meaning – and replanted into the marketable world of Middle-Earth or inside a Pokémon laboratory, they would not hold up against polished, purely commercial game products due to the roughness around the edges.

But, you don’t make these games for money. You make them so the journey of humanity does not get lost in the darkness cast by intolerance, greed, fear and anger. That goal is worthwhile, and that is why we should every once in a while grab a game like these two – even when the Biggest Blockbuster of Fun Remastered (tm) and Eye-Candy Royale (tm) scream for our attention.

Instead of joy, these games instigate anxiety and sadness, but they also enlighten, make you a better you. They help us in reflecting on the past to understand today, and call us to protect the future.

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