Part history lesson, part warning that history may repeat itself, the upcoming strategy game “Through the Darkest of Times” is driven by news headlines.
One day brings talk of trade tensions and higher tariffs on imported goods. Another day an attack on a research institute inspires debate over whether LGBTQ citizens should have equal rights. It isn’t long before immigration fears begin to dominate, and stories emerge of closed borders, protests and then deportation.
Sample headlines: “Trade War With Czechoslovakia.” “National Census.” “Boycott of Jewish Shops.” “Unions Banned.” “Jews Banned.” “Labor Camps Opened.” Though set more than 80 years ago, a sense of urgency permeates “Through the Darkest of Times” sparked by our own current events.
Just this month, white supremacist demonstrators clashed with antifascist counterprotesters in Portland, Ore.; a top Trump administration official said that the inscription on New York’s Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants is about “people coming from Europe”; a new federal rule was proposed allowing businesses with federal contracts to discriminate against workers based on race, sex, ethnicity, national origin or LGBTQ status in the name of religious freedom. And the president said that Jews who vote for Democrats show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
That last Trump comment set off a wave of social media posts reminding people that before World War II, the Nazis accused Jews of being disloyal to Germany.
“Through the Darkest of Times” paints those who champion Hitler not as unrelatable monsters — the buffoon-like super-soldiers of this summer’s “Wolfenstein: Youngblood,” for instance — but as regular people, only with more hate. Those who oppose are reasonable, albeit anxious, fearful and increasingly irritable. We’ll vote the Nazis out, they say, even as they wonder if the elections are being meddled with to the point that they’re rigged.
The parallels between the early 1930s and today are very much intended by the developers. This is clear long before a character yells at a Nazi Party member to leave a Jewish man alone. “You won, didn’t you?” he pleads. “Your Germany is going to be great again.”
The game raises multiple questions around resistance, namely, how do we do it and what do we tell ourselves to help us sleep at night?
But it has another query, one it’s aiming not just at players but at the game industry and maybe even all creators: Perhaps the way we’ve been representing the Nazi regime in games — and even pop culture at large — has more often been irresponsible than honest. Does treating World War II as a game of strategy, or drawing Nazis as pure evil or violent fools, allow us to remove ourselves from the conflict — to tell ourselves, “Those people aren’t like us and that could never happen today”?
“It doesn’t start with the Holocaust and the war, but it actually starts slowly,” said Joerg Friedrich, a co-founder of Paintbucket Games, the Berlin-based developer of the title. “It starts with attacks on the media. It starts with taking over the newspapers. It starts with shutting down the trade unions. There isn’t a binary switch to dictatorship. It actually happens over time.”
The goal of “Through the Darkest Times” is to take players day by day through the Nazi era, beginning in 1933 when Adolf Hitler is named chancellor of Germany. It’s not an attempt to rewrite or present alternate histories; instead, Paintbucket wants to capture daily life, to show the thoughts and actions of normal yet politically inclined people. It’s not a global battle but an individual one, a game about juggling money, morale and energy to stay emotionally alive through the end of the war, almost a decade and a half later.
WWII has long been fertile ground for fiction, especially in gaming. As a teen, I dedicated weekends to all-day sessions of Axis & Allies, a well-known strategy board game where Germany is simply part of a faction that moves around the board; you pick your team based on the way you want to play rather than the level of atrocities your chosen country did or did not commit. This summer saw the release of “Wolfenstein: Youngblood,” the latest and most lighthearted in the modern reinvention of the well-known action power-fantasy in which the player mows down Nazi soldiers.
“Through the Darkest of Times” instead asks tough questions about how we represent the most tragic, reprehensible moments in history. Its characters have regular jobs — economist, student, professor — and through early chapters the war they’re fighting is often one of awareness. A casual dinner party can turn awkward based on conversational choices, as peers start to believe government rhetoric that non-Germans are a threat to their way of life. Sometimes, to maintain the health of the player’s peer group, one must divert funds just to go out dancing, but even then there’s guilt at a lack of progress being made.
The work comes from veterans of the big-budget game industry. Friedrich and creative partner Sebastian Schulz worked on slick efforts such as “Spec Ops: The Line,” a war title that was generally praised for its balance of heroism and serious topics. Yet the two still longed for something smaller and more authored, a game that would zero in on the personal costs of war and would not shy away from taking a stance.
Friedrich appears increasingly incensed with games that nod to topical events but then go out of their way to avoid grappling with them. The insistence on the part of video game publishers that their works are not political has become borderline comical. Recently, developers behind the upcoming “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” which eatures a female Middle Eastern soldier and a franchise known for blunt patriotism, asserted that their game has no statement to make.
“We want to present the different perspectives. We don’t want to say that one of them is correct,” one of the developers told Game Informer, a point of view that could be argued is on par with Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” line after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly.
The makers of “Through the Darkest of Times” don’t buy that perspective. Video games, the developers say, must be considered part of the cultural and political conversation.
“Video games shape the world,” Friedrich says. “They shape the way we see the world and the way we see the world shapes the world. If I [make] video games about [WWII], and I omit certain topics — I omit anti-Semitism, I do not talk about the Holocaust — then I basically draw a picture of that era where these things didn’t happen. That’s a problem.
“Video games have a responsibility,” he continues. “I would even go so far as to say that if you think you should have Nazis in your game but that talking about the atrocities of the Nazis would not be appropriate, then maybe it’s not appropriate for you to have Nazis in your game.”
“Listen, ma’am, we were born to kill Nazis.”
So says one of the twin sisters in the opening moments of “Wolfenstein: Youngblood,” which sees the teen women go on a Nazi-killing spree. The game never deviates from that first guns-a-blazing tone. While recent games in the “Wolfenstein” alternate-history series have portrayed Third Reich leader Hitler as grotesque and pathetic, there’s no indication in “Youngblood,” set in the early ‘80s, decades after the Allies were defeated in the initial WWII conflict, that the Nazis are after anything other than world domination.
It’s a missed opportunity, especially with two female characters in the lead roles. Perhaps a revenge fantasy against the extreme misogyny of white supremacy was in order? Yet there are no big ideas on “Youngblood’s” mind. Oppression is minimal in this good-versus-evil universe, which presents its battles as a schoolyard game where occasionally we hear a Nazi leader off-screen taunt his soldiers for losing to a pair of “girls.”
There is a brief moment where we learn of an alternate history to “Wolfenstein’s” alternate history, one where Nazi Germany was defeated. But this is brushed off as less fun than the timeline of the game, where mayhem and chaos rule, and Nazis exist as an excuse for the game to fetishize guns and sci-fi-inspired war technology.
Talk of the apocalypse garners a knowing “bring-it-on” smile, and even an attempt to deal with climate change is bobbled. Early in the game, we hear a Nazi radio station assure us climate change is a myth, but environmental disaster is revealed to be the result of a Hitler-crafted “doomsday” device. The result is a message that ultimately says climate change is a mythand a game in which killing Nazis takes a conservative route.
The game, of course, is the negative beneficiary of poor timing. Having been in development for a number of years, it’s not “Youngblood’s” fault for not anticipating that a mass shooter posting a manifesto denouncing brown “invaders” would target Mexicans and Mexican Americans in an El Paso Walmart or that a contentious protest would lead the mayor of Portland to express concern for “a rising white nationalist movement based on white supremacy in this country.” Then days later there were reports of Orange County high school students giving a Nazi salute.
Cartoonish Nazis are a pop-culture tradition, especially for generations weaned on “Indiana Jones” movies or Quentin Tarantino’s alternate-history films “Inglourious Basterds” and “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Asked, however, if there were concerns about releasing the game in this climate, or if there were talks about a greater responsibility because of its subject matter, a marketing executive for “Youngblood” publisher Bethesda brushed off the question. “I mean, it’s a game about killing Nazis,” says Pete Hines. “I don’t know how delicately we have to approach that.”
“Youngblood” itself is simply upholding a long-standing game-industry tradition, one in which major developers pretend they live in an alternate reality where their games hold no political or cultural influence. The Electronic Arts-published “Battlefield V” essentially scrubbed any mention of Nazis from its 2018 WWII game, using the era more as a setting than a historical document. That game follows decades of titles that attempt to avoid cultural discussions by focusing on war or game analytics.
“That is one way to do it,” says Friedrich. “And for a pure strategy game, where it is about war, that’s the way you might want to do it. But for us, of course, this is a perspective that doesn’t work. The Nazis were not just another faction; they were fascist, they were suppressing people and they spread their racist, anti-Semitic ideology. They shifted and changed the entire society.”
There’s precedent that the serious approach of “Through the Darkest of Times” could actually be good for business. “This War of Mine,” from Polish indie studio 11Bit, focused on civilian life during the Bosnian war, and since its 2014 release has sold between 4 million and 5 million copies across multiple platforms, says the company’s Piotr Bajraszewski.
“This was a super sad game,” he says. “It was a depressing game. It was something totally different, and so many people played it.”
While successes such as “This War of Mine” and topical, immigration-themed indie titles like “Papers, Please,” give Paintbucket the belief that its title will find an audience, there’s also hope it will help change the dialogue in gaming. A loud and toxic sector of the gaming world has taken up many alt-right talking points, namely the idea that so-called social justice warriors, feminists and those with political agendas are ruining games.
This was behind the 2014 movement known as Gamergate, which was endorsed by Breitbart News and flourished on online forums such as 8chan, linked not only with the accused El Paso shooter but with the deadly shootings at two New Zealand mosques and a synagogue in Poway, near San Diego.
Friedrich says the existence of “hate and Nazi groups” in the dark corners of the gaming world solidified his belief that “Through the Darkest of Times” had to be made. It’s a rejection of the idea that games are not political and a rebuke to the belief that showing all perspectives is commendable.
“I want to have a game where those kinds of people don’t feel like we did it for them,” he says in reference to Gamergate. “We do it for other people.”