A frail old woman speaks into the camera. The conversation is uncomfortable, awkward even, as she relates the history of your grandfather’s arrest by the Gestapo — until now an event that has been shrouded in mystery.
“I was trembling in fear,” your grandmother recalls, a feeling which echoes into the present day; She can’t keep her hands still. The separation from her husband would last until the very end of the war.
Video games have not so much tackled war as become totally intertwined with it. An overwhelming number of the most popular video game franchises are shooters, and many of those are wrapped up in wartime regalia, set in or making veiled allusion to real-world conflicts. For the more historically-minded player there are strategy games, which present a top-down, general’s view of the battlefield, opening the stage for reenactment of battles ancient and contemporary. The world’s militaries have, on occasion, reciprocated this attention, lending their expertise and more to developers seeking realism.
But where most war games are grounded in conflict, few spare the time to untangle the many other facets of war. Which brings us to your grandparents and their fateful encounter with the Gestapo in the game “Attentat 1942.”
Exploring history through the medium of games can be a perilous venture for many reasons. These include the potential for historical revisionism, the risk of attributing simple formulas for success to complex or traumatic events from history, and the persistent association of video games in the mainstream as an object of fun above all else. But it’s an area the Czech studio Charles Games actively pursues — both in their debut “Attentat 1942,” an exploration of one family’s history following Heydrich’s assassination through the lens of the arrest mentioned above, and in their upcoming follow-up, “Svoboda 1945,” a game about a small town in the Czech-German borderlands that saw a tremendous rise in violence during the expulsion of ethnic-Germans from Czechoslovakia.
But how do you tell stories about war and its aftermath while remaining sensitive to its survivors? And what does a video game about these periods even look like?
In the case of “Attentat 1942,” Charles Games chose an intimate lens, exploring trauma and hidden family histories through a combination of full motion video-style interviews with actors, encyclopedic articles, historical footage and animated segments. Players are tasked with exploring branching conversations with survivors in the present, such as the character’s grandmother Ludmila, and clicking around apartments in the past to learn more about the player character’s family history and the conditions to which Czech citizens were subjected under Nazi occupation. Games became the team’s medium of choice due to their ability to engage an audience and humanize characters through interactivity.
Charles Games realized early on, however, that they would need to work closely with experts to handle the topic with an appropriate level of care. The team, which was founded as part of a collaboration between three Czech academic institutions, brought in six historians from different backgrounds, including several from the Institute for Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences — a leading research institution in the Czech Republic. Initially, the academics were only responsible for writing a series of in-game glossaries.
“When we approached them, it sounded very weird to them at first that we should want to make a video game about Nazi occupation and then later the expulsion of the Germans, and communism,” said Šisler.
“I was curious about it,” said Marie Černá, a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History. “I’m originally a sociologist, so I used to work with biographies and in-depth interviews so the idea to base the game on life stories was not so remote. But otherwise I could not imagine how it would look like and how these ‘artificial’ interviews could work. It was and still is my greatest concern about the result — the fact that the interviews have to be inevitably schematic and reductionist.”
Professional screenwriters were brought onboard to pen the scripts based on real accounts from the period. However, the team quickly realized the need for the historians to take a more active role in the writing process.
“We tried [to have screenwriters write the script] and it didn’t work at all,” Šisler states. “What we got from the professional script writers was like a Hollywood movie or a play for the theater. They created arcs and they always went for stories that dealt with different kinds of remarkable or in a way spectacular [events]. We knew we wanted something very down to earth. Something very realistic.”
Vít Šisler is the lead game designer at Charles Games. Like many others in the Czech Republic, his family had been deeply affected by the events of the 20th century in Czechoslovakia. His father, for instance, witnessed firsthand both the liberation from Nazism and the post-war expulsion of German-speaking citizens. His mother’s family was forcefully removed from their farm at the end of the Second World War, during the collectivization of the agricultural sector under communism. For him, the project was a way to dig into his family’s past, while also discussing complex historical events.
In “Attentat 1942,” the player travels around Prague in the early 2000s interviewing fictional survivors — aggregates based on historical accounts — to find out more about the protagonist’s grandfather’s arrest by the Gestapo. Why was he arrested? Who reported him? What happened to him in the years following his arrest? To do this, the player navigates sensitive conversations with survivors to uncover clues about the past. Interactive minigames within animated flashbacks present players with opportunities to learn more about the different factions, objects and laws that were significant to the period.
The team worked closely with the Czech educational nonprofit Post Bellum, the organization behind the archival project Memories of Nations, to ensure the stories being told had a basis in reality. Charles Games used Post Bellum’s archive to find the stories that would present a true-to-life account of the period. According to Šisler, this period of development was an enlightening and emotional experience for some members of the studio, many of whom were exposed to a part of their national history that they had never explored before.
“There are many accounts of survivors that resonated with me,” says Šisler. “The key story of our protagonists [in ‘Attentat 1942’], Jindřich and Egon, is based on a real story, where one friend saves the other from deportation to the camps by giving him his ID. … Our [Romani] character Marie is partially based on real memories of a Romani girl who went through the horrors of the Lety camp and Auschwitz.”
Translating these stories into the format of a game in a way that was sensitive to the grave realities of history was a huge responsibility. The team worried, in particular, that by condensing these complex accounts into a set of systems or rules that could be followed toward an ideal outcome, they would inadvertently schematize complicated historical moments.
Their solution to this was to present the scenes that take place in the past as a fixed event for players to experience, with players only making microscopic decisions — such as where to hide a Nazi leaflet before your grandfather’s arrest — that have no impact on the overall outcome. These moments accompany most of the interviews, except for the conversation with Jakub Hein, a fictionalized Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who knew your grandfather in the camp. Here the story is told primarily through non-interactive means, with players only able to select the direction of the conversation within limited parameters.
When “Attentat 1942” was released, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive — a huge relief to the team. The game won Best Learning Game at the 2018 Games for Change awards, as well as Best Educational Game at The Independent Game Developers Association awards the same year. Now, the team’s follow-up, “Svoboda 1945,” aims to explore the final years of the war, including the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia and the rise of communism.
During this period in Czech history, an estimated 3 million Germans were forced to leave the country, representing over a quarter of the entire population of what was then Czechoslovakia. While there were some postwar trials to determine whether individual Germans had collaborated with the Nazis, the entire population was collectively punished. According to a 1996 estimate by a joint commission of Czech and German historians, between 15,000 and 30,000 Germans died as a consequence of the expulsion. The game itself takes place in a small village located in the Czech-German borderlands and again features interviews with actors, mixed with historical footage, animations and encyclopedia entries to read through.
“In a way, [Svoboda 1945] is about the complex and oftentimes complicated cohabitation of Czech and Germans, which is something that we’ve had for centuries — German civilians living within the Czech Republic. I think it is kind of about trauma,” said Šisler. “After the war a new kind of world order was born, the one of the Cold War. We wanted to talk about this very important event.”
The topic is one that remains emotionally fraught and politically controversial for those within the Czech Republic. According to Šisler, official Czech historiography has largely argued from both a moral and legal standpoint in favor of the expulsion, considering it to be an inevitable response due to the Czech Sudeten German party’s collaboration with the Nazi occupants of Czechoslovakia. But since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the fall of communism in the country, there have been numerous attempts to reevaluate and condemn the manner in which the population transfer was executed — as well as strident opposition to these efforts.
“In ‘Svoboda 1945’ … we strive to be historically accurate and present the events from different perspectives — including memories of those who have been expelled with their entire families and those who took an active part in the expulsions,” said Šisler.
The team hopes that by tackling these topics within the medium of games, players will be more cognizant of their actions today — and how those actions will inevitably inform our future.
“[From the project, current generations can take away] that history is not only something remote and abstract but also something that can be mediated by family members or other close persons,” said Černa. “And vice versa that any family has some history. That exploring this history and history in general might be an exciting adventure. That family ‘facts’ that are taken for granted might be more complex.”
Jack Yarwood is a freelance feature writer who writes primarily about the video game industry. He has written for Eurogamer, VICE, and Rock Paper Shotgun, among others. You can follow his Twitter @JackGYarwood.
An earlier version of this article stated that there were no trials to determine whether individuals had collaborated with the Nazis during the German occupation. While there were trials for some individuals, the collective German population was still punished by exile.