With Through the Darkest of Times, Berlin-based developer Paintbucket Games are challenging politics-free representations of Nazis in video games. In their historical strategy game, you play as Berlin’s Resistance organizing to weaken the Third Reich by producing leaflets, gathering intelligence and undertaking acts of sabotage. “Too few are standing up against the monstrosity of the German Reich,” declares the game’s tagline, “Will you?”
While some developers prefer to retain an ostensibly ambiguous political position, studio co-founders Sebastian Schulz and Jörg Friedrich have chosen to directly account for the somber elements of the Third Reich and take its politics head-on. Weirdly, this makes Through the Darkest of Times exceptional among video games, which have a troubling tendency to whitewash the Wehrmacht and downplay the politics of Nazi Germany.
To learn more about how Paintbucket Games hope to change the way video games represent the period, I spoke with studio co-founder Jörg Friedrich on behalf of Into The Spine.
“In Through the Darkest of Times we would like to show the slow rise of fascism and how a democratic and open society is transformed into a totalitarian state,” says Friedrich. “Nazism didn’t begin with Hitler being a dictator and World War 2. It took its time from hate speech, attacks on the freedom of press and science to dictatorship, war, and genocide.”
To this end, the game involves you organizing against the rise of the Nazi party following the election of Adolf Hitler in January 1933, and then in subsequent acts into the late 1930s as the party grows stronger.
“We also want to challenge the myth that German people didn’t know what was going on or that there was no opportunity to resist,” says Friedrich, alluding to groups such as the White Rose and those collectively known by the Gestapo as the Red Orchestra. “There were many groups like the ones you play in the game, but their existence was denied for a long time after the war.”
Through the Darkest of Times unfolds by asking you to recruit volunteers with varying values for the traits of Secrecy, Propaganda, and Empathy. Dispatching them on different missions, you can use them to collect propaganda materials and perform subversive actions, all the while balancing their success and integrity with the chance of capture. Navigating these decisions while each turn brings somber news of the Nazi’s tightening grip can be tough.
For Friedrich, exploring the subject in a systems-based strategy game means the player has more opportunity to make their own choices. “As a player,” he says, “I need to make many small decisions based on the state of my systems, creating a great number of unique situations. Do I have enough resources to do this action? If not, where do I get them? Should I take the risk, or not? But my member is injured, what if she dies? In a pure narrative game, I know that every situation was prepared by a designer. In a game which interweaves narrative with systems, I feel like I have much more agency.”
However, the narrative remains important. “We want people to always remember what this game is about and not only play the numbers,” says Friedrich, “that’s why there are so many narrative bits and why they are always connected to the systems and vice versa.”
“A game that needed to be made”
Paintbucket Games’ design choices plainly have a lot of contemporary resonance, and Friedrich acknowledges that “current affairs is what motivates us to make Through the Darkest of Times. The rise of neo-fascism, totalitarian and racist ideas [from] politicians all over the globe worry us, and we hope that our game will make a statement against this.” At the same time, “sometimes it’s enough to tell things the way they happened to say everything that needs to be said: never again!”
Sebastian Schulz and Jörg Friedrich previously worked on Spec Ops: The Line, a game through whose course the player attempted to reconcile the horrors of war with their own complicity in them. Has working on that title informed the game they are working on at Paintbucket Games? “At that time,” says Friedrich, “Spec Ops: The Line felt like a game that needed to be made. Not because there was a market that asked for it, but because it felt necessary in a world of wars and war games to make a game with a new perspective on war and war games. Making Through the Darkest of Times feels similar.”
Their forthright approach to rendering the realities of Nazism makes the game unique when compared with its action-oriented contemporaries. Perhaps unlike other games, their engagement with the setting is driven by an awareness of the ways games can contribute to our understanding of the past. “We think games could and should play an important role in our culture of commemoration,” says Friedrich, “at least as important as movies and books. We hope that we can contribute to that.”
Meanwhile, barring a vocal segment, people seem more prepared to regard video games as a medium capable of engaging with sensitive subjects. Paintbucket Games are freer to evade ambiguity following changes in German law in 2018, which means their game will be among the first to legally depict accurate symbolism in Germany. “We can now make the game as it was intended and don’t need to worry about a censored version for Germany,” says Friedrich.
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Retaining authenticity does not seem to have inhibited their game design, either. “The more we research,” he says, “the more interesting stories and facts we learn about civilian resistance groups, the more ideas for interesting experiences that we could offer [to] players.
“Games can create all kinds of emotions and not all of them need to be about having fun or feeling superior,” he explains. “They can be tragic or mean and still offer something of value to players.”
Through the Darkest of Times is being developed by Paintbucket Games, joined by HandyGames as the publisher. You can learn more about it on their official site.