What follows is the first part of an analysis of Paintbucket Games’ Through the Darkest of Times (TtDoT) using the Historical Problem Space framework (the second part goes live on 12/17/20). I hope this will serve as a historical review for educators and those interested in playing and studying historical games. More ambitiously, this essay also offers a worked example for using the historical problem space framework. Readers who would like to know more about the framework can look to my other writing on the topic (McCall 2020; a brief introduction on PtP; the original 2012 PtP post ), but that’s not essential for reading this essay. The tl;dr of the Historical Problem Space framework: The defining feature of gamic histories is that they present the past in terms of a historical problem space where the player-agent has goals and makes choices within a systemic gameworld. Commercial game developers, “developer-historians” as Chapman (2016) terms them, draw from the curated evidence of the past and render the historical content as a historical problem space. In that problem space, the player-agent, in a virtual gameworld, tasked with reaching a goal, interacts with the various elements of the gameworld, leveraging abilities and avoiding or overcoming constraints. Ultimately, understanding TtDoT’s interpretation of the past, appreciating it as a gamic history, benefits from considering the historical problem space the developer historians have crafted.
Disclosures: 1) Paintbucket generously supplied me with a review copy of this game and 2) I have not yet made it past 1941 in multiple attempts, and my analysis is mostly based on that part of the game with help on what happens in the final parts from the excellent review by David Wildgoose at Gamespot. Also be sure to read the JGS interview of designer, Jörg Friedrich
Through the Darkest of Times (TtDoT) is a turn-based strategy game developed by Paintbucket Games and published by Handy Games, available on Steam, Switch, and Android. It is a powerful narrative game experience focused on a group of German civilians in Berlin resisting the Nazi regime. Says Paintbucket Games, “Unspeakable horrors and suffering would sweep across the world. Few would stand and fight the monstrosity that was the German Reich. Will you? Lead an underground resistance group Through the Darkest of Times.”
The game starts in January 1933, the date when Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany and arguably the start of a very significant year in the Nazi party’s quest to dominate civil and private life. Gameplay is divided into weeks. At the start of each week, the player-agent, acting as the leader of this resistance group in Berlin, assigns their group members (somewhere between 3 and 5 including the player-agent) to one or more missions. These range from:
- gathering donations and recruiting supporters
- purchasing resistance supplies like paint and paper
- resisting by painting slogans, printing and distributing critical pamphlets
- occasionally breaking captured agents out of prison and,
- in extremely rare cases, planting bombs.
Each mission has a minimum number of required members and room for extra members. Based on the operatives assigned, the game calculates the effectiveness of preparations and the riskiness of the operation. If the player accepts the level of preparation and risk, the mission goes ahead as assigned.
Genres are difficult to pin down precisely and overlap considerably. Despite the ambiguities, game developers not infrequently draw from the gameplay conventions of similar games–genres–when designing a new game. In the case of TtDoT the genre is partly turn-based strategy and some of the common conventions that it adopts are the division of action into a planning and execution phase (players assign operatives to missions) and the use of character stats and resources and metrics like supporters and group morale. Paintbucket, however has interwoven interactive-text (often called IF, interactive fiction, CYOA, etc.,) and graphics into the strategic components. This complement the strategic gameplay and narrates the rise of the Nazi’s and the horrors leading to and culminating in the horror of the Shoah.)
Player-agent, role, and scope
The player plays as leader of a resistance group, generated and named at the start of the game and labelled as “you.” This player-agent is an example of a historical archetype, a representation of one possible agent among the many German civilians who resisted the Nazis. Arguably, identifying the player with an individual player agent contributes to a sense of player agency in the interactive text sections of the game where the player-agent must make personal decisions. When it comes to the core strategic gameplay, however, the player-agent is the director of resistance operations and decides which members, including their own character, to assign to various missions. The other members function as subordinate agents (see below), who can take some significant actions on their own (though not missions) and can be assigned to missions as the player-agent sees fit.
TtDoT stands out among strategy games in that its goals and victory-state can be thought of as attenuated rather than amplified. In many historical games, achieving the victory conditions is meant to suggest that the player “won”; they triumphed. An attenuated victory exists when the player-agent succeeds in achieving the designed game goal but is hardly in a triumphant, winning position: it is a limited success. In the case of this game, it is not immediately clear that the ultimate victory is simply surviving while still resisting. At the start of the first chapter (1933) the player sees a loading screen that includes in red capital letters “STOP THE REGIME!” Building on this, the game designers give visual and textual cues to suggest that stopping the regime is possible and should be the goal of the group. A triumphal ending where the Nazi Regime is ousted, however, is not achievable by the resistance group in the gameworld and narrative. That is a powerful message of the game: the resistance will not triumph.
In practice, the designed goal for the player-agent is to survive and keep the resistance group alive, by keeping the group’s morale and supporters above 0. And so, beginning the chapter with the heightened hope of ousting the Nazi Regime, the player experiences through play an important message of this game: resistance to the Nazi regime was difficult and dangerous, and civilian efforts to resist could not achieve more than just the simple acts of resistance and survival. This means attending regularly to group morale, a metric ranging from below 0 to 100. Morale declines by 10 points at the start of every week. Certain events–decisions the player-agent makes in the interactive text portions of the game and success in resistance missions–can raise morale. Chapter One covers the whole of 1933 including:
- the start of Hitler’s Chancellorship in January
- the Reichstag fire in February
- the Enabling Act of March that allowed Hitler to decree laws without a parliamentary vote
- the outlawing of all political parties except for the Nazis in July
and so on (1933: Key Dates | The Holocaust Encyclopedia). The designed victory for this chapter is to survive as a resistance group. In the best-case scenario, the player sees a screen like this: an attenuated victory after successfully achieving the designed player goals in the game.
The gameworld is, with a few exceptions in the interactive text components where the player-agent travels outside Germany, Berlin from 1933 – 1946. Most of the space is implied however, using a stylized map of Berlin divided into districts with various missions appearing throughout the city. Because it is implied space on a rendition of a map, the players cannot engage in gameworld actions one might find in a Civilization or an Assassin’s Creed:
- exploring, in the sense of uncovering areas of the map not yet visible to the player through revealing fog of war;
- traversing, in the sense of starting at one point on the map and moving across the map in a direction;
- developing, in the sense of “building” features on the land; and
- contesting, challenging control or ownership of space, (although the Nazis do challenge player activities in the space somewhat; see below)
The implied spaces the resistors can visit are those places with missions attached to them. As a result one gets the feel of planning missions on a map and the sense that Berlin is a complex city. Though districts will get more risky to conduct operations in as the SA/SS/Gestapo are alerted, the space rendered in the Berlin map is not really contestable either. In short, the map provides a thematic spatial rendition of Berlin and the opportunities for resistance in it. Functionally, the available missions could also be rendered as a simple list unattached to the map, but here the devs have crafted a solution that better spatially and temporally situates the player-agent in 1930s and 1940s Berlin.
The gameworld the player-agent operates in includes these important elements:
Resistance group members: Up to five, including the player-agent, operatives who can be assigned to missions in Berlin. They are, except for the player-agent, subordinate agents to the player-agent. They can be assigned to missions as the player desires, and the player chooses their response if a mission gets interrupted (fleeing, hiding, or carrying through). Still, the members have agency and are subordinates, rather than minions. They express their own ideas, even to the point of criticizing the player-agent, have their own problems (such as being fired from their day job; worrying about the safety of their newborn child; or having a loved one join the Nazis). They also have their own morale metric. The absolute value of a member’s morale is kept hidden from the player, but the player sees how their agent’s choices raise or lower the member’s morale. Finally, members can leave the group if they feel unsafe or disillusioned with the progress of the resistance group. Presumably, in terms of mechanics, this happens when their morale drops too low.
Each resistance member also has a series of traits:
- a profession, ranging from journalist, welder, and waiter, to artist, and, merchant, and unemployed
- a political affiliation, ranging from Communist and Social Democrat, to Christian Liberal, Conservative and Catholic Conservative, and even Anarchist
- A status (fearful, calm, mediator)
- Five core stats, each with a value from 1 to 5 (?) that are used to determine how successful the operative will be in their assigned mission: secrecy, empathy, propaganda, strength, and literacy
Supporters: These are represented only as a number, not individually, and serve only as a source of some weekly donations, a minimum requirement for taking on certain missions, and as an metric of success. Consequently, the supporters are not really agents or even minions (there is nothing the player-agent can order them to do). Rather the total number of supporters functions mostly as a metric.
Morale: This is the decisive metric for the group when it comes to achieving the goals of the resistance movement: if it falls below zero, the game is over. Morale automatically drops by 10 points at the end of each week/turn. Certain missions can raise morale as can certain decisions in the interactive text portion of the game. Not infrequently, these gains do not fully compensate for the steady 10 points weekly decline. Occasionally opportunities will arise for all the agents in the group to attend a wedding, or a jazz club, or an art exhibit and, in doing so, raise the group morale significantly higher. Hiding in a safe space also raises morale. These morale-raising decisions, however, prevent operatives from doing resistance work. As with many of the decisions in the game, these involve challenging trade-offs.
Missions: Various circles on the map of Berlin appear, indicating resistance missions that the player-agent can assign to themselves and/or other group members. There are several categories:
Fundraising: Asking for donations of the marks needed to acquire resistance supplies like paint and paper and pay for hideouts and new operative recruitment.
Gaining support: Persuading more supporters to back the group, which increases donations and enables access to certain missions.
Recruiting a new member: for the core group of up to five operatives
Acquiring resistance supplies: such as paint (for slogans on walls) and paper (for authoring pamphlets critical of the Nazis), both of which can be bought. The act of purchasing these supplies, however, can raise the “heat” on the member, the awareness the Nazis have of the member as a potential resistor (heat is reflected in the PC version by 1 to 5 red dots). Gas can be acquired to make incendiary devices and SA and army uniforms can be stolen to enable access to certain kinds of missions.
Breakout Missions: Group members can be arrested in the course of conducting a mission if their heat level is high enough or they are caught in an act of resistance. Then the player-agent must decide if they wish to risk breaking the arrested member out of jail
Acts of Resistance: Distributing leaflets, painting slogans of resistance, and, in later turns, helping persecuted people escape from Germany. There are also higher-level resistance acts like using incendiary devices or hanging resistance banners in public spaces.
Each mission has a level of preparation–a chance of success–that is calculated from the strengths and weaknesses of the group member / members assigned to the mission. Each mission also has a risk level, also dependent on the group members and the amount of heat they have from the Nazis. It is possible for riskier missions to get interrupted in process by suspicious bystanders, potential witnesses and informants, police, and the SA/SS/Gestapo. The player is notified of the interruption and must choose whether the groups’ members on that mission flee, hide, or stay on task (called “enforce” in the game). Persisting in a risky situation can get members arrested, increase their heat with the Nazis, and even get them killed, depending on the circumstances. Hiding and fleeing risk the success of the mission, but increase the chance the operatives will escape unscathed.
Higher level missions are accessed by successfully completing prerequisite ones. So, distributing leaflets requires that the group has made leaflets (as a separate mission), which in turn requires paper (purchased during a separate mission). The most challenging missions (Hanging a resistance banner at Alexanderplatz, bombing the Olympics, helping the persecuted escape Germany) require careful planning and allocation of resources and group members. I have yet to have achieved one in my playthroughs.
Resistance Group Members: The up-to-four resistance group members function as subordinate agents, (with the player agent serving as an additional operative). The player-agent has absolute control over selecting members for the missions they will perform. Each member, however, has a fair amount of gameworld agency. Each has their own (hidden) morale level and can opt to remain with or leave the group depending on circumstances in the world, often brought on by choices and events in the interactive-text segments. Each group member also has a political affiliation, which can range from Conservative, to Catholic Conservative, to Christian Liberal, Social Democrat, Communist and Anarchists. Quarrels between members with different politics can and do break out, and the player-agent must choose whether to side with one member and dismiss another, or ignore the conflict. These decisions affect the morale of the involved members, which in turn affects whether they remain with the group. In short, the player-agent is managing the personalities of individual member agents, not simply dictating to minions. This has the potential to add considerably to the emotional headspace of the player-agent: they are invited to care about and know their operative members.
The Nazis: Though in some ways the Nazis function, mechanically, as opponents without much agency, obstacles in the environment to the player-agent, in a real sense, the Nazi presence is also one overwhelmingly powerful rival agent striving to win the game by crushing the player-agent’s resistance group. They are everywhere. At the start of each turn, a series of newspaper headlines note key events in the history of Nazi Germany. These are current events for the agents in the gameworld and outline the rise to power and the brutal oppression of the Nazis.
The interactive text components of the game and associated graphics also enable the player-agent to see the harm the Nazis are doing to the people of Germany, especially disenfranchised and marginalized people. In addition to the interactive text segments, there are longer narrative interludes telling the story of the domination of the Nazis and their agenda, the rise of oppression and violence, and the road to the horror of the Shoah.
In the strategic components of the game, the possibility of arrest, and the threat of torture and death are the greatest risks to the player-agent achieving their goals. The increasingly overwhelming power of Hitler and the Nazis is realized through the drop in morale every week but also made real through the heat metric each group member has. Too much heat, and the character can be imprisoned, removing them from the group unless a rescue mission is undertaken. In addition, sections of Berlin will grow redder if the group draws too much Nazi interest there and display one or more Nazi troopers policing, making missions more dangerous. Individual missions are also color coded in green, yellow, and red to indicate how much risk of alerting the Nazis the mission entails.
Part 2 of this essay will consider the choices, strategies, and behaviors the problem space encourages the player to adopt. Then it is time to consider how all the components fit together to create a gamic history, a holistic interactive experience of German resistance in the Second World War.