This is the second part of a historical-problem-space analysis of Paintbucket Games’ Through the Darkest of Times (See Part 1)
Disclosures: 1) Paintbucket supplied me with a review copy of this game. 2) I have not yet made it past 1941 in multiple attempts, and my analysis is mostly based on that with help on what happens in the final parts from the excellent review by David Wildgoose at Gamespot: Through The Darkest Of Times Review – Enemy Inside The Gates – GameSpot)
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 resisting the Nazi regime in Berlin.
In the first part of this essay, I began an analysis of TtDoT using the Historical Problem Space framework (now McCall 2020; a brief introduction on PtP ; the original 2012 PtP post ). I hope readers will be interested in reading these pieces, but that’s definitely not essential for reading this essay. The tl;dr version: the defining feature of gamic histories is that they present the past in terms of historical problem spaces where the player agent has goals and makes choices within a systemic gameworld. In this post, I continue the analysis from Part 1 and describe the final, and in many ways, most important aspects of the historical problem space: the choices, strategies, and behaviors the gameworld system promotes.
Choices, Strategies, and Behaviors
Paintbucket has melded two genres of game together in TtDoT: turn-based, resource- and metric-focused strategy, and interactive text with illustrations. Interactive text (often called interactive fiction, IF, or choice-based text), because it leverages the power of textual expression, is an outstanding mechanism for narrative and for player choice within a narrative (for more on the strengths of interactive text for history, see Twine, Inform, and Designing Interactive History Texts). Strategy games, while arguably less effective for conveying narrative, are excellent for representing—well—strategic decisions about how to manage resources, operatives, and supplies. By combining the two , TtDoT leverages the strengths of both to create a challenging management simulation with strong narrative choices. The result is a narrative richness that has the potential to spark emotional connections for the player.
Turn-to-turn in the strategy component of the game, the player agent must effectively manage group members, each with their own personality and problems. The player agent must also prioritize available missions and determine the best available group members by capitalizing on member traits that can help a mission and avoiding or mitigating traits that can harm a mission. Each mission requires at least one group member; adding more often increases the chances of success; and certain members are better at certain missions. There is also a challenging logistical component of the strategic game. Successful resistance requires money for supplies and for funding hiding spots when the heat grows too intense on some group members. Money must be gained through donation missions. The member raising money, of course, cannot complete any other mission that week. Likewise, many missions require supplies (paint, gas, paper, leaflets, books) that can only be obtained through their corresponding missions. In addition, the resistance group must continue enlisting supporters if it is to survive; these supporters, too, are only obtained through missions. For practical purposes, consequently, a number of group members will need to work regularly on these logistical missions—every week in my experience—just for the group to subsist and be able to conduct higher level resistance missions.
The most common resistance opportunities beyond recruiting and soliciting donations involve low-level actions like spreading leaflets, talking to potential supporters, and painting resistance slogans on buildings. If the player agent manages supplies and members successfully and chooses to do so, greater acts of resistance can be undertaken. These are difficult to achieve, however, both because they are riskier and because they require higher-level prerequisite supplies.
These strategy elements are then complemented by the interactive text segments of the game. In these the player agent is presented with all manner of choices revolving around whether to resist Nazi evils openly or to stay silent and safer. Examples, from the first two chapters of the game include:
- Helping an elderly Jewish man assaulted by SA thugs;
- Crossing SA boycotters and shopping in a store owned by Jewish grocers;
- Stumbling onto a book burning led by Goebbels;
- Photo-documenting the abuse of Roma in camps
Many of the choices revolving around the growing Nazification of Germany are unsatisfying by design: regardless of whether the player agents opts to listen to Hitler’s address at Nuremburg in 1936, it still takes place.
Interactive text dilemmas with choices also occur when group members experience mishaps or have arguments with other group members. Sometimes the player-agent’s choices have a direct impact on the gameworld elements, as members’ morale rises or dips. If a member’s morale drops too far, they will leave the group.
Again, interactive text is a powerful medium because (as I have suggested elsewhere), it combines the precision, detail, and expressive power of words, and the capacity to qualify ideas, with the choice-making inherent in games. The scenarios articulated in the interactive text are emotionally charged. descriptive power of interactive text, arguably, has the chance to heighten the player’s emotional response and tension beyond the core strategic elements of the game: players can understand the misery and feel compelled to act, but fear the risks to the group’s safety.
The result is this: Even when the player is successful at the strategic sections, the interactive text segments makes clear that the Nazis continue to grow more powerful, more brutal, more monstrous. This is a powerful tension in the game brought out in the available choices of the problem space and their impact.
Putting All The Elements Together: The Historical Problem Space of Through the Darkest of Times
The historical problem space framework is designed to encourage the holistic consideration and analysis of historical video games. Part-and-parcel of this is to consider the systemic space of a gameworld and its elements, the whole composition that the game presents. This is a more productive approach, I’d argue, than simply picking discrete aspects of the game for historical consideration without considering the whole. For example, one might consider the game’s representation of political parties other than the Nazis and how that reflects the available historical evidence, but that should ideally not take place without appreciating the way that political parties function in the gameworld. To give a second example, one could assess how the map and depiction of Berlin’s geography in the game conforms or differs with the city’s historical geography, but that ideally should not take place without appreciating how the map space functions in (and to a certain extent as) the gameworld (McCall 2020).
And so this final part of the essay offers a brief assessment and analysis, based on what I have intended to be a holistic–though necessarily incomplete–consideration of the historical problem space TtDoT presents. More can and hopefully will be said about this gamic history and the way it represents resisting the Nazis. Those future analyses, hopefully, will consider parts of the game in connection to the whole, consider the historical problem space.
The remainder of this essay, while offering some assessment of historical validity, will not offer a detailed historical assessment of the historical problem space the game presents. One of the appeals of Play the Past is that it allows us to workshop ideas, test them out and discuss them as a community. A substantial formal historical overview would take this essay into the realm of an article or monograph, when my hope is simply to encourage more interest in TtDoT and the HPS framework. More pointedly, I am not a specialist, by any means, in the history of Nazi Germany, let alone resistance in Nazi Germany. I have read parts of Richard Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power. To prepare for teaching my Interactive History class this semester and using TtDoT, I also investigated the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia. I sought books on German civilian resistance to the Nazis only to find that, when it comes to the actual topic of civilian resistance, there seems not to be a great number of accessible books. One excellent exception, is F. McDonough’s entry in the Cambridge Perspectives in History series, Opposition and Resistance in Nazi Germany. McDonough provides brief surveys of different categories of resistors: Communists, Social Democrats, and Workers; Youth Groups; The famous White Rose group, and various Christian groups. Each chapter then ends with a small selection of primary source excerpts. I highly recommend it for interested non-specialists. There is also some discussion of German resistance in the USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia, especially the essay “Resistance during the Holocaust” https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/20000831-resistance-bklt.pdf and the essay German Resistance to Hitler.
A final thought before concluding: historical games are gamic histories, and the critical hallmark of gamic histories is choice within a set of systems. A consequence of this is that a linear text like this one cannot fully capture the cumulative effects, the feelings, the essence of choice and feedback within a system. To experience a problem space described in linear text is not really to experience a problem space. So while I have attempted to employ text to clearly analyze TtDoT, and I do hope readers will take the time to read this essay, you really should play the game to experience the problem space. This game is well worth it.
That said, let’s close with a brief summation and assessment of the gamic history of Through the Darkest of Times, the historical problem space it presents.
The developer-historians of Paintbucket games have crafted a gamic history of civilian resistance to the Nazi regime. Gamic histories, because they are gamic histories, present the past as historical problem spaces. The point-of-view of the player-agent in this historical problem space is that of a resistance leader, the focus their goal-oriented pursuit to stop the regime in the 1930s and 1940s. The resistance leader faces a daunting task, operating under dictatorship that grows steadily more powerful. They must choose whom to trust and what actions to prioritize. Tradeoffs occur every turn as the needs of the group for funds and supporters is ever-present, morale is almost always diminishing, and there is significant legwork involved in preparing and executing actual acts of resistance. So this game places the player in something of the intellectual and (virtually represented) physical space of a resistor. This space consists of extraordinary and dramatic challenges of resistance posed alongside the banality of the weekly logistics of resistance. And because it is a game, the player interacts with the gameworld as a decision-making agent.
The problem space of the resistance leader comes rife with danger, and with this comes a great deal of emotional cost. The interactive text components build on the strategic gameplay and present greater opportunity for the player to enter this emotional headspace of a resistance leader, helped along by the grim textual and visual scenes of the growth of Nazi power, oppression, violence, and brutalization. The early declarations that the player-agent and group members can stop the regime outright melt away and leave the grim realization that all a successful resistance group in Germany at this time can hope for is to, in fact, resist; to support and spread underground ideas of resistance; to help individuals escape the brutality of the Nazi regime; and to survive. In some ways, especially after multiple playthroughs of what can be a strategically very challenging game, resistance to the Nazi evil in itself, just resistance, is something of a noble goal in its own right. Even the moderate acts of resistance–leaflets, speaking, and painted slogans–only increase morale and perhaps support. They do not stop the Nazis. And while I have not yet managed to successfully undertake the highest levels of resistance (bombs, broadcasts, getting secret intel out to the international press), I am confident these do not stop the Nazis either. Survival is resistance. As the player-agent puts it in one section of interactive text, “I know what my mission is. But my mission is also to stay alive and out of prison.”
The day-to-day work is frustrating in its limited returns and involves managing personalities and logistics. Morale declines steadily, with little boosts from successful missions and occasional respites like weddings and underground jazz clubs. Supporters also decrease, although here the player-agent can make more of an impact through missions. Still, the player-agent remains in the tough position every week (every turn) of choosing how to balance group members’ strengths and the advantages and disadvantages of their political and religious commitments with the needs of the group to not just survive, but to resist. And again the fact that the problem space is stacked against the player-agent reinforces that survival by itself is resistance and resistance is victory. And so there is a real potential to experience just a bit of the emotional headspace of resistors too.
History is subject to revision and debate and this essay is a tack, not a destination. That said, for me, the problem space presented by TtDoT as a whole is historically plausible and powerful. All manner of civilians, in fact, resisted the Nazis. Some resisted and risked much to do so. Placing players in that space is what TtDoT does, and while each detail may not match up neatly to the historical record, the space fits at least the broad overviews of the complex and dangerous phenomenon of civilian resistance to the Nazis. TtDoT adopts what Chapman (2016) calls a “conceptual simulation” approach, telling players about the past through its rulesets more than showing through verisimilitudinous graphics. Therefore the plausibility of the game consists not in its graphic portrayals but to the extent the models it presents reflect historical dynamics. Resistance indeed came from political and religious groups like the Communists and the Social Democrats, workers and students. Many tried to resist by spreading the word of Nazi atrocities through leaflets and books, through slogans painted on walls, buildings, and subways, even through photos of Nazi crimes. Some sought to sabotage industries and the war effort. Some tried to murder Hitler. They experienced rises and falls in moral. Through surveillance and spies, informants and police, the Nazis brutally responded to resistance. Accordingly, resistors were forced to live in uncertainty and fear. Meanwhile the Nazis sought out and attempted to eradicate all resistance by outlawing political parties and developing and employing systematic enforcers in the SA, SS, and Gestapo. Resistors had successes and defeats. Many fled; many died. Ultimately, they never posed a real threat to Hitler’s regime. Still they resisted (See McDonough and the USHMM). TtDoT captures that model well.
Ultimately, it is well worth considering the game for anyone studying or teaching about historical video games formally or informally. It is certainly well worth considering for any class covering the Second World War and intending to get at the topic of resistance in a way that may well be more powerful than simply reading the sources I suggested. Historical games are at their most powerful when they are studied, discussed, and debated. Ideally one would play this game and do some reading in the topic to gain a richer historical understanding, and perhaps even empathy, for the resistors.
In this two-part essay, I have hoped to provide an example of a historical-problem-space-focused analysis of a videogame history. I also hope that this will point the way for others to benefit from engaging in historical problem space analyses of their own. To that end, I encourage readers to discuss their comments, questions, and criticisms with me here on Play the Past or through Twitter (@Gamingthepast) or through my own site (www.gamingthepast.net ). In the meantime, play this game; study this period; talk about this game and the space it creates. In class, on your own, for an article. It’s well worth it.