“Through the Darkest of Times” by Paintbucket Games (Jörg Friedrich, Sebastian St. Schulz, Almut Schwacke, Jan-Dirk Verbeek, Vivian Maria Köhler, Jonathan Witt, Andrew Nolen, Marina Hillinger & Julia Sittmann), The Rufus Temple Orchestra (Johannes Böhmer, Bastian Duncker, Johannes Lauer, Katharina von Fintel, Nikolai Scharnofske & Fidelis Hentze), Nora Hespers, HandyGames (Christopher Kassulke, Markus Kassulke, Udo Bausewein, Daniel Weber, Sebastian Bischlager, Johann Kruschinski, Christophe Kalkau, Thomas Schmitt, Jan Pytlik, Constantin Fuchs, Anna Simon, Felix Totzauer, Yona Dillmaier, Jonas Häfner, Clemens Hanebuth, Lukas Kucharek, Leon Schleier, Peggy Schnetter, Kim-Janek Triebig, Christoph Wiederker, André Rudlaff, Vitalij Trinkenschuh, Stephanie Grass, Michael Hall, Jakob Löffler, Laura de Andrés, Artur Kowatsch & Nicole Murrmann).
“You are the leader of a small resistance group in 1933’s Berlin, of ordinary people, from Jews to Catholics and Communists to Patriots who simply can’t stand aside. Your goal is to deal with small blows to the regime – dropping leaflets to spread awareness about what the Nazis are really up to among the people, painting messages on walls, sabotaging, gathering information and recruiting more followers. And all of that while staying undercover – if the regime’s forces learn about your group, the life of each member is in grave danger.”
After I finished “Through the Darkest of Times”, I wanted to cry. On the one side because I was overwhelmed by emotions that this absolutely stunning title filled me with, and on the other side because I was proud of the whole team behind it. They created a rarity: A clearly antifascist game that understands how to inform its players about the horrors, manipulations, strategies as well as dynamics of and inside the Third Reich; not only with the help of the historical facts, but also its gameplay.
In “Through the Darkest of Times”, you lead a resistance group against the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. Instead of letting you play a group that actually existed – like the White Rose, the Red Orchestra or many others -, you take control of a fictitious group. For some people, that might be a disappointment, but it actually grants several advantages for the storytelling. For example, the group can constantly operate over the whole uprising and downfall of the National Socialists, allowing the story to go through various historical events through the years and showing the complete development. Also it shows off that not single popular persons or groups are significant for the resistance movement. Acting against fascism is not described as a battle of few heroes, but as a fight of all decent people.
The gameplay itself is segmented into four chapters: 1.) The political rising of the Nazis, 2.) the peak of their power, where they tried to convince the world that they are a peaceful nation through the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, 3.) the start of the Second World War and 4.) also the approaching end of their disgusting reign. Each chapter features cutscenes of events that happened in those years, often accentuated with snippets of speeches and other audio sources. Also, the chapters are structured in weeks, and they are crucial for the survival of your group.
Each week you have to choose which members of your group will go to which mission. Some of them are easy to accomplish (like getting donations, meeting with potential supporters in other communities or to buy paint to write antifascist slogans on walls), while others are really dangerous, when you go unprepared into them. Stealing a SA uniform or weapons? That may sound like a good idea in general, but there are huge risks. You could get injured, land in jail or in the hands of the secret police called Gestapo or just get shot right there. Also, a bunch of high-level missions can not be tried without acquiring certain items before, so you will have to plan your moves.
At the same time, not only external factors will test the strength of your group. Some will get in fights over the political stance of others – yeah, monarchists do not get along with anarchists, who would have thought -, others will get paranoid and accuse somebody else of being a potential snitch for the Nazis or they simply can not take the stress anymore. I mean, for exampple, you would let a pregnant woman leave your group, right? …Right?
“Through the Darkest of Times” already is one of the most important and best games of this year for me. Not only did it manage to give me some information about this shameful part of the history of my own home country, but it knows how to transport its message in a perfect way on many different levels. I remember one scene that absolutely crushed my heart, that I want to share with you before I end this article: In the last chapter, a Jewish woman named Lilli Blaustein told me how she luckily escaped the Auschwitz concentration camp, but also what she experienced there.
She describes how Josef Mengele just used his hands to lead the new inmates to their fate: “Left is to life, right is into the fire.” How she had to play the violin to cover the death cries of those who were in the chambers. And just when the silhouette of the Auschwitz gate gets shown, a horrific sound gets played. At first, I thought it would be the squeaking sound of the gate doors, but it felt like it was mixed with the screams of the victims. My heart started to pound so, so much faster in this moment.
In “Through the Darkest of Times”, you can not make those things unhappen. You can not just go to Adolf Hitler and shoot him in the face. You can not stop the disease of fascism and hatred in the heart of the German citizen. But you can learn from this game, most importantly its core message:
Never forget, never again.