At the start of Gerda: A Flame In Winter, you’ll lose friendship points with your dad because you’re annoyed that he’s joined the Nazi Party. Gamifying war is bizarre at the best of times, but Gerda throws you into the deep end, and this makes for an uncomfortable start to a game that will get much darker than this.
There’s nothing offensive with what’s taking place, but it’s hard to see such a conversation played out so casually, let alone turned into a game for our consumption. Too many conflicts already have been. Perhaps we’re all numb to the countless depictions of war in first-person shooters, and how many action games have us shoot at brown people as a white protagonist invading their country, but approaching war through the calmness of an RPG is a tonal dissonance in and of itself.
But just an hour in, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent that Gerda is the only way a World War 2 story should be told. The RPG conventions and game mechanics quickly blur into the background as Gerda pulls you into its watercolour melancholy, living the story of the titular heroine fighting for her husband’s freedom from the Gestapo.
And by the time the credits roll, you realize that the RPG mechanics aren’t there for you to master. They’re there to give you the feeling that you are both in and out of control – and what better way to portray that than with dice rolls and stat checks?
You play as a young woman called Gerda who is half German, half Danish. You live in a town that, before the war, was recently liberated from the Germans. Now in 1945, it is under German rule once again, causing a bitter divide. Life is hard, but quiet, as it appears that most townsfolk simply wait out the war, knowing a Nazi defeat is likely. That is, until Gerda’s Danish husband, Anders, is arrested for his role in blowing up a nearby factory. The next few days are now left in control of the player, with Gerda able to split her time between saving Anders with the help of the Resistance, the Nazis, sympathetic townsfolk, or a corrupt German officer. To complicate matters, you also have other loved ones and friends to protect, as you try and minimize the amount of suffering your actions cause.
In Gerda, there is no winning. There are endings that are better than others, but despite a Life is Strange style stats chart at the end, it doesn’t feel like that should be the point. The point is the decisions you’re forced to make along the way, and how well-organized plans can fall apart and need to be fixed on the fly.
Everything was going fine in my playthrough until I tried to split my time between too many jobs. I thought I was in the clear, then I got everyone killed. But even so, I feel little need to replay and ‘perfect’ this run, even though there are a bunch of different routes I could have taken. I can’t help but feel that it would cheapen my experience to play through as a Gerda who made different choices. Who abandoned her morality and sided with the Nazis to keep Anders safe. Or a Gerda who had to abandon a Jewish family so she could better serve the Resistance. Those options are there, I know real Danish people living under the Nazis took them. That’s all I need to know, and seeing them there as I chose my path made for enough of an uncomfortably fulfilling experience.
Sometimes, however, Gerda can take this approach too far, and I wish I can have influenced her journey more. One of the possible character deaths that can play out is that of a Nazi officer who is about to spot you with the Resistance. If you fail the dice roll, your comrade kills him. This is played out like a bad outcome, and one that is morally dubious, mainly because this Nazi was dating a girl who’s nothing but nice to you, as he also was. But as far as I could see it, it had to be done.
Frankly, I thought shooting him was good because he was a Nazi. Like, a full-on Nazi officer who sends people to concentration camps. I’m all for being honest about the morally grey decisions that everyday collaborators took, and even debating whether or not every action the Resistance took was justified, but making a girl cry because her Nazi boyfriend was shot didn’t seem worth mulling over. Maybe don’t date fascists? Unlike the collaborators, she wasn’t blackmailed into this.
Aside from this, very little takes you out of the experience. Admittedly there were times that my choices didn’t register correctly, but Gerda isn’t about strategizing. It isn’t about trying to win, because there is no winning. It’s about working with what little you have at any given moment, making small oversights and bugs in its RPG-lite mechanics more than forgivable.
Gerda: A Flame In Winter is a heart-wrenching wake-up call that World War 2 will likely never be adequately represented in video games. But this slow-paced narrative-driven RPG, which teaches its audience about a side of the war they may never have heard about, is the closest we will ever get.
It will never not be uncomfortable to see genocide and any kind of game mechanics on screen at the same time. But Gerda avoids this as best it can, offering us a game that puts history at the forefront, understanding that nothing else is more important. It’s an uncomfortable journey, but one that shows what RPG-lites are capable of.
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