War is a difficult subject. History is often written by the victors, sometimes without regard for the truth. And one of the few truths of war is that it’s ugly, and complicated, and personal, and terrible. There is no war without death, loss, pain and tragedy for all involved. It can be easy, especially as Americans, to overanalyze and depersonalize war, having not experienced it on our own soil. It’s one of the best reasons to learn more history, though, and listen to the experiences of those who have experienced war coming to their country, their town, their house. Survivors’ stories bring perspective, humanity and empathy, and, I think, if listened to, help to create the sort of “upstanders” that will go on to fight injustice, not just for themselves but for all, and strive to make the world better for everyone.
It’s no small feat to take on a subject like WWII or even post WWII and the rise of communism in any form of media, let alone games, in a way that’s impactful, respectful and somehow, manages to be engaging. But Charles Games was more than up to the challenge, and Svoboda 1945: Liberation is a masterwork that could, in fact, make you a smarter, better human having played it.
Svoboda 1945: Liberation is a full motion video heavy “adventure” game set in the small Czech town of Svoboda. In it, you play as someone tasked with surveying the town about the historical preservation of a school. And while that seems a little mundane, the school and the town it is in have a past. Situated in the Czech-German borderlands, this small town was home to Germans, Czechs, German and Czech Jews and everyone in between. It was invaded and occupied by Germans during WWII and then subsequently liberated after the fall of Hitler’s regime–and the remnants of all of these conflicts (and more) have left their mark–on the townsfolk, who won’t necessarily be so happy to dredge it up again, and on the school, which was central to much of the town’s troubled history.
As a surveyor, your job is essentially to be the nosy neighbor, and find out what people’s thoughts are about the school, and whether or not it should be preserved as a historical site and possible memorial or demolished. As a relative outsider, you’re not just going to be given the keys to the city, or even the school, and before long there’s even more at stake than you originally thought, when, in poring over artifacts in the school’s attic (the only place you have access to at the outset) you find a picture of your grandfather mixed in with other pieces of the town’s history.
Svoboda 1945’s gameplay is most akin to a point and click adventure game set within a gorgeous set of full motion video interviews with various townsfolk and a hand drawn set of comic book style illustrations that, with clever lighting and integration, often marry so well into the video it blurs the line between the two. Much of what you’ll do is figure out the best questions to ask various people, and thereby deduce what exactly happened in the school that nobody wants to talk about, including finding out what your own grandfather was doing there.
And while Svoboda 1945: Liberation is a work of fiction, it’s only just, and could easily be considered the sort of educational tool you’d find in a museum or classroom. Its stories are fiction, true, but based on real events and in fact, real survivor accounts. Heavily researched by Charles’ Games team, Svoboda 1945 is as much a history lesson as it is a game, and takes its facts seriously. So seriously, in fact, that there is an in game encyclopedia that can be accessed at any time filled with articles and photos that provide a deep dive into the events, people and objects that feature in Svoboda 1945’s story. It’s tumultuous, and tragic. Tale after tale unfolds of separated families, lost lives, occupations, and expulsions–and it’s not read from a book. Instead, it’s being told to you, personally, with all the perspective and sorrow that come with that.
Interspersed with the narrative interviews there are a few mini games. One of the most memorable and impactful for me was set on the family farm of a character I’d been conversing with. In it, you had to manage the farm–buying and selling, planting, and, eventually, meeting quotas for the government. It went well at first, and I thought I’d successfully built myself up, only to find the game was rigged. As the government and townspeople pressured me to join the collective farming unit, more and more of my profits were confiscated, quotas raised, and property seized, with fines becoming so great I was eventually not able to keep up. There’s nothing like a rigged game to irritate a gamer trying to win, and in this case, that was used to great effect to connect you to the narrative.
Just as affecting are the beautiful performances by the cast. Paired with absolutely stunning and intimate cinematography, there’s not a single interview that’s not haunting and memorable. Each individual stands out, and almost everyone, despite their differences, can be empathized with. This gets extremely complicated extremely quickly, as you may find that someone you very much empathized with is at the heart of another person’s past misery, and your own family history may not turn out the way you hope it will, either.
This is the beauty of Svoboda 1945: Liberation. It’s unforgiving, unblinking, and beautiful. Each person’s story is arresting and tragic in its own right. No one in the town, on any side, has not lost something, is not seeking something, or is not struggling with the echoes of the past.
Svoboda 1945: Liberation seems equal parts documentary film, game and exhibit, and it’s this unique combination of things that makes it the masterpiece I think it truly is. No one part is greater than the other, with the casting and careful cinematography drawing you in to the characters in an intimate way, gameplay making you feel more connected the the narrative, and the in depth encyclopedia allowing you to give yourself even more context to connect and uncover more story. All of these parts working together help to allow you to see a fuller picture of what’s happened in Svoboda, and who it’s happened to. And the more you see, the more you realize no one was untouched, and nothing is so black and white. War leaves nothing untouched, and Svoboda 1945 manages to make sure you won’t be, either.
Svoboda 1945: Liberation is available today on Steam.
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