Collaborate or fight? How Gerda: A Flame in Winter forces tough choices
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Narrative games like Don’t Nod’s Life is Strange series force players to make tough decisions that could lead to great outcomes or death. And now it taking that formula and publishing more games that are made from other developers.
The newest is such title is PortaPlay’s Gerda: A Flame in Winter, which came out on September 1 on the PC on Steam and the Nintendo Switch. It’s about a woman in a small village in a historically contested region between Denmark and Germany, and how she struggles to save her husband from the Nazis in World War II.
At the Gamescom event in Cologne, Germany, I spoke about the game with developers at PortaPlay, Hans Von Knut Skovfoged and Shalev Moran. Skovfoged based the story of the game on his grandmother, a half German, half Danish woman who was a resistance fighter in World War II. The game delves into the conflict about fighting the Nazi regime versus fighting individual Germans, who could be part of the family. Sadly, this kind of dilemma is still relevant today, and the game walks players through it.
“We feel the value of seeing human beings, not just seeing stereotyped enemies,” said Skovfoged.
The game’s art is inspired by a period in modern Danish painting, Danish impressionism, or the Skagen Painters.
Don’t Nod, by the way, recently rebranded itself from Don’t Nod.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Where did the idea originally come from?
Hans Von Knut Skovfoged: We had been making a kind of anti-war war game previously. Then we thought about, well, shouldn’t we come up with a game where you try to solve things in some other way than guns and bombs? I remembered the story of my grandmother, who was a resistance fighter in World War II. She didn’t take part in any violent actions, though. She and her husband were spying on the Germans, taking photos of defensive installations, hiding resistance personnel, smuggling weapons in a baby carriage, things like that. She wasn’t just fighting individual Germans. She was fighting the Nazi regime that occupied Denmark. She didn’t want to simply kill Germans, who were many of them just there because they had to be in the army. She wanted to stand up against the larger occupation.
That nuance, that dilemma–you want to fight for what’s right, but you see the enemy in the form of human beings. That was interesting for us. And so we made this game about a half German, half Danish woman, a nurse. She doesn’t want to kill her countrymen, whether they’re Germans or Danes. She wants to help people. But she always to liberate her country from the Nazi regime. She’s caught in the middle. Furthermore, she’s a civilian. Civilians can’t just run out guns blazing to solve their problems. That’s not how the world works. So what can you do? That was the question we set out to explore.
Shalev Moran: That led us to some of the structure of the game. For example, using some RPG mechanics focused on social relations. Things like your standing with different factions and your trust level with different people. That governs your life. It leads us to challenges for the player. There are all these gray situations, just like in real life. People under the stresses of this kind of occupation had to deal with–they can’t come out with the obvious version of heroism. They have to make some kind of compromise. Not everyone else is going to like what they do. You can see how this led to a certain kind of role-playing experience, where it’s all about the muddy waters of life under occupation, in that crisis, with people who have all these needs, and not all of them can be satisfied.
GamesBeat: I thought it was interesting that the town itself was already home to German people. When the German army comes, they’re not necessarily going to say, “Get out of here.”
Skovfoged: No, exactly. They’ve been finally liberated from a Danish occupation, from their perspective. It’s confusing.
GamesBeat: Was that part rooted in history?
Skovfoged: Oh, yes. My grandparents weren’t German, but they lived in this area that had a kind of half-and-half Danish and German population. The region had changed hands several times before in different wars and so on. It’s a mixed population. You can’t really say who it belongs to. There are feuds between the two nationalities. They speak different languages. They share the same religion and go to the same church, but at different times of day. They’re all buried in the same graveyards, but they shop in their own shops and their own districts. This kind story about a divided country is a universal theme. We’ve seen so many times how it can devolve into civil war. We found it very interesting, something that a lot of people can relate to.
Moran: I was just in Kosovo a month ago, which is another region that has changed hands a lot over the years. It has all these different minorities living together and disagreeing about what their identity is. A friend of mine was telling me a story. An Albanian tells a Serb, “No, you’re Albanian!” And the Serb says, “No, you’re a Serb!” They all have a different vision of what this land is, and you see the same thing in many countries around the world.
Our game is grounded in a lot of historical research about this specific region. We traveled around the area to talk to people, to take photos of architecture and landscapes. This train station here is the train station that used to be there. The church is the actual church that still stands today. But we think the specificity of this scenario can speak to something universal. It’s true to many places around the world, even today.
GamesBeat: How did you decide that this was a Don’t Nod kind of game, where it’s built around the different choices people make?
Skovfoged: We’d been interested in the Don’t Nod games a lot over the years. We saw them as a very important developer. When we were done with the demo, we took it around to different publishers that we knew who were interested in story-driven games. We didn’t know, though, that Don’t Nod had started to publish other developers’ games. We found that out by accident through a friend of a friend. Then we thought, “Oh my God, that would be a perfect fit.”
We feel the value of seeing human beings, not just seeing stereotyped enemies. The whole theme about identity and being in conflict between different groups, that’s something we share. Trying to show the nuance in the characters’ dilemmas. We sent them the demo, and the next day they came back saying, “This looks interesting. Let’s talk.” Everything went very fast from there. It was such an obvious match.
GamesBeat: How did you decide on this art style? It’s very different from Don’t Nod’s own games.
Moran: First of all, we’re a different scale of studio. We’re not going to animate in the same way they do. But this is a deliberate choice. It comes from both the vibe we wanted to create and the specific culture. From a vibe perspective, we wanted to make this soft and melancholy atmosphere. Lots of grays and browns that reflect the murky atmosphere that the story and the gameplay suggest.
On another hand, the art direction is inspired by a period in modern Danish painting, Danish impressionism, or the Skagen Painters. They were impressionist painters that worked in this region. We thought it would be interesting to focus on this specific region that’s less known, less explored culturally in games. These impressionists, they knew how to convey the landscape. The south Jutland, south Denmark landscape is very flat. Denmark is generally a very flat country. It doesn’t give you a lot of big features on the land, but it gives you very big skyscapes, big open skies that create very unique light. It’s usually overcast in this part of the world. That painterly, brushstroke style conveys that spotty lighting.
If you play the game and see some of the outdoor scenes, you can see how the clouds are passing, creating these spots of dark and light. That’s very much the feeling in this region. Going through those Danish painters and back into 3D, it was a cool way to connect to that area and that atmosphere.
GamesBeat: I recently played As Dusk Falls, which was interesting in how they set up their choices. I was wondering about how you planned to approach that. In that game, they give you a bad choice and a really bad choice.
Moran: We’re kind of the same? That’s a good way of putting it. As Hans said in the beginning, one of the things about war is that you can’t solve everything. This is not a hero narrative. You’re not B.J. Blazkowicz. Things will go bad. You have to make sure you focus on what you want to save in a tough situation.
Also, we wanted to have a very dynamic momentum in the game, always pushing forward, like the other Don’t Nod games. It’s like a movie. Everything keeps going forward. That means that in the design, there are no second tries. If you go into a conversation and you have a choice of two questions, you’d better think about what you want to ask. You can’t just circle back like you might be used to doing in adventure games. If you have a chance roll and you fail it, we always made sure to write the failure in a way that doesn’t just hold you back and tell you to roll again. You will always fail forward through the plot. Whatever you fucked up will be carried over.
That was a big balancing act, but we wanted to put you somewhere in the middle between the feeling of a PC RPG, with lots of choices, and the Don’t Nod model of a story that keeps moving forward. All of your failures will accumulate and push you forward in some way. You may be carrying those things throughout the game.
Skovfoged: We tried to craft all the choices so they’re hard dilemmas. If Dusk feels like a choice between something bad and something even worse, ours would be something like bad, bad, and bad, or maybe bad, bad, and doing nothing, which might also be very bad sometimes. That’s our typical approach to it. We wanted to make sure the choices didn’t just have a right and a wrong answer. This game is about nuance and dealing with something complex, but also, we wanted people to find themselves in a situation thinking, “God, I really don’t know what to do.” There are different approaches, but none of them let you escape with your hands clean.
Moran: We never trick the player. It’s always very straightforward. We’re not trying to trap the player. I don’t think anyone is going to look at what we’re doing and say, “That’s unfair.” We’re trying to be very fair in the sense of, “This is war. This is an occupation. You have to choose your battles.”
GamesBeat: Do you think there’s a very specific kind of audience for this game?
Skovfoged: Initially we thought the history and the choice of setting was very niche, but there’s been a lot of international interest. The themes are universal. Also, potentially because of the unique flavor, the way we’ve allowed Danish culture to shine through in the visuals–it’s the same way eastern European games like Metro or Stalker have approached it. They allow themselves to be special. But also, for the gameplay in general, we believe that anyone who likes RPGs, who likes story-driven games, even those who like action-adventure games with good stories, they’ll like this more condensed experience.
I wouldn’t compare it to, say, Assassin’s Creed with all the action cut out. But we take the interesting choices and story development that you see in some bigger games and focus only on that. I think a lot of people will enjoy it. But people who are into adventure games, interactive fiction, Don’t Nod-like games, they’ll especially like it.
Moran: In a totally different dimension–we make games for ourselves. We’re very focused on making things that we like. Hans is a big history buff. We share a love for similar games, RPG games. The gaming market is getting older in a lot of places. There’s room for adults who play games and are ready to tackle some tough stuff. They can take a break from whatever more cozy game they’re playing.
Skovfoged: And of course we’re very inspired by some of the other developers of the last 10 years who’ve pushed the boundaries to allow for more seriously-themed games. We’re standing on top of their shoulders in many ways.
Moran: When you see a game like This War of Mine become a massive success–
Skovfoged: We’ve matured like the movie industry has. We’ve seen lots of movies about civilians in the middle of war, but only now has gaming hit that same maturity point. We love that we’re a part of that, in that movement, and that we can give older gamers that kind of experience. The “gamer” identity isn’t just younger people anymore. It’s everyone.
Moran: I had a co-worker, a game designer who worked with me at a previous company, who was a really talented gamer. He found a way to min-max This War of Mine. He had one character who could just go out looting everything. Of course, the game gives you trauma for that, but when the guy came back there was a room filled with radios playing music, and some other guy playing a guitar to relax him and lower his trauma levels. Then he goes out looting again. You can try really hard to balance that kind of game so the player can’t solve everything, but somebody will find a way to min-max the whole thing. “This is how you win!” I don’t think we’ve made that possible, but maybe there’s someone out there who’ll beat me.
GamesBeat: What do you think about the balance between keeping to historical accuracy and making the game entertaining?
Skovfoged: As I say, this was inspired by my grandparents. All the characters are fictional. But everything that takes place in the game is something that, in some form or another, took place in this area during that time. I think the worst crime we’re committing factually is that we have a lot of light in the game. In reality the lights had to be shut off at four or five in the evening so the Allied bombers didn’t have any targets. But if we kept to that the game would be very dark most of the time.
Moran: We worked with a historian and took a lot of research trips. Of course we read a lot of books. We built up a very good database. The thing is, usually history is a bit more wild than you can plausibly depict in a video game. If we put all the crazy stuff that actually happened in here–for example, the game is inspired by Hans’s grandmother. She used to smuggle equipment for the resistance in a baby carriage. When a German guard would pass she would lean over and shush the carriage so he wouldn’t want to bother the sleeping baby. If we put that in the game, nobody would believe it. Sometimes it’s actually about toning things down.
The other thing, relative to making it entertaining–we’re not trying to make something like The Bicycle Thief, Italian neorealism, a movie about nothing. We want to make something exciting. But we had so much to pick from. It was more about making sure we chose some juicy dilemmas for the player. It was picking and choosing the right dilemmas from a very big array of options.
Skovfoged: We also faced situations–you had cases of violence against Danish women who fell in love with Germans. They were beaten, their hair cut off and so on. We wanted to touch on some things like that, but we had to tone it down, because it would be pretty harsh to show in a game, to have you as a bystander to that. It’s all very plausible, but we’ve taken some creative freedom in our fiction.
GamesBeat: What ultimately happened in this area, on a broad level, as the war went on?
Skovfoged: It was a traffic choke point, because it’s where the trains went back and forth to Germany. All the food that Germany took from Denmark was transported through here. All the weapons and ammunition manufactured in Denmark freighted through the village. German refugees running from the eastern front were transported on the trains to refugee camps in the area. People the Gestapo captured in Denmark, whether they were Jews or resistance fighters or political dissidents, they were freighted through there to concentration camps. Even though it was a very small, sleepy village, it was a hot spot for the war machine, for all kinds of infrastructure, for sabotage missions and so forth. A lot of what we put in the game, we didn’t need to invent it. It was there all along.
Of course, after the war there were a lot of problems, because all the Germans who fell in line when the German army crossed the border and occupied Denmark, they were shunned when the war ended. The Danish had won the war in a sense, or at least the Germans lost. Germans were stigmatized and often had to leave their villages. You also had other issues where, as I said, Germans who had been transported as refugees to Denmark ended up in camps there during and after the war. A lot of them died of starvation, because German refugees weren’t the highest priority. It’s obviously not a one to one comparison with the German camps, but even so, after the war there was a lot of revenge, a lot of retaliation. It happens. There was a lot of hate, and for good reasons, but still–knowing what’s the right thing to do, it’s hard.
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