Nov 08th 2018

Games Portraying the Holocaust Well

This is Part 3 of an in-depth look at the holocaust and video games. If you haven’t yet, please read Part 1 and Part 2 for more context. Today the focus will be on games that have portrayed the holocaust well with virtually no negative feedback.

Let’s take a quick look at the 1995 adventure game, I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream. The game goes past the original short story it is based on to add so much more (However, Harlan Ellison, the original author did co-author the game, writing much of the dialogue). It is a dark game that deals with dark subjects, including one of the characters being a Nazi scientist who turned their own Jewish parents over to the Nazi’s to survive and continue their horrific experiments into eternal life. However, it often avoids explicitly saying they are Nazi’s and Jews, instead talking about them as the “Lost Tribe.” It does however talk about how Nimdok was good friends with Josef Mengele, and is working with him in the camp (a recreation of Auschwitz near the end of the war) for the scenario. During Nimdok’s section it goes into grim detail many of the experiments done at the camps, often by allowing the player to take part in them such as severing the spine of a young boy. You even talk directly to children about what is going on to get their perspective. It doesn’t stay completely rationale though as you use attach a jar of eyeballs to someone so they can see again, a mirror that shows someone’s true self, and use a magical golem to get further. The focus of this part of the game is redemption. However, the studio behind the game, Cyberdreams, was known for releasing games with adult themes. Although they still censored much of the game for the French and German release and removed the Nimdok chapter entirely for the German release.

Now comes the question, how was this game received? Well it was a commercial flop, but received acclaim for how it tackled the subjects without shying away from them. The harshest criticism it received was from NextGen magazine where they called it, "less a game than an ethical obstacle course". It is still seen in high regard today, and will often make it onto lists of best games of all time, and even best horror games. It was censored in Germany, but didn’t receive any negative backlash for the way it portrayed a concentration camp. It didn’t dehumanize anyone, but it didn’t shy away from the atrocities either.

This next one may come as a little surprise to some of you. Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah is a tabletop roleplaying game that is all about the holocaust and its influence on a fictional spirit world. It is part of White Wolf’s Black dog line for its adult themes, and expands on the world of Wraith: Oblivion. The book goes over various subjects, including the Nazi rise to power all the way to the liberation of concentration camps, a couple Jewish Ghettos, Babi Yar, and Auschwitz itself. It does not shy away from talking about the truth in visceral detail, and takes care to put anything that wasn’t historically factual (such as the effect this had on spirits and the shadowlands) in asides to separate it. It does not shape Nazi’s as monsters, but as human beings. It shows how ideology could make people think it was okay to commit such atrocities. It refuses to hold back, and was extremely well researched. It is fairly brief for the subject matter contained in it, and offers other books and media for people to look at if they want more information. It may sound like this was just an informative book, but it was meant to be used as part of a tabletop rpg. People were meant to interact with these things in the book, and even though fun is what people think of with tabletop rpgs, they didn’t shy away from anything.

Here lies the problem this was released April 15, 1997. Even nowadays, most people don’t know about any tabletop rpgs, except maybe Dungeons and Dragons. Which may be why the reception of this was so positive. In reviews it was often talked about as being difficult to get through, but they all praised it. Everyone who reviewed Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah said that it portrayed things in a very good way. It wasn’t as popular as other books from White Wolf, such as Vampire: The Masquerade which is the one people are most likely to have heard of. Being on such a dark subject may have helped with that, and tabletop rpgs still being such a niche subject probably also helped keep it from a wider audience.

So there are games out there that tackle the subject, but don’t seem to receive virtually any backlash. Is it because of how unabashedly they covered it? Is it because of the types of games they are? Does horror lend itself to this subject? What about the slower paced point-and-click adventures? Could an action oriented game cover a topic like the holocaust well? It’s difficult to say. Although there are people who have made statements on the holocaust and video games (like the ADL), but that will be saved for next week.