Serious (historical) fun: Award-winning Charles Games studio rolling out ‘Svoboda 1945: Liberation’ set in post-war Czech borderland

Svoboda 1945: Liberation, photo: Charles Games

Charles Games, the studio behind the award-winning game ‘Attentat 1942’, about the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, was established as a spin-off of Charles University in collaboration with historians at the Czech Academy of Sciences. As such, it represents a unique connection between the academic sphere and the gaming business. The studio will soon release another interactive game focused on Czech history, called ‘Svoboda 1945: Liberation’. Set in the present day in a village in the Sudetenland, the border region from where millions of ethnic Germans were expelled after the war, like ‘Attentat 1942’ it presents players with multifaceted views on history to interpret, expressed by a cast of characters drawing on real life testimonies.

Behind the studio Charles Games are two young academics teaching at Charles University: Vít Šisler, an assistant professor in the field of New Media Studies, and computer scientist Jakub Gemrot, who leads an incubation lab at the university for aspiring programmers and designers. As guests of the Czech Centres global science café lecture and debate series, they discussed their concept and the challenges of developing educational, historical games, and bringing them to market on formats such as Steam, and lessons learned from ‘Attentat 1942’ reflected in the sequel ‘Svoboda 1945: Liberation’. (Some highlights of the conversation follow; more are in the audio version, and the full conversation is in the embedded Czech Centre video)

Vít Šisler (centre) and Jakub Gemrot (right) with Czech Centres global science café presenter Michael Londesborough

Vít Šisler: “’Attentat 1942’ is a serious, historically accurate video game about the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, and essentially the game tells you the story of the Second World War through quite an unusual perspective, through civilians and ordinary people. The whole game revolves around what happened after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, who was reichsprotektor (Nazi governor) of Czechoslovakia and one of the lead architects of the Holocaust. In 1942, he was assassinated by Czechoslovak paratroopers sent from the UK. After his death, the Nazis started a wave of brutal reprisals resulting in thousands of deaths and deportations. Our game actually tells the story not of the assassination itself, which is well known, but of normal people living in Prague under the occupation, dealing with the Nazi reprisals and its aftermath.”

Svoboda 1945: Liberation,  photo: Charles Games

“The whole project started as an educational one. We initially developed the game as an educational simulation for high schools. The reason we got started was, at the time, there were not many innovative aids for teachers how to teach contemporary Czech history – especially the second half of the 20th century, which is fundamentally shaping our present. Then the game developed into a full-fledged video game, which is now being sold worldwide and not used (only) in an educational context anymore. It’s a game you can buy on Steam and has won several awards. But I think video games are a great medium for telling stories, and capable of telling even the most serious and intimate human stories.”

Jakub Gemrot: “The game itself is interactive, so you need to take part in it, naturally. You are not passively receiving information. Our game is forcing you to process information and reconstruct the history out of the stories shared by different characters within the game. Through this interaction, you become immersed in it, and the way the human brain works, the things you learn from the game will stay with you for a longer time that way.”

Polyphonic, multifaceted perspectives

Vít Šisler: “In the game, you follow a personal story – you play the grandchild of a postal clerk named Jelínek who was arrested by the Gestapo immediately after the assassination and sent to the camps. After the war, he returned but never really talked about why, what really happened. So, in the family there is this kind of mystery. It’s set in 2001, and while helping your grandmother, you discover some of the story, while your grandfather is in hospital.

Svoboda 1945: Liberation,  photo: Charles Games

“You try to figure out what really happened, what role he played in the attack, in the Resistance. ... The game is polyphonic, meaning you talk to different people, and depending on who you talk to and how you frame your questions, what you ask, you discover different layers of the story. Also, each person presents not only different stories, but different historical perspectives.”

Jakub Gemrot: “When you are talking with witnesses, you sometimes relive their memories through interactive minigames – it’s not only about dialogue. There are some scenes where you have a goal, for instance, Heydrich has been assassinated and now the Gestapo are storming through flats in Prague, and you’re afraid you have something at home that could be seen as suspicious. So, you are afraid of being sent to a concentration camp or executed.

“You are put into the witnesses’ shoes and must choose what items to throw out and which to keep. That’s how, in the game, we want to get into the players’ heart and get them thinking, ok, if I were in this position, what would I do? And of course, the atmosphere of fear overall, they usually start throwing everything out because they don’t know the context.”

Svoboda 1945: Liberation,  photo: Charles Games

Vít Šisler: “The game is based historic research and real testimonies, and we closely collaborated with historians from the Institute of Contemporary History of the Czech Academy of Sciences. They were not just consultants but actually game designers, really involved in creating dialogues and everything. So, the game tries to be historically accurate, but mainly for ethical, legal and also didactical reasons, the characters and their stories are fictitious. … The historians were very sceptical at first, afraid of schematizations and various false interpretations. But I think we gradually convinced them that the medium of video games is capable of delivering authentic, historically accurate stories. But it took some time.”

“We decided to have only eight characters, but really very carefully selected the stories, tried really hard to present multifaceted views on history. So, for example, you can talk to people who are Holocaust survivors, who have been active in the Resistance fighting the Nazis, but also those who were not necessarily collaborators but engaged with the regime. You learn their stories and why they did what they did. This complex polyphony was the first challenge – what to select and omit. I think we succeeded because we had a very diverse group of historians.”

Svoboda 1945: Liberation,  photo: Charles Games

Svoboda 1945 – Liberation as a study in moral ambiguity

Vít Šisler: “We’re working on a new game called ‘Svoboda 1945 – Liberation’. It’s a sequel to ‘Attentat 1942’ and is essentially telling the story of what happened after the war. It’s set in a small village in the Czech-German borderlands. The game is about the liberation, the post-war chaos and violence, expulsion of almost 3.5 million German-speaking citizens of Czechoslovakia, and the rise of communism and coup d'état of February 1948. What also heavily influenced the countryside and villages was the forced collectivisation of farmlands. In the game, we follow the stories of several families who had lived in the village for decades. And you see how there are relations and families are affected by these events.

Attentat 1942,  photo: archive of Charles University

“I’d say the topic and format is even more relevant than that of ‘Attentat 1942’, in which there wasn’t much moral ambiguity – the Nazi, totalitarian regimes, the atrocities where the morality I’d say is very clear. But in the case of expulsions or even the rise of communism, it’s far more interesting. It was not stemming from an occupying power but what happened in the Czech lands, and things are less clear. That’s where, I’d say, the different personal stories are the best vehicle to show the complex reality without stigmatising it.

“So, for example, you have the point of view of soldiers involved in the expulsion, who fought the Nazis and are justifying what happened, families who were expelled, people who were active Communists, or whose family property was confiscated. Many still live in the same village and have some relationships, which is relevant to many Czech villages – and then the Velvet Revolution came, and property was given back to some owners. You see all these things through the lenses of very personal family histories.”