In part one of this editorial series I discussed the games which, in my opinion, represented problematic approaches to treating the Holocaust in video games. The Holocaust, being a singular tragedy which literally changed the culture of the western world, brings with it loads of political and emotional baggage, which Sonderkommando Revolt’s developers found at their own peril. Brenda Brathwaite’s Train was hailed as a great step forward, despite facing mild criticism, but both the fact that Train is a board game and my own reservations about its accuracy prevented me from hailing it as a vanguard in this situation. Yet when all hope was lost, a new contender stepped from the shadows in the form, of all things, a Nintendo DS game.
Imagination is the only Escape was a game developed by Luc Bernard, the bohemian developer of such other games as Mecho Wars and Eternity’s Child, along with British publisher Alten8 for the Nintendo DS. According to the sources at hand, Imagination tells the story of Samuel, a French Jewish boy, who is forced to live in a ghetto with his family during the Nazi occupation of France. During the Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv, a historical roundup and deportation of Parisian Jews, Samuel is sent by his mother to sneak through the streets of Paris and find a local Catholic priest. Samuel succeeds in his task and is taken to a small village where Jewish children are being passed off as Christian orphans. In the nearby forest, Samuel meets a talking fox who promises to help Samuel find his mother if Samuel is willing to help the fox with something first.
Imagination was the first game to catch my eye as a possible winner for Holocaust portrayals (insofar as there can be a winner), largely on its story alone. Unlike Train, Imagination provides a story about a non-passive Jew in the form of Samuel. He endeavors to not only escape the deportation of his family and culture, but to also seek out his mother once he is in a position of relative safety. Yet neither is Samuel completely divorced from the historical context of the Holocaust, like the protagonist of Sonderkommando Revolt. Samuel does not succeed solely on his will alone, but by hiding his religion (his mother removes the Star of David before she sends him away) and passing himself off as a Christian orphan.
The one drawback to Imagination is that it has not been released, nor is there any knowledge of when it may ever be released. The story begins and ends in 2008, when the New York Times released a provocative piece entitled “No Game About Nazis for Nintendo.” Describing Imagination as “full of gruesome historical facts,” the writer expressed surprise at its release for the Nintendo DS, which he believed “tends toward games featuring cute ponies and the like.” The writer assuaged the fears of his fifty-something Luddites by letting them know, via an uncited statement, that Nintendo of America had no plans to release Imagination on any of its consoles in North America.
The gaming press exploded in coverage. Kotaku, who had run a brief preview based on “screenshots” done by Bernard two weeks previously, immediately began reporting on the New York Times article. Eurogamer, going straight to publisher Alten8, revealed that Imagination was not nearly as far along in development as Kotaku or the New York Times suggested. The game was still being bandied about as an idea between Bernard and Alten8, which meant that Alten8 had not even approached Nintendo of America with the concept yet. The most recent article, published on June 22nd, 2008 for Nintendo Life, confirmed that Bernard was planning continued work on the game, although a Wiiware release was looking more likely than a DS release. That was nearly five years ago. Luc Bernard went on to found Oyaji Games, which later released Mecho Wars for iOS, Playstation Minis, PC, and Mac. There was an updated drawing of Samuel found on Bernard’s tumblr ten months ago, but beyond that there has been no word on whether Imagination will see the light of day, or if such a promising concept for a game was dropped completely by the publisher.
The scuffle around Imagination illuminates what is the largest problem with dealing with topics like the Holocaust in video games; the perception of games by those who seem to know little or nothing about them. The Extra Credits crew probably put it best when they said that
the sad truth is that game makers aren’t weighed on the merits of their work. They are judged by the name of their medium. When controversy arises, our opposers don’t look at a game studio and see a team of artists. They see a team of toy makers that have gone too far.
Looking at the response to Imagination alone makes this clear, from the New York Times article to the Jewish Chronicle article which sought the input of a Holocaust survivor. “The Holocaust is serious for all humanity and I do not think anyone should make this kind of game.” he said, “This is not educational. Holocaust education should not be done through games of this nature. People can read or watch things about the Holocaust, they do not need these kinds of games.” These notions ignore the leaps and bounds that video games have made in the past five years, let alone the capabilities of games since their very inception. Missile Command spoke to Dave Theurer’s very real fears of nuclear annihilation. Vander Caballero has confirmed several times that his game Papo & Yo is explicitly about growing up with his abusive father. Although video games are often used as an escape from the harsh realities of the world, they have been also used to explain real-world situations we may never actually find ourselves in, such as in David Gallant’s I Get This Call Every Day. To cut off video games as a means of exploring the meanings of the Holocaust is like me chopping off my arm because I think my thumb looks ugly. It prevents us from using a medium driven by player experience to explore a topic that can be best understood from experiences. While every entry into this topic should be treated with care and heightened criticism, there should be no efforts to prevent them from ever occurring.
Thus ends my lengthy, jargon-filled romp through the Holocaust in video games. What do you guys think? Is there some controversial topic you would like to see explored in games, or which games do you think explore mature topics in an exceedingly well fashion?