Germany is the world's fifth largest gaming market but it rarely turns up as a backdrop for video games. That was clear once again at the Gamescom fair. But there's hope. Indie developers are showing what's possible.
If one knew Germany only through video games, this would be the scene: empty, destroyed cities, burning tanks on the streets, innumerable soldiers in SS or Wehrmacht uniforms. On PCs and consoles, World War II never ended.
"World war-shooters are an established genre," says Andreas Lange, director of Berlin's Computer Game Museum. "People all over the world can connect with the subject." Games with a German connection therefore transmit "primarily a World War image."
Are gamers interested in Germany?
A number of successful open-world games are set in American cities (including the Grand Theft Auto series) or in London, Paris (the Assassin's Creed series) or Tokyo (Yakuza series). An open-world game turns the player loose on a world where he can move about freely.
No such game exists in a German urban setting to date. "I think games are a global medium, and foreign developers find it difficult to imagine that a game set in Germany could be internationally successful," explains Andreas Lange.
Then there are the gamers' expectations. If Germany is on the package, many want to experience a World War scenario, says Lange. But fantasy or future scenarios give developers much more creative leeway.
German culture in fantasy worlds
This is the very reason why people don't want to play games set in real worlds. "The exciting thing about games is that they create space for fantasy worlds," says Felix Falk, managing director of the "game" Trade Association.
That makes seeing German culture reflected in fantasy worlds all the more interesting.
The shooter Spec Ops: The Line from Yager Development, a German games studio, doesn't have Germany as a backdrop but tells a story with the horrors of war and soldiers' inner conflicts front and center. That, says Falk, is a very German narrative, novel to the genre and making this perhaps the world's first antiwar game.
Germany is the world's fifth largest gaming market in terms of sales, after the US, China, Japan and South Korea. Yet the truly big games are import articles here. "Other countries recognized the potential of the gaming sector earlier," says Felix Falk.
VR technologies, artificial intelligence and 3-D techniques are currently being employed in a wide range of fields. "Games are aggressively promoted in Canada, England and France, and game production costs up to 30 percent less there than in Germany." Having acknowledged the need, the German government now wants to subsidize game development, with the sum of grants to be decided in the autumn.
Unusual setting: a remote part of Germany
Trüberbrook demonstrates that a game can be set in Germany without any references to Nazis. The setting is the fictive, sleepy village of Trüberbrook, tucked away somewhere in the German countryside in the 1960s.
Hans Tannhauser, an American, finds himself there having studied quantum physics and won the trip without being able to recall having ever participated in a competition. As Tannhauser, the gamer calmly moves up through the levels, solves problems and clicks through dialogues with all kinds of crazy characters in order to, of course, finally save the world.
The game is chock-full of references to German cultural history: Tannhauser (the name sounds like the opera by Richard Wagner) meets Gretchen (familiar from Goethe's Faust) and talks to a computer named Barbarossa (an emperor of the Holy Roman Empire). Gags like this — gamers call them "Easter eggs" — were deliberately built in to enrich the gaming world, says Trüberbrook's developer Florian Köhne.
Produced for the international market, the game's soundtrack is completely in German and English. The characters all speak English but with a German accent (except for Tannhauser). That's no coincidence either. "We wanted to create an exotic world for people outside Germany," explains Köhne.
Like Scandinavian TV series that convey a certain exoticism and take viewers to places they haven't seen on television yet, this could work for video games too, developers hope. Trüberbrook is scheduled for release in early 2019.
Resistance without weapons
Less idyllic and more emotionally penetrating is Through the Darkest of Times by the Berlin two-man studio Paintbucket Games. Though it won't be released before 2019, the game is already known throughout Germany as the first in a local setting, available to children age 12 and older, to show swastikas.
A recent decision of the German agency in charge of setting the minimum ages for video games made that possible.
More interesting than the swastika debate is the game itself. The player leads a resistance cell in Berlin during the Third Reich.
Despite the simple appearance with a spectrum of colors reduced to black and grey with some red accents and many text blurbs, the game spanning the period from 1933 to 1945 is captivating. "We're surprised over and over again by the intensity of experiences many people have," says Sebastian Schulz, one of the two developers.
Through the Darkest of Times is an anti-fascist game that skirts neither everyday life in Nazi Germany, harassment by the SS nor the Holocaust. "We're game developers, but we're also political people and want to make political statements," says Schulz.
Stories that actually happened
"Creating a game like this feels perfectly right at this point in time, and we just wanted to tell a different story," adds Schulz.
After doing things like printing and distributing leaflets, recruiting supporters and raising money, the characters congregate at a big table. If someone is missing, you know that they were arrested and imprisoned for being a resister. It's an image that makes the user shudder.
"We try to implement stories that actually happened. If you look at the stories, you're struck by how often in the past people actually had the chance to take a different turn. That's the interesting thing. So now we're putting the gamer in a situation where he has to make decisions," says Schulz.
Because the game incorporates a lot of text, the developers want to make it available to users in a range of countries. Versions in English, German, Spanish and French are planned, and in Italian, Polish and Russian at a later date.