Humanizing History

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Czech Video Game Takes an Educational Approach to History

It’s undeniable the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovak army-in-exile soldiers was a pivotal moment of resistance to the Nazi regime. Heydrich, the Reich-Protector of the Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia territory (and who was aptly nicknamed “The Butcher of Prague”), was the highest senior Nazi leader to be assassinated during WWII. The operation, codenamed “Anthropoid,” is still revered as the first successful demonstration to Nazis officials that they were not beyond the reach of allied forces and resistance groups.

Attentat 1942, a new Czech video game, addresses this era in Czechoslovak history through a unique and virtually unheard of take on war-themed video games.

“The civilian perspective is typically missing in war-themed games,” says Vít Šisler, the game’s lead designer and Associate Professor of New Media Studies at Charles University. “Attentat 1942 shows the profound impact the war and the totalitarian regime had on the lives and minds of ordinary people.”

Using documented personal testimonies and research conducted by professional historians, the game “immerses players in living histories of personal tragedy and pain” while also sharing a message of “extraordinary hope and courage.” The content creators combined interactive comics, video-interviews featuring eight survivors, atmospheric mini-games and archival film footage from WWII to draw players in and depict the war “through the eyes of its surviving civilians.”

Attentat begins with the discovery that your grandfather was arrested by the Gestapo after Heydrich was assassinated. You then follow the plot to discover what role he had in the attack, why you were kept in the dark and if it was all worth it. Although the plot may be fictional, the historical story surrounding the game is entirely accurate so those playing learn about the real-life events of Operation Anthropoid.

One way you navigate the game is through conversations with eyewitnesses. You click on what to say and a real life, cinematically filmed person responds. The characters look directly into the camera, right into your eyes, making it feel as though you’re not watching a character in a game but instead actually talking with them. You even witness characters going about their day, answering the door, tidying up the kitchen and sipping tea, as if you were right there in the house with them.

While the interviews are filmed in the style of a documentary, the flashbacks appear in comic book-esque drawings of grey, brown and black colors. The lack of color adds to the seriousness of the mini-challenges, which include burning damaging belongings or hiding a gun before the Gestapo burst in and catch you.

The events of the flashbacks involve the single-most devastating assassination of a Nazi official and its extreme repercussions, ordered by Hitler himself. During Nazi rule, Heydrich served as the General of Police, chief of the Gestapo and founder of the Security Service, which neutralized any Nazi threat. He was the main architect of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” and described by Hitler as “the man with the iron heart.” It was under his authority that the Czech concentration camp Theresienstadt was established and the Holocaust was carried out.

The British Special Operations Executive and Edvard Beneš’s Czech government-in-exile organized Operation Anthropoid, training Czech resistance members to carry out the assassination. The agents parachuted into Prague and rolled a hand grenade under Heydrich’s vehicle – eight days later he died from his wounds. Although the agents were able to hide in the crypt of the St. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral for over a week, they eventually died in a massive shootout with the SS. You can now find a memorial for the fallen agents in the church’s basemen crypt.

The game’s introductory video montage includes images from this time and even footage of Heydrich himself. It addresses how the SS falsely linked the nearby villages of Lidice and Ležáky to the Czechoslovak soldiers who carried out the assassination, burning the villages to the ground. About 340 of Lidice’s 500 residents were murdered; all men over the age of 15 were executed and the women and children were sent to concentration camps where many of them died in gas chambers.

Thousands of executions were carried out in retaliation for Heydrich’s assassination. One of the game’s characters makes you question if it was worth it, conveying how murky right and wrong become during war and how every decision can have a large impact.

The game also includes clickable sidebars that share the facts of the specific events and cultural entities your character talks about with interviewees. For instance, you learn about places like the Theresienstadt concentration camp or how print media dwindled down from 2,000 different publications to only 238 by the end of the war.

Through these depictions and explanations, Attentat “offers a stark reminder of the dangers of fascism and political radicalism,” says Shawn Clybor, the game’s translator and content localization specialist. It attempts to gracefully but poignantly navigate the impact the war had on every civilian, whether they were involved in the resistance or not.

Attentat 1942 is actually a significantly enhanced remake of the game Československo 38–89: Atentát (Assassination), which was made for high school students and won the “Best Debut” category of the Czech Game of the Year Awards in 2015. While Československo was only released in Czech, Attentat can be played with English, German and Russian subtitles – an extraordinary feat considering the linguistic intricacies involved in keeping the facts historically accurate.

“The Czech version of the game is heavily contextual so in many instances the translators had to rewrite the text in order for it to make sense to a non-Czech audience,” says Šisler. “All these changes have been consulted with us and our historians in order to avoid schematizations.”

Attentat was developed by Charles University and the Czech Academy of Sciences. Šisler led a team of more than twenty-five designers, programmers, historians, animators and others to create the game that has gone on to win multiple awards, including Best Czech Game of the Year, 2nd place in the Game Development World Championship, Best Learning Game in Games for Change, Most Amazing Game with A MAZE and Finalist in the international Independent Games Festival.

Šisler’s own research focuses on the “intersection of culture and digital media.” He has been a Research Fellow and Fulbright Scholar at top universities and is also the managing editor of CyberOrient, “a peer-reviewed journal of the virtual Middle East.” Šisler and his team created Attentat out of the desire to “make a serious game about the contemporary history of Czechoslovakia.”

“The events of the second half of the 20th century have fundamentally shaped our contemporary society, yet are not really critically reflected in video games,” says Šisler. “We wanted to show recent history from personal, intimate, and diverse perspectives.”

Although this is the main goal of the game, the key message to Šisler is a bit more complex.

“When we think about history, we often perceive it as something distant and definite. Nevertheless… it is our daily decisions and actions that create history,” says Šisler. “Democracy can’t be taken for granted and the time might come when we have to fight for it.”

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