Following last year’s release of Call of Duty: WW2, Waypoint’s Rob Zacny wrote a thoughtful essay about how that game, with its massive production values and made-for-big-screen setpiece moments, was part of a modern tradition of mythologizing World War II. It is, he said, “a Potemkin warzone where a few things are meant to be noticed, and most everything else is to be ignored.”
The much smaller Attentat 1942 is on the opposite end of the spectrum, both in scope and in focus. Developed by the Charles University and Czech Academy of Sciences, it’s a game about listening to people who lived through the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, and learning as much as you can from their stories and the dusty boxes of memorabilia they choose to share with you.
Naturally, this makes for a very different game experience than you’d get from a military shooter or wargame. Attentat 1942 is lumped in with the “adventure” genre, but it’s much more about filling out a kind of encyclopedia entry on the events that followed the assassination (atentát in Czech) of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi officer assigned to oversee the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia following the Munich Agreement of 1938.
Instead of placing you in the action, Attentat 1942 has you start in modern-day Prague. You’ve learned that your grandfather, sick in the hospital, had been arrested by the gestapo and wound up spending time in the concentration camp at Auschwitcz. You begin by visiting your grandmother to ask her about it, but it becomes clear that your grandfather kept key facts from his family, and as you puzzle out why, you weave together threads of several survivors’ stories about what it was like to live in Prague during the occupation.
Periodically you’ll relive certain key moments through interactive mini-games, which are easily the weakest aspect of Attentat 1942. They’ll usually involve picking correct dialogue options or finding specific objects in a scene. These are portrayed with black and white comic book style art, and while the style is serviceable, these segments are the game’s least memorable.
More impactful are the video interviews you conduct with the game’s cast of characters. While these are fictional, the actors who portray them are elderly Czechs, and while I have no way of evaluating their acting since I don’t speak the language (English speakers will have to rely on subtitles), their performances were convincing, and I found their stories compelling. They’re talking about horrific experiences, and needling them too much will lead to them shutting down on you, so it’s important to choose your questions carefully.
As you move through your interviews, you’ll unlock entries in a small in-game encyclopedia. These you can use to help contextualize your discussions, but they’re worth reading in their own right – they cover aspects of the life under occupation like rationing cards, the principal historical figures, and key events during the tumultuous time. The interviews will also shed light on your grandfather’s story, and after each one you’ll get to see how many questions you still haven’t been able to answer. If an interview goes poorly, you can replay that section, but to do that you’ll have to use “coins” earned in the minigames. Apart from being an annoying inconvenience, this felt distinctly at odds with the rest of the game. Fortunately, this was fairly rare in my playthrough.
The interview videos are intercut with archival footage from the war depicting life under the heel of the Reich. Again, the focus here isn’t on the front lines, but on life in occupied Czechoslovakia. Paired with the stories you’re hearing from the cast of characters, these do an incredible job of painting the picture not only of the oppressive rule of the SS, but also of the weird, desperate normalcy that eventually settled in after a time: life, for those who weren’t executed, deported to concentration camps, or imprisoned did somehow manage to go on.
That leads to one of Attentat 1942’s main lessons, which is about the phenomenon of collaborators. It’s difficult to go into detail on this point without spoiling the game’s sense of forensic discovery, but the choice of whether to collaborate or join the Czech resistance wasn’t a simple one, and there were valid questions about whether Operation Arthropoid – Heydrich’s assassination – was worth the many lives it wound up costing in the brutal aftermath.
There’s not a lot of “game” here, if we’re honest. But that’s clearly secondary to Attentat 1942’s goal, which is another of it’s main lessons: that the surviving personal links we have to World War II and the Holocaust are in their twilight years and rapidly being lost to old age as nature takes its course. Those of us who still have relatives who lived through this time may have never sat down long enough to hear their experiences of it, and those stories may be painful to retell.
Attentat 1942 refuses to provide easy answers, while never shying away from making the evil of the Nazi occupation clear. While it’s more an exercise in interactive history than a game, it’s an experience well worth having. Games have yet to fully realize their potential as a completely new way to discover history – and history as it’s put together, refined, and synthesized; the enterprise of history – but Attentat 1942 is a step in the right direction.
It’s also, as a final note, an interesting game in that it was funded by the Czech government and developed at Charles University and the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, with revenues being reinvested to continue research and development. Making games is a costly and risky endeavor, and that’s made educational-focused games increasingly difficult to get off the ground. But should governments find a public interest in creating these kinds of experiences, there’s the possibility that public sources of funding could open up to educational game development and make it a more viable sector in the industry. The team has plans to cover more contemporary Czech history, so we’ll be keeping an eye on what comes out of this partnership.