Narrative games like Dont Nods Life is Strange allow players to make tough decisions that could lead to great outcomes or death. Now it is taking this form and publishing many other games from other developers.
The newest is the game version that was called PortaPlays Gerda: A Flame in the Winter, which came out on September 1 on Steam and Nintendo Switch. It’s about a woman in a village in the historically contested region of Denmark, and how she struggles to protect her husband from the Nazis in Second World War.
At Gamescom event in Köln, I spoke to PortaPlay developers, Hans Von Knut Skovfoged and Shalev Moran. When the game lasted, Skovfoged claimed that his grandmother was half German, half Danish woman who was a resistance fighter in World War II. That game focuses on the conflict about the era of Nazi versus the actual era of fighting individual Germans, who would be a family member. Unfortunately, a game like that is not a good thing nowadays. It’s a difficult thing for the game.
The value is the view of human beings and not just stereotyped enemies, said Skovfoged.
This works have been inspired by a period of modern Danish painting, Danish impressionism, or the Skagen Painters.
Dont Nod recently rebranded itself from Dont Nod.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Shalev Moran (left) and Hans Von Knut Skovfoged at Gamescom 2022.
GamesBeat: From where did the idea originate?
Hans Von Knut Skovfoged: We’ve made a certain antiwar game previously. Then we’re thinking about what to come up with. Don’t we argue, you have to solve things in a different way than guns and bombs? I remembered the story of my grandmother who was in the Second World War a resistance fighter. She didn’t participate in violent activities though. He spyed against the Germans, took pictures of defensive installations, hid rebel soldiers, smuggling weapons in the baby carriages, etc. She wasn’t just fighting the Germans. She was fighting the Nazi regime in Denmark. She wasn’t wanting to kill Germans, who were many of them there just because they should be in the army. She wanted to stand up to the larger occupation.
That nuance, that dilemmayou want to fight for what’s right, but you see the enemy beings in the form of human beings. This was a lot of fun for us. We made this match about half german, half Danish, a nurse. She doesn’t like killing his countrymen either: German or Dane. He wants to help people. But he always fought against the nazi regime. She’s caught. He’s a civilian. The Civilians can’t just run out of guns blazing to solve their problems. That isn’t how the world works. What could you do for you? That was the question we’d explore.
Shalev Moran: That’s just how we organized that game. For example, using RPG mechanics focused on social relations. How do you get there with different factions, and how do you get it done with different people? That’s the rule of life. We tend to be very tough with the players. There are all these gray situations, just like in real life. People under the stress of a particular occupation had to deal with their problems without suffering with the obvious version of heroism. They have to make some kind of compromise. Not everyone else will like what they do. It was a little odd that a particular kind of role-playing experience was created, namely the muddy waters of life where people are now living in crisis, all those who have these needs and none of them can be satisfied.
GamesBeat: I thought it was interesting that the city itself was already home to Germans. When the German army comes, they will not necessarily say, Let’s go back here.
Yes, I’m ok. They’ve finally been liberated from the Danish occupation from their perspective. It’s confusing.
GamesBeat: Was this part in history?
Skovfoged: Yes! My grandparents weren’t German, but they lived in a similar area like this, which owns half and half Danish and German population. The region’s hand changed many times before there were different wars and so on. That’s a mixed population. People can’t really say who it belongs to. Between the two nationalities are feuds. They speak different languages. They share a different religion and go to the same church, but at different times of the day. They all have their own graveyards, but they are laying them in their own graveyards and in their own neighbourhoods. What type of story about a divided country is a universal theme. We’ve seen how that can devolve into civil war so many times. It was very interesting, so many people can relate to it.
Gerda is at a junction.
I was just in Kosovo a month ago, which is another region which has changed hands a lot over the years. There are many minorities living together, but not as many people feel they speak. A friend of mine told me a story. One Alban tells an American soldier that they’re a Serbe! If there are a lot of people in the world, they’ll talk about. All of them have different perspectives of what this land is, and you see that the same thing in many other countries around the world.
Our game is based in a lot of historical research into this area. We traveled around the area to talk to people, to photograph architecture and landscapes. This train station is the one used to be there. The church is the actual church that still stands today. But we think the specificity of this scenario can be described as something universal. It’s true to a lot of countries around the world, even today.
GamesBeat: How did you decide that this game was a Don’t Nod type of game, where its built on the different choices that people made?
Skovfoged: We love the Dont Nod games many times. We saw them as a very important developer. We approached various publishers to find out who were interested in story-driven games. We didn’t know that Dont Nod started publishing other games. We have found that by accident by a friend of your friend. That day, then we thought it would be perfect.
We feel the importance of seeing people, not only seeing stereotyped enemies. That’s a big theme, being in conflict between different groups, for that matter we share. Trying to show the nuance of the characters dilemmas. We sent him a demo, and the next day they came back saying, “This looks interesting.” Let’s talk. Everything’s going quickly. This was an obvious match.
GamesBeat: How did you decide this art style? It’s very different from that of Dont Nods’ own game.
Moran: First, studios were different. We’re not going to animate like they do. However, this is a deliberate choice. It is from the same feel we wanted to create as well as the different culture. From a perspective of fashion, we wanted to make this warm and melancholy atmosphere. Lots of grays and browns that reflect the murky atmosphere that the story and the cinema suggest.
A third hand, the art direction is inspired by an old Danish art, Danish impressionism or Skagen Painters. They were impressionist painters in this region. We thought it might be interesting to focus on this particular region that is less known, less explored culturely in games. These impressionists knew how to convey the landscape. The landscape of Jutland and Denmark in South is very flat. Denmark is usually a very isolated country. You don’t see lots of things on the land, but it’s awesome, big open skies – and create a very unique light. This section of the world is usually overcast. Painting the brushstroke style conveys that spotty light.
Gerda is afraid.
If you’re taking a game and enjoying the outdoors view, you can see how the clouds pass, creating dark and light spots. This area really feels like an uncomfortable feeling. When I was looking through the Danish painters and bringing that space back into 3D, it was a cool way to connect to that area and that atmosphere.
GamesBeat: I recently played The Last Dusk. That was interesting in the way they set their choices up. I was wondering how you planned to approach that. They don’t have any choice but to lose.
Has Moran been similar? Is that a good way to put it? As Hans said, war is great because it can’t be solved. This isn’t a heroes story. You are not B.J. Blazkowicz. Things will look bad. You should protect yourself if you focus on what you want to save in a difficult situation.
We also wanted to have a very dynamic momentum in the game, always pushing forward, like the other Don’t Nod games. It’s like an action movie. Everything has improved. It means there are no second attempts in the design. You’ll have better think about what you want to ask for. It’s not impossible to just reclimb back as you have been used to playing adventure games. If you have a chance and fail, we always made sure to write the failure so that not only keeps you back from being punished. If so, I’ll return to you. You never get ahead of the plot. All you fucked up is carried on.
That was a huge balancing act, but we wanted to bring you to the middle of the divide between the sensation of a PC-RPG, with lots of choices, and Dont Nod model of a story that’s continuously evolving. All of your failures will be accumulating and in some way lead to better success. You can carry those things over the whole game.
I tried everything so he couldn’t decide. If Dusk finds himself guilty of a wrong or worse, it will be better, maybe or perhaps, worse, and doing nothing, and perhaps very good sometimes. That’s our typical approach. We wanted to make sure that the choice was neither correct nor wrong. This game is about nuance and dealing with complex matters, but we also wanted people to meet up in a situation that, god, I really don’t know what they must do. There are different approaches, but no one allowing you to escape without allowing your hands clean.
When we get started, we may not ever trick the player. It always is very straightforward. We’re not trying to lure the player. I think that nobody will look at what was doing and say, That’s unfair. We were trying to be very fair in the sense that It is war. It’s an occupation. You need to pick up your battles.
Gerda needs tough decisions.
GamesBeat: Do you think this game is about specific audiences?
We thought that history and the best way to set up was very niche, but international interest was considerable. The theme is universal. Aside from its unique flavor, the way we had allowed the Danish culture to shine in the visualsits the same way as eastern European games like Metro or Stalker approached it. They can make them special. But also in terms of the game, we believe that everybody who likes RPGs, who likes storytelling, and even those who love action-adventure games with good stories like this more condensed experience.
I wouldn’t compare it to, say, Assassins Creed with the rest of the action out of place. But we take all the interesting choices and story development that you see in some big games and concentrate on that. I think many people will like it. But those who are into adventure games, interactive fiction and Don’t Do a Child like that will like this more and more.
Moran: We’re making games for ourselves in a totally different way. We’re focused on making things we like. Hans is a big historian. We love RPG games. The games market is growing in many places. Adults play games, and are ready to tackle tough things. They can take a break from whatever more cozy game they’re playing.
Skovfoged: And of course were very inspired by a few of the developers who have pushed boundaries to allow more seriously-themed games. We stood on their shoulders many times.
When you watch such a game as The War of Mine gaining massive success, you must see it.
Skovfoged: We were like the cinema industry. We saw a lot of movies about civilians in the middle of war but only now has games become very advanced. We love being part of this movement and that we can give older gamers such a special experience. Gamers name is no longer younger than they are. That’s everything.
Moran: I had a coworker, a game designer who worked with me at a previous company and was really talented. He found the way to save the battle. He had one character who could just go out looting everything. The game takes people’s trauma to the ground. But when he got back there, there was a room full of radios and music, and another man playing a guitar to relax and lower his trauma levels. He goes out looting again. You can try very hard to balance that kind of game so that the player cant solve anything, but someone will find a way to min-max everything. That’s what you win! I don’t think we’ve made that possible, but maybe there’s someone who can beat me.
Gerda: The Flame in the Winter is set in the Second World War.
GamesBeat: What do you think about the balance between keeping historical accuracy and making the game funny?
Skovfoged: As I mentioned earlier, my grandparents inspired this. The characters are all fictional. But that’s not something that happened in the field in that time of the game. I think the worst crime was actually committing in fact that we’re much in the game. The Allied bombers didn’t have any targets as it would at 4 or 5 in the evening. But if we continued to the point where the game was supposed to be very dark a lot of time.
Moran: We worked with a historian and took many research trips. Of course we’re studying very much. We built a very good database. History usually is a bit more wild than in video games where a joke is to be depicted in a video game. If we put all the crazy stuff that actually happened herefor example, the game is inspired by Hanss grandmother. She used to smuggle toys for the resistance in a baby carriage. When a German guard passes she will unhappiness and skim the carriage, but he doesn’t want to bother the sleeping baby. If we put this in the game, nobody will believe it. Sometimes it just seems like it’s about toning things down.
The other thing, relative to making it entertaining, wasn’t trying to make a movie like The Bicycle Thief, a movie about anything. We want to do something interesting. We had to choose from so many choices. We should decide on a few juicy dilemmas for the player. It looked to choose the right dilemmas from the very wide array of choices.
They tried to defend themselves from racism. They were beaten, their hair has been cut off and so on. We wanted to have some ideas such as that, but we have to let it down, because it would be a bit tough for you, if you would see it in the game, if you had the title. This is very true, but we’ve taken some creative freedom in the fiction we gave.
GamesBeat: What was thrown down in this area, on a broad scale, as the war went on?
Skovfoged: It was a traffic choke point because it was where the trains went back to Germany. All Germany’s products from Denmark were brought here. All the weapons and ammunition imported from Denmark carried through the village. In the area, refugees from the eastern affluent countries were routed to refugee camps by trains. People captured by the Gestapo in Denmark were entrusted to concentration camps – obama or Jews, dissents or political dissidents. Even though it was a very small, sleepy village, it was a hot spot for a war machine, for all kinds of infrastructure, for sabotage reserving, etc. Most of the time we put in the game, we didn’t need to invent it. They all came here.
The Germans were shuffled once the war ended; because when they had all the lines crossed the border and occupied Denmark, they were all killed. The Danish had won the war in a few ways or at least Germans lost. Germans were stigmatised and often left their villages. You also had some other issues; those who were driven to Denmark in exchange for the war, who was in camps in the same place and when they went to a camp during the war. Many of them died of hunger because many German refugees weren’t priority-grabbing. Its not obviously a single-to-one comparison with the German camps, but even after the war there was a lot of revenge, and many retaliation. It’s happening. There was much hatred, and for good reason, but stillknowing whats wrong is hard.