Gerda: A Flame In Winter Refuses to Offer Moral Righteousness

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A Gerda: A Flame In Winter screenshot showing various characters standing in the doctor's office.

With PortaPlay's upcoming "tale of compassion, community, and courage", Dontnod looks to have continued its legacy as a publisher of unique stories which face issues in ways other games aren't able to. In my Gerda: A Flame In Winter preview, I talked about how in war we often only see the perspectives of the active combatants depicted in games, rather than the regular people impacted by the conflict.

There are exceptions, of course, but the way Gerda forced me to make challenging decisions in a hostile world that seems simultaneously to hate and not care about the player character was a fascinating experience.

Being able to have a chat with the folks in charge of Gerda: A Flame In Winter, then, was going to be an intriguing one. I spoke to Shalev Moran, the game's lead designer, and Hans Von Knut, creative director, about the reasons behind many of the decisions from Gerda's demo, as well as the importance of properly researching the history being explored. The quotes in this piece are from both interviewees.

A screenshot from Gerda: A Flame In Winter showing Gerda at the bottom of a path approaching a small seaside hut.
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It's hard to understand the actual effects of war. There's no better way of putting it than how Shalev and Hans did. "If you are lucky enough to have the hardware and free time to play our game, most likely you live in relative safety, even while there are crises around the world."

With the relative privilege many people able to play Gerda: A Flame In Winter enjoy, it's extremely challenging to get players to feel the conflict when they've never experienced something like it. Especially with recent conflicts taking up a significant amount of the news cycle, it's easy for people to get jaded and lose their ability to care quite as much each time.
The goal with Gerda, then, was to force the player out of a place of "moral purity and righteousness," putting them in a challenging situation and giving them areas to get invested in.

"We wanted to challenge ourselves and our players in that sense. Even though there is a crisis around her, Gerda is just privileged enough to slide unharmed through the war. But that might not be the case for other people, people she cares for," Shalev and Hans tell me. "And like most people, if she is to take action and actually help, she won’t get to be a hero. People in crisis usually don’t get that privilege, they are put in impossible situations and get their hands dirty."

Sometimes, "getting your hands dirty" involves taking actions that ostensibly help the occupying German forces and the Gestapo keeping the local Danish population under their thumb. Occupied people don't get the luxury to always say and do the right things when their lives and the lives of their loved ones are under threat.

Many writers might shy away from a story like this in favour of a safer ‘good versus evil’ story. Not here, though.

"Our game is exactly about the pressures that occupied people are put under, by their oppressors and by tensions that arise in times of crisis," say Shalev and Hans. "We spent a lot of attention on fleshing this out into interesting gameplay dilemmas, and we never endorse or excuse the actions of the Nazi regime, nor its collaborators.

"The Nazi regime and the Gestapo are an unavoidable reality in Gerda’s life and a constant threat that she will need to face. For Gerda, there is no black or white decision, and we trust our players to see that. The common mantra “never again” can only work if we can imagine any atrocities as painfully human and within our own capabilities."

A screenshot from Gerda: A Flame In Winter showing Gerda negotiating with occupying German soldiers.
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It's a story that's very near to the writers' hearts too. While it "isn't a historical documentary", Gerda strives to hold onto the reality of living in 1945 Denmark as much as possible. Along with texts and interviews from creative director Hans Von Knut's family, on whom the story of Gerda: A Flame In Winter is based, a great deal of historical research was done as groundwork for the story.

"We’re in conversation with several historical consultants to ensure factuality. All of the events and storylines in the game are based on or inspired by real-life events from a large historical database that a historian has created for this purpose.”

"On top of that database, museum visits and reading historical literature, we’ve also travelled to the region where the game takes place for research and location shots."

Seeing games cover facets of history many are less aware of in such a sensitive way will hopefully pave the way for more stories like this to be told, and the development team are keen to see more of this from the sector.

"Games and other narrative arts have developed excellent worldbuilding skills, but all this knowledge can often be wasted on worlds that are well-worn and over-explored."

Hopefully, Gerda: A Flame In Winter is going to inspire developers to tell their own lesser-known stories. Ones based on the experiences of those ignored by the mainstream, with the care and vision to address those issues in as compassionate a way as this game does. We'll see.