Through the Darkest of Times by Paintbucket Games
There are more than enough video games devoted to World War II, but comparatively few devoted to the various civilian movements that resisted Nazi tyranny. It’s hard to see why; who wouldn’t want a game that lets you take up arms as an ordinary citizen and fight the Nazis in the streets?
Through the Darkest of Times is not that game. (For that, maybe check out Warsaw, which combines the story Polish underground with Darkest Dungeon-inspired tactical combat).
Instead, Paintbucket Games simulates the rising tensions in Germany during the lead-up to World War II and the ordinary, even seemingly banal daily and weekly work of the nascent resistance.
Did You Nazi This Coming?
A simulation that puts you in the role of a resistance cell leader, Through the Darkest of Times plays out in weekly, turn-based installments.
Each begins with a selection of headlines announcing, for example, the Reichstag fire or the Goebbels-led book-burning rallies, then segues into a mission-planning segment where you can assign fellow resistance members and resources to activities ranging from the routine – purchasing paper for pamphlet production – to such nail-biting excursions as prison breaks and raids on Nazi strongholds.
Most turns also feature narrative interludes, usually with a few moral and strategic choices involved; will you risk intervening to save a Jewish shopkeeper assaulted by Brownshirts, or sneak off before the SA thugs can get a good look at your face?
Through the Darkest of Times is at its best when conveying the slow, inevitable decline from mob mentality to fascist paranoia – the way even the most seemingly prosaic missions, like buying paper or paint – can potentially draw suspicion from the authorities.
It’s a much more realistic portrayal than you might expect from the medium, educational but no less compelling for its lack of actual Nazi-punching action. I found the tensions between different resistance factions – from Catholic conservatives to Communists and the labor movement – particularly intriguing. Meetings with resistance among the Christian community, for example, will have a lower chance of success if you send a Communist.
The Banality of Evil (and Resisting Evil)
That said, as compelling as it can be, actually playing Through the Darkest of Times is a less-than-pleasant experience at times, and not always intentionally so.
While the constant grind for both morale and cash – donated from supporters and buffered by fund-raising missions – to keep the movement alive serves a definite and effective narrative purpose, it can also lead to an uninspiring pattern. It doesn’t quite nail that “one more turn” feeling so crucial to turn-based games.
More concerning to me was that the various traits of the different characters within your cell, while mechanically important, didn’t add more narrative heft. The tension between communists, religious resisters, social democrats, etc. could have been so much more compelling.
But not only was there little impact beyond choosing cell members for specific missions, the random event generator failed to take these various traits into account to the point that there were several laughable encounters.
At one point, Paul Hoffman, one of my most trusted compatriots, demanded that we eject a fellow resister from our cell because her conservative Catholic beliefs ran counter to our mission.
The problem: Paul was also a Catholic conservative. And thus an opportunity for real narrative tension became a flashing neon sign, pointing out a problem with narrative structure, reminding me that I’m in the midst of a simulation, and defying my ability to suspend disbelief.
Those Who Fail to Learn from History…
Through the Darkest of Times gets so much right that it feels a little churlish to criticize it. Its presentation is nearly flawless. Its blocky character portraits and sepia color scheme – livened up by effective bursts of bright red blood, flame and Nazi armbands – effectively evoke a very specific time and place in history without overburdening itself with photo-realism.
Its unobtrusive but cheery swing jazz score is evocative, again tied so tightly with its historical setting, while also providing an unsettling upbeat counterpoint to the game’s themes, enhancing both the increasing pace and severity of the atrocities and the fragile sense of hope so crucial to maintaining the resistance against them.
And that’s not even considering the potential parallels to current events worldwide, which is clearly intentional on the part of the designers. One of the newspaper headlines featured an actual Nazi decrying “fake news” in those exact words, and I still haven’t decided if that’s ingenious or too on-the-nose.
But while I had fun and I learned some things, I couldn’t help but feel that I could have learned more while having more fun if a few things were tweaked. Through the Darkest of Times is an impressive game and possibly an important one, but its flaws keep it from being the perfect and groundbreaking game it could have been.
You should play it anyway.
Through the Darkest of Times is available via Steam.
Check out the official trailer for Through the Darkest of Times below: