Luc Bernard wants to make a Holocaust video game. He has contemplated the idea for well over five years, and, after working on other game projects, he is finally ready to raise money for it on the Indiegogo crowdfunding site.
So far, no publishers have wanted to touch the game, Imagination Is The Only Escape. But in the world of today’s digital self-publishing platforms, Bernard thinks he can build and launch the title about a little boy’s escape from the Nazis for just $125,000. First, however, he has to convince the world and potential donors that a game like this should exist at all.
That’s where the conversation gets both interesting and confrontational. Critics would say that such a game should never be made and that the Holocaust is too touchy a subject to be handled in a medium where the object is fun. But Bernard wants to stretch the definition of a game and make people feel what it was like to live in a state of fear.
He also goes on the attack, saying that game publishers that have flooded the market with first-person shooters, like Bethesda’s upcoming Wolfenstien: The New Order, are “distasteful.” We caught up with Bernard this week for an interview. Here’s an edited transcript.
GamesBeat: I see that the idea for this game has gone back quite a long time for you. Can you talk about where it first came from?
Bernard: I’m not sure if you were aware of it before, but back in 2008, I wanted to do this game. Back then, if you remember, World War II games were all the rage. That was all you’d hear about — Call of Duty, killing Nazis, all that stuff. I grew tired of all that, because in my mind—I first heard about the Holocaust personally from my grandmother, who was in England. She used to look after Jewish orphans. Then, of course, I did research on my own. I also grew up in France, and I lived in an area of France which was very much occupied. When I was doing research, I became extremely depressed about it, but it was something that touched me.
How can I say it? Back in 2008 there were so many World War II games coming out that were just, “Hey, I’m a soldier, I’m killing Nazis, boom boom boom.” To me it was showing World War II as a game, something fun, and I wasn’t too pleased about that. I don’t mind playing games with guns, but I’d rather something like a sci-fi game. I don’t like realistic shooters. To me it’s distasteful. As I say, it treats a real war like a game. World War II to me is just a big massacre of all different peoples – Jewish people and others as well, all slaughtered.
So what I wanted to do is show the realistic side of war, in the form of a video game. This has become a multi-billion-dollar industry and become so big, yet the kind of stories and subjects we tackle are still almost brain-dead most of the time. You have Medal and Honor and Call of Duty and all that people get out of them is “There’s a bad Arab, shoot him” or “There’s a bad German, shoot him.” You don’t get that went on in those periods was just horrible. That’s how the idea came about.
GamesBeat: Back then, in 2008, it sounds like you went around the industry and didn’t have any luck finding a publisher. Did you actually have some conversations with publishers back then?
Bernard: We had a publisher, but the publisher wasn’t funding the title. They were just going to distribute. After a while funding becomes a bit of an issue. It’s quite hard to do these things. When I was shopping it around, publishers were interested in it as far as distribution, but nobody wanted to fund it. This kind of title, it’s a one-off. You can’t make merchandise or toys or sequels out of it. You can’t make it into a franchise. With most publishers nowadays, they’re interested in brands and monetization and things like that, even in mobile.
So this doesn’t really fit with publishers. I don’t have anything against them, but a game like this doesn’t fit in their market model. Even when I was trying to find people to pitch it to, they proposed instead that I try and get the license to Maus, the comic book. I said, “No, that’s a great story, but this is my own thing. I don’t want to use someone else’s license.” This just isn’t an easy game to do through traditional methods. That’s why I decided to try out crowdfunding.
GamesBeat: How long did it take before you put it on the shelf and decided to wait?
Bernard: Around the end of 2008 I put it on held, because I also felt like, as a director, I wasn’t experienced enough to tackle it. Since then I’ve worked for a lot of different publishers – big ones, small ones – on a bunch of different brands.
My first iPhone game, Mecho Wars — actually, a new version of that is coming out on the App Store tonight – became quite a critical success. It got nominated for TechCrunch’s best apps of 2009. I worked for GREE at one point. I worked for Bolt Creative, the makers of Pocket God. I was consulting on one of their next games.
So I went ahead and worked for a bunch of publishers, but of course, when you work for publishers, you see a bunch of games cancelled and you say, “Aw, that’s sad.” I worked my way through the industry and had a lot of experience over the past few years. I was waiting until I could tackle a game like this, because it had to be good if it was going to have the impact it should.
GamesBeat: Did you have some interesting conversations about why this kind of game would not get made? Was it thought to be too controversial? Did anyone warn you that you shouldn’t make this game?
Bernard: A lot of people have said that I’m treading somewhere dangerous – “You shouldn’t talk about this. Games shouldn’t handle this.” What I tell them is, look at the new Wolfenstein, for example. You’ve seen it, right? I think they have robot Nazis or something like that? That’s what I would call distasteful. I’d nearly say it spits on what happened during World War II. You’re taking what the Nazis represent – a mass genocide, the killing of so many people – and you’re making it seem like a toy, a game. It’s an insult to the Holocaust. Bethesda, by funding that game, is spitting on what really happened in World War II. To make a game about robot Nazis that makes World War II that seems like fun, you’re the one that’s insulting history.
I make a lot of fantasy games. My games are known for this weird art style. But when it comes to history and realism, I wouldn’t go ahead and just poke fun at it. So when people say this is controversial, I tell them, “This is the truth. This is what happened. Look at what this big publisher is doing. That’s what should be controversial.” Ask a Holocaust survivor what he thinks about Wolfenstein and see his reaction. Or anybody who survived the war.
Another interesting fact is, back in 2008 there was a Holocaust survivor who was offended by this game. The press passed it around and didn’t really explain what it was all about. So I went to him and I told about what I was doing, what this was meant to be and the whole story, and he came to support it. If people are offended—There’s nothing I can say. Be offended. But be offended by something even bigger, too, all these games that trivialize the war. As long as I can get people who have survived what happened—As long as they think this is a good idea and understand what I’m doing, they’re the only people I feel like I should really focus on making happy.
For this game, I’m trying to make sure I consult with a lot of people about it. It’s very particular, so not many people know what to think about it yet.
GamesBeat: At this point, could you describe the story? What happens in the game?
Bernard: I can describe how the game starts out. You’ve seen the basic synopsis on the Indiegogo page? You’re going to basically experience how it is for the main character, the Jewish child, before the occupation by Nazi Germany and his childhood, and also during the occupation. So you get to experience his life as a normal kid, and then what happens during the occupation. At one point, during the Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv’ – when they rounded up all the Jews in Paris – his mother helps him escape. She gives him the address of a Christian priest who manages to smuggle him out of the city and pass him off as a Christian orphan in a small village.
GamesBeat: And his mother dies in the occupation, I believe you mentioned?
Bernard: Yes, she does.
GamesBeat: It suggests that this isn’t a children’s story. Is it something you’re aiming at a more mature audience?
Bernard: Actually, I’d disagree. As far as what’s a children’s story or what’s not, I would say that people think kids can only tolerate happy things. But if you look at old fairy tales — the really old, original ones – they were extremely dark. I’d just say that if parents think their child can play this, they should go ahead and let them. If they don’t think so, that’s up to them.
When I was a kid, I learned a lot about things that happened from my grandmother, and I think that changed me. Yes, his mother dies. If a child plays this, he’s probably going to be quite sad at that moment. But he might think quite differently because of that, and want to learn more. It’s not as if it’s dark for the sake of being dark. It’s just realistic.
The escape was inspired by a guy who I met once, who was likewise passed off as a Christian orphan and hidden away. In a way it’s half fantasy. From there, when you’re in the village, he spends most of his time simply walking around and imagining his own worlds. He sees, in his mind, this fox, and he comes to think that if he helps this fox, he’ll get to see his mother. From that point, he goes on all these adventures with this fox and so on.
GamesBeat: Is the player going to go through some of this game feeling somewhat happy, or is it a relentlessly downbeat game?
Bernard: What I would say is, at the beginning, you’re going to be okay. You’ll be playing his normal life. When Paris is occupied by the Nazis, it’ll be depressing. Then when you move into this fantasy element, you’ll start forgetting about all this depressing stuff – it’ll feel quite magical. But right at the ending is when it’s going to be the worst. It’s meant to be experienced, the whole game, from start to finish. It’s not going to be all that long. It’ll be long enough that people only have to find a few hours to play it.
GamesBeat: The interesting comparison would be that there have been successful movies made about the Holocaust, yet a lot of people don’t have the imagination to envision a game about it.
Bernard: If there’s one film I would compare this the closest to, it would be “Life is Beautiful.” The way that film is a comedy at the beginning of it—You get used to the characters. You get really attached to them. When the bad parts come, it’s a lot more touching than when anything else happens.
I would say games, or interactive entertainment—Using the word “game,” people automatically think of levels and high scores and all those things. But our medium, what we lack is that we can’t do what books and films do. With big-budget games it seems like it has to be, “I’ve got a gun and I’m slaughtering thousands of people, but I’m still the good guy.” We still have a long way to go. We need to be able to tackle important subjects.
We’ve seen great games with fantastic stories, like BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us. Fantastic storytelling. But I believe our next step is being able to talk about serious subjects. I know that what I’m doing might be insane. Nobody wants to tackle this. But somebody has to start somewhere.
Like I said, through my career, I’ve been doing fantasy games about fantasy worlds. But what I’ve wanted to do is more serious things, like Imagination. I want to use this medium to educate people about things that happened in history – not just World War II, but other things that many people don’t know about. People can be influenced by books that they’ve read. Their whole life could be changed by one book. When I read The Little Mermaid, the original one, it changed me at that age. I have to think video games can do that too.
If a kid plays a game like Imagination, he starts to realize, “Well, that kid’s a lot like me. All these people are a lot like me. They’re not much different. Why did people do this to each other?” He might grow up differently, start thinking differently. If we can make people think differently, in a better way—We can educate children where there’s no education going on. After all, back in France, a bunch of my friends learned English by playing video games. This could allow people to start learning about more and different subjects. That’s what I’m hoping.
GamesBeat: How did you wind up on Indiegogo?
Bernard: I’ll be honest with you. I probably should have gone on Kickstarter. Everyone goes on Kickstarter, it seems like. Maybe it was a risk choosing Indiegogo because everyone seems so much more comfortable with Kickstarter. I was hoping to have a bit more visibility, though, because all the big games seem to go there. So far, the response hasn’t been as good. We’ve started out slow, from when we first presented the concept.
Next week I’m going to start rolling out more screenshots about what happens in reality. People have seen the fantasy part, but now they’re going to see the reality part, and some quick gameplay videos and stuff like that. I’m hoping the campaign will start off small and grow bigger.
GamesBeat: Have you gotten any particularly controversial feedback so far?
Bernard: To be honest with you, not really. Lots of people seem to think there will be controversy around this title, but there really isn’t. If you look through the comments, people are generally for this. Nobody has really gone nuts about it. People just think it’s very risky.
GamesBeat: It seems like your approach would make a very big difference there. If there were any perception that you were commercializing the Holocaust, people would be coming out of the woodwork with criticism.
Bernard: Yeah. People who’ve read all the articles and know all there is to know about this don’t have an issue. Everything about this game, it’s done tastefully. It’s very thought-out. So I wouldn’t call it controversial. It’s just different. What I would say is, what’s controversial about reality? Again, something like Wolfenstein should be controversial. They’re basically making fun of the Holocaust in my mind.
GamesBeat: To be fair to them, they’re not even mentioning the subject.
Bernard: Which is even worse. I really feel strongly about this. They’re pretending the Holocaust didn’t even happen. That is what World War II was, and they’re completely ignoring it. Bethesda should be ashamed of doing a Wolfenstein game. I think it’s shameful that a publisher would even go ahead with that. Show that to any person who lived through World War II. It’s a disgrace.
GamesBeat: When you were crafting the story of the game, you had to be thinking about some of these things. Is there a way to do this that is more socially acceptable for people, that are even fun or engaging in some ways? Because there are obvious ways to really screw this up.
Bernard: I’d never use the word “fun” for this game. I don’t even like the word “game,” as I said. The reason why there has to be the imagination element—Again, you get to experience this as a child. The fact is that a lot of young children use this as a coping mechanism, escaping into their own mind. Like I said, I consulted with people who experienced World War II and the Holocaust. I made sure, when I was crafting this story, that it all made sense. There’s a reason why there’s this whole element of imagination plays a part in the story.
GamesBeat: There are always going to be issues around what to depict and how harsh to make some of the visuals here too, I think?
Bernard: When I talked to the Holocaust survivor I’d originally offended, he said I should make it as realistic as possible. So I don’t plan to censor anything. I want to depict how it was. If people are offended, the only thing I can tell them is, that’s reality. This is history. I don’t want to censor history.
Violent things happen, but when that happens – because the imaginary parts are so beautiful, such an escape for the main character – when reality intrudes, it’s a lot more shocking. But I would say that the violence that happens in this title—It’s not gore. It’s just what happened. The Germans would randomly shoot people or take them off to the camps. What they would do with children—It’s just the reality of what happened.
I wouldn’t say it goes beyond something like “The Pianist” or “Schindler’s List,” those kinds of films. If you remember, in those films, it’s not so much the violence that shocks you. It’s how they do it, like when the Nazis would just suddenly shoot someone. That’s what’s more disturbing. It’s how the Nazis were as people.
That brings up something very interesting, actually. In Imagination, the Nazis are presented all in black, as these shadowy figures. You can only just see their shapes and the swastika symbol. That’s it. You can’t see their faces. I’m taking away the humanity that they had, basically, because I don’t want to represent them as humans. What they were is essentially monsters, which is why they’re represented as those shadows.
GamesBeat: Representing some of the nightmarish side of his imagination?
Bernard: It fits in. If you were a child, how could you view those people as people anymore? I think it has a lot more impact, just showing that they aren’t clearly human to him. Every single element of Imagination is more thought out that what people might think.
GamesBeat: At times, when people make something controversial, they try to deflect criticism or soften the blow a little by doing it in a not-for-profit way. Have you thought about that as well?
Bernard: If someone came to us and gave us the funding to release it on every single platform and have it out for free, we’d do it in a heartbeat, of course. But we have to find funding for this game. Games cost money to build and to port and to get out there. The reason I want to sell it, even for that small amount, is because I want to port it. I want it to come out on PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, and every other platform. We have to spend some time making money so we can do that.
GamesBeat: The $125,000 you’re looking for, how far will that get you?
Bernard: That’s enough to release it on PC, iOS, Android, and Mac, since we own our own engine that can make a build for those platforms. For this game, we’re going to be very precise with every do. It’s way below a proper industry budget, especially considering all the extra research we’ve had to do for this game. I want to make sure that every historical element is accurate. But that will allow us to finish up the game.
GamesBeat: The way you’ve described the game–It sounds like to some degree the game is interactive, in that the player has lots of choices as far as doing things on their own. A lot of interesting movies about the Holocaust have been about choices people have made during a very harsh time. In this game, at some point, it looks like your own vision for the story is going to override the player’s choice, and whatever they do they’re going to lose some control over what happens. How do you look at that? You have a story you want to tell, but you also have a game where people want their choices to be the ultimate determinant of what happens.
Bernard: In this game, you’re playing as a child. As a child, you don’t have as much choice over what happens to you. Even more so, when you were Jewish during World War II, you had very few choices – in almost all cases, something bad was going to happen to you. If you were playing as another kind of character in this situation, you might have more choices. But since you’re playing as this Jewish child, I want people to experience how that was, how vulnerable he is.
There will be elements where he might think, “Yes, I’m going to get out of this.” A lot of people probably felt that way. But in the end, that probably won’t happen. It’s not going to be that happy. You just can’t do that.
GamesBeat: That’s the goal, though, right? To drive the player to feel that emotion?
Bernard: Exactly. I want people to feel how it would be to be a child during World War II, a vulnerable child. I want them to experience what that would be like, or as close I can get. I can’t really get that close, of course. But closer than you can be in most games about World War II, where you’re a soldier with a gun. It’s a completely different take.
Compared to a film, since you’re in control of this, you’re going to feel it more. You’re going to grow more attached to the character. I think this is something new.