I’m “following” a Polish Jewish family along the streets of Paris just before the Nazi occupation.
Walking in their footsteps, I join in playground games with little Samuel before things take a darker turn and we’re packing up the family’s shop. Eventually they are arrested in the 1942 Vel d’Hiv round-up, and deported to a Nazi camp.
This is The Light in the Darkness, a video game about the Holocaust — and there is no sugar-coated ending.
The words “Holocaust” and “game” do not sit well together, and video games that use the genocide either as a backdrop or for the key storyline have been given short shrift by serious reviewers and Shoah educators alike. Until now.
According to Rob Leane, gaming editor at RadioTimes.com, The Light in the Darkness “forces you to consider the terrifying emotional truth of this dark chapter in history... it’s hard to think of another game that has really dug into the horrors and the trauma of the war like this”.
For Luc Bernard, 36, the developer behind the game, it is players’ lack of control over their own destiny that makes his game an appropriate medium through which to tackle the Holocaust.
The point, he says, is not about fun and competition and more about telling stories in the empathetic way that we are used to seeing in film.
Bernard, who is Jewish, has a personal interest in genuine Holocaust education. His grandmother looked after children who came off the Kindertransport in the UK, and he spent hours examining the archives of the Shoah Foundation and the US Holocaust Museum’s website when creating the game.
Having grown up in rural France with little access to Holocaust education beyond Schindler’s List, Bernard is keen to raise awareness and help combat rising antisemitism, and self-funded the hour-long interactive film.
“We’re seeing antisemitism going up, Holocaust awareness going down,” he says. “We need to find some new method. It shouldn’t be up to these 90-year-old Holocaust survivors on TikTok.”
That new method, Bernard suggests, is video games. Available for free on PC (release on Xbox and PS5), The Light in the Darkness reached 100,000 users in three weeks.
Bernard’s sensitive application of gaming to Shoah history is getting noticed. He is now building a digital Holocaust museum inside Epic’s blockbuster game Fortnite and is in talks with a US Holocaust museum about helping them on their digital exhibits.
The Anti-Defamation League, a US racism watchdog, found Fortnite guilty of hosting Holocaust denial but Bernard says his Shoah museum is way of fighting back.
Horror on screen: The Light in the Darkness depicts the death camps (Photo: Handout)
“We’re bigger than any other media industry. We shape the culture,” he says, pointing out that even the most popular TV show right now, The Last of Us — a post-apocalyptic drama available on HBO — is based on a video game. That games are synonymous with entertainment poses an inevitable hurdle for sceptics.
However, “serious” games, such as The Light in the Darkness, are on the rise.
“The name ‘video game’ has held us back from some people understanding what it can be,” says Bernard.
“But we’re one of the biggest parts of storytelling now.”
The reason why video games rarely tackle the Holocaust, he says, is because developers have been discouraged.
During the many years of working on The Light in the Darkness, an idea he had aged 20, Bernard says he witnessed “bullying” towards people from the gaming industry.
That might be because not all developers have sought to make their products educational.
Cost of Freedom, a game that disturbingly allowed players to choose the part of Nazis selecting prisoners to be sent to gas chambers, was thwarted in 2018.
The series Wolfenstein features a Nazi-shooting protagonist, but is not historically factual. And an Israeli-created game, Sonderkommando Revolt, in which the player attempts to escape a death camp by killing Nazis, was shut down before release a decade ago.
Bernard does not believe censorship is the answer. “Was [the Israeli game] in good taste? No,” he says. “But I think someone should have talked to them and said, ‘maybe you want to do something about the Resistance’.
“I wouldn’t have said video games could never tackle the Holocaust. That’s what has created an environment where everyone’s too scared to address the Holocaust. People who don’t know video games have a holier-than-thou attitude. They say you can’t do that. [I’m] angry at this.” He has experienced big directors praising his bravery.
The result, he says, is a missed opportunity to educate younger generations about the horrors that took place. And the fact that there is a significant far-right contingent in the gaming world means it’s even more important to represent historical reality on the platform.
Bernard points to the Second World War video game Hell Let Loose that presents the Nazis as simply the German army, whitewashing reality. “It’s erasing Nazi Germany,” he laments. “If Call of Duty had had a scene with the Allies liberating the camps, that would have brought it to millions of people. Instead, it’s like it didn’t happen. Light in the Darkness has opened up that door because it shows you can address the Holocaust. So, the narrative is changing.”
The Holocaust has been covered by a broad range of media and platforms including film, fiction, poetry and music, and none are immune from poor and problematic representation.
“I don’t think the fact that this is a video game is inherently problematic,” says Alex Maws, head of education and heritage at the Association of Jewish Refugees.
“It’s important that we in the educational and remembrance sector embrace new technology in how stories about the Holocaust are told. It’s important that we encourage innovation. We can’t be sure that any one individual project is always going to be the most effective, but someone needs to try it and collect the data that sheds light on what is and what isn’t good practice. I applaud Luc Bernard and this game for taking that important step.”
A whole field of academic research into representations of the Holocaust is under way, with a new focus on the digital world and video games, and Maws reassures anyone understandably sceptical that “all of these ethical and pedagogical questions” are being considered by experts.
Maws is relieved that The Light in the Darkness does not allow the player to create an outcome that wasn’t possible for the characters involved.
He feels that the scenarios into which the game puts the player are “entirely appropriate” and help gamers to experience the ways that Jews experiencing the Holocaust negotiated difficult situations.
“I didn’t feel like it was playing it for shock value,” Maws says. “It doesn’t put you in the role of the Nazis, for example.
“You don’t want to encourage people to pretend to be perpetrators, but at the same time, you also don’t want to encourage people to pretend to be victims.”
The Association of Jewish Refugees has itself funded the development of Marion’s Journey, a video game by the Scottish organisation Gathering the Voices that is based on the testimony of a survivor.
“Does it always have to involve a talking head on a screen, or are there other ways of representing the real stories of Holocaust survivors and eyewitnesses?” asks Maws.
“This is another example of how people are asking these very important questions.”
However, Maws queries whether a video game such as The Light in the Darkness could stand alone as an educational resource.
He would like to see it accompanied by more formal guidance for teachers that places it in a wider historical context. “I don’t think that this video game in itself can constitute Holocaust education, but I think it could form a part of it,” he says.
“If it’s situated in the context of some wider learning, and that could be developed, that would be great.” While Leane sees the game as technically basic, he is impressed by it as an educational tool, with its inclusion of historical facts and archive footage.
“The Light in the Darkness is fairly rudimentary as modern video games go, with cartoonish graphics that look a few generations out of date, and simple gameplay mechanics that don’t ask much from the player in terms of skill,” says Leane.
“However, this feels like a powerful example of what gaming can achieve.
“By making you live in the shoes of several Jewish people in France, experiencing their lives and watching powerlessly as the Final Solution is gradually enacted, the game forces you to consider the terrifying emotional truth of this dark chapter in history.”