A playable documentary on Post-War Czechia
From the viewpoint of the average U.S. millennial, we’ve come to understand that World War II was overwhelmingly fought on foreign soil, allowing our troops to return to homes, schools, and towns as they left them once the war ended. There was no power vacuum created by an overthrown government, no mass-rebuilding of completely bombed-out cities, and no drawing up new political borders done in meeting rooms far away from the lives that would be forever affected by their decisions. For us, the future was bright, hopeful, and full of opportunities to accumulate individual wealth; for some countries, life looked quite different, and rarely do we learn about these experiences.
Fortunately, there are games like Svoboda 1945: Liberation to educate what post-war life looked like in one such country — the Czech Republic — not shying away from controversial topics like the German expulsions and the Communist takeover. Written with the assistance of historians, Svoboda 1945: Liberation is a follow up to the dev team’s previous title, Attentat 1942, which focused on the experiences of Czech civilians in World War II. Now, Svoboda 1945: Liberation asks players to empathize with residents of Svoboda (a Czech town near the German border) who lived through the immediate aftermath of World War II and how those critical few years changed their lives forever.
In Svoboda 1945: Liberation, players will take on the role of an auditor investigating a small school in the tiny border town of Svoboda. The reason? One of the locals would like to prove its historical importance, but another would like to tear it down to expand their business. While investigating the school’s attic, you stumble upon some old furniture, clothing, and photos; to your surprise, one of the photos features your grandfather! With a new personal investment to the school, you begin interviewing the residents of Svoboda, hoping to learn more about not only its potential significance but of your grandfather’s presence in its history.
With its interview-style FMV art direction featuring the occasional black and white historical footage and hand-drawn comics, Svoboda 1945: Liberation is the closest we’ll get to a playable documentary; in fact, as a documentary-junkie, I genuinely hope this sets a trend in educational games. As you question residents, you’ll learn more about their experiences in Svoboda after World War II, with each one representing different groups of people affected by inevitable zeitgeist and impersonal policies. From forcibly displaced Sudeten Germans and Volhynian Czechs who moved into their empty homes to Czech Jews returned from concentration camps and farmers on either side of Communism, Svoboda 1945: Liberation picks apart this specific time in European history and asks players to carefully consider what’s more important — preserving history no matter how ugly it is, or forgoing one’s roots to secure a future?
During these interviews, the occasional, topical mini-game will appear, prompting players to actively participate in the reteller’s story. One person recounts how her father struggled against the Communists taking their farm for years, at which point players will have to do their best at running a successful farm for as long as possible. At first, it feels very doable, but eventually the Communist regime increases the pressure to the point where players are forced to surrender their land. Another interviewee, a German person, details how her aunt had to quickly pack only the essentials before they left the only home they’d known, surrendering the rest of their belongings and property to the government before being expelled from the country. The player must then play through the paces of packing for such a journey, the game explaining which items were allowed and which ones they’d have to leave behind.
These mini-games were fantastic and emphasized just how difficult these times were — it was emotionally debilitating to leave behind priceless heirlooms and sentimental items, but as soldiers pounded at my door and urged me to quickly pack, it wasn’t like I had much of a choice.
Speaking of the people featured in Svoboda 1945: Liberation, I found them to be very good actors. They each gave a believable performance and all had an effect on swaying me one way or another in making my decision. The man most interested in saving the school had good intentions, but the rest of the community found him to be somewhat naive in his desire to resist change at all costs. This is opposed to the man most interested in demolishing the school, who pointed out that expanding his business would bring economic opportunity to their tiny town. But it was hard to want to agree with him fully due to his brusque nature and complete disregard for the expelled ethnic Germans.
As other characters pointed out, however, compared to what Germany did to Jews, Czechs, and the rest of Europe, it was a complicated situation that everyone feels torn over to some degree. No, random Czechs of German descent did not deserve to be displaced anymore than German Jews did, but in 1946, very few people were feeling charitable to Germans — involved or not. Svoboda 1945: Liberation doesn’t shy away from this conversation, no matter how difficult it is to have.
Going into this, I admit that I had a pre-conceived notion of saving the school outright simply because I’m compelled to save all things old, but after speaking with all the residents, I found myself unsure of what to choose. On the one hand, there was certainly an argument for historical significance within the school’s walls, but just about any pre-war building in Europe is historically significant to some degree. On the other hand, the tiny town relies on the single business looking to expand, but is forging forward at the expense of one’s past worth it? And what of your grandfather? Why was he there, exactly? Will you find someone who can answer that?
As someone with literally no knowledge of post-war Czechia history, I did feel that Svoboda 1945: Liberation was something of an info-dump at times; anticipating this, the dev team provided little snippets of an in-game wikipage that gave people like me context about certain topics. Unfortunately, these snippets were only available for a short time, and clicking on them would cut the person speaking off mid-sentence. Fortunately, clicking out of the article would allow the person to pick up right where they left off, but I often found myself a bit lost trying to get right back into it. A small complaint amidst an otherwise emotionally compelling title I won’t soon forget.
Svoboda 1945: Liberation is a fascinating deep dive into post-war Czechia that asks players to consider if everything is worth saving or if some things are better left in the past. Its use of mixed media, including FMV, historical footage, comics, and mini-games provides a unique approach to learning that I hope is replicated in many more educational games. Although the sheer amount of information can be a bit to take in for those completely unaware of the topic, it’s an educational experience everyone would be richer for having. If you love history and are ready for an emotionally impactful title that asks tough questions and dives headfirst into controversial conversations, be sure to check out Svoboda 1945: Liberation.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Charles Games; Developer: Charles Games; Players: 1; Released: August 3, 2021; MSRP: $15.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Svoboda 1945: Liberation provided by the publisher.