Gerda: A Flame in Winter Review: A dark and heavy WWII RPG-lite
From a very young age, I would accompany my podiatrist father as he worked, helping him as he treated his elderly patients in various nursing facilities. Of course, sometimes the term “helping” was used loosely, as there wasn’t a lot a literal child could do except sit with the patients and listen to their stories as my father provided care. But oh, what stories they’d sometimes tell — especially those who participated in some way in World War II. Their stories never failed to capture my attention, like the formerly young recruit who rode into a newly liberated Paris surrounded by celebrating citizens cheering them on, or the Bosnian resistance fighter who lost her toes when a German soldier shot her in the foot, the wound long-since healed but the tale fresh in her eyes.
Of course, this was back in the ’90s, when the people who experienced this all-encompassing war were still very much around and their tales were constantly being told — especially if they had clear views of the frontlines. Books, film, and video games shared stories of soldiers fighting and dying, of their valor and suffering. And while these were (and are) extremely important stories to tell, the ones that lingered the longest in my mind involved average civilians in some way. We absorb the angles of every battle, pick apart their timelines, and count the casualties, but few of us can truly relate on a personal level; isn’t it also interesting to hear about how a regular citizen carried on with their lives in the middle of history in the making? Doesn’t it hit closer to home to see how everyday folks handled the war — either by taking up arms in a secretive resistance, sighing and siding with the occupiers, or staying as far away from the fight as possible?
When presented with these stories, I often find myself asking “what would I, a civilian, do in this situation?”
It’s this question I was confronted with over and over again in Gerda: A Flame in Winter. Developed by PortaPlay and published by DON’T NOD, Gerda: A Flame in Winter is an “intimate narrative RPG-lite experience inspired by real life events” bookending World War II. Set in a small Nazi-occupied Danish town called Tinglev, Gerda: A Flame in Winter may initially seem at odds with its bite-sized levels packing in a massive amount of action and emotion, but the juxtaposition makes for explosive pacing that will keep players on the edge of their seats for the entire experience.
Gerda: A Flame in Winter opens up on the titular character, Gerda, stepping off a train and into her quiet village of Tinglev. Greeted by her Danish husband and her German father, the three of them did their best from turning any sort of small talk into a political debate — a difficult task in 1939, certainly. To make matters worse, Gerda’s father has joined the Nazi party in the hopes of regaining what was lost during the Great War only two decades prior, while her husband is becoming increasingly more vocal about the need for the Danes to stand their ground. Still, because they both loved Gerda, they only took conversation so far before things got heated.
Their tacit truce would be shattered only a few short months later, when the Nazis invaded Denmark in April of 1940.
There are many things that make Gerda: A Flame in Winter interesting — the story certainly, as it’s a WWII historical fiction based on the real-life experiences of the developer’s resistance fighter grandparents. In fact, before I knew Gerda: A Flame in Winter was based on a true story, I had the suspicion that it was rooted in real life considering the number of details the game got right based on similar stories shared by other WWII survivors, such as back alley ration stamp bartering. But what elevates the entire experience is how the story is presented, taking an already tense tale and turning it into a legitimate nail-biter.
Essentially, Gerda: A Flame in Winter is broken up into smaller levels that take place during a specific date and time. Each of these levels is contained within a small setting, such as a house, a road, a market, a church, etc. Gerda will have an objective to complete, such as helping a sick patient or heading to the market, that may or may not go as smoothly as anticipated; a patient’s visit is interrupted by wounded German soldiers, or a return home means coming face to face with unexpected company. As players read through the story’s text, Gerda will have opportunities to respond to situations in a variety of ways based on choices made in previous levels. You want a game where choices matter? Hoo boy do choices matter here.
This is where the RPG-lite factor comes into play, as Gerda: A Flame in Winter keeps track of your words and actions that will align Gerda with certain sides, such as everyday folk like the Danes and Germans or the involved fighters like the Occupiers or Resistance. Additionally, Gerda will collect personality points at the end of each level as she writes in her diary, her perception of previous events earning a point towards Compassion, Insight, or Wit. Of course, this is compounded by other factors, such as items in Gerda’s possession, the status and trust of other characters, and even pure luck of the dice. Simply put, there are a lot of aspects that go into dialogue options in Gerda: A Flame in Winter to the point where fans of the infinitely more complex Disco Elysium will recognize the mechanics and fall in love with their familiarity yet simplicity.
I don’t want to get into all the twists and turns of Gerda’s gut-wrenching story, as it is an 8 – 10 hour journey with multiple endings best completed in its entirety by the player, but I feel compelled to mention three things that really stuck out to me: first, the need to commit to your choices. Normally I’m extremely wishy-washy in these kinds of games and want to make sure I see all possibilities before moving on, but in Gerda: A Flame in Winter that’s just not possible. After each level, the game saves, so there’s no going back to a previous point in time where you might make a different decision to impact something much farther down the line. It made the story all the more intense to realize a simple interaction early on could spell doom for someone hours later, so it really forces you to make decisions that you may not be comfortable with but you’re going to learn to live with them regardless.
Second, the pacing. Gerda: A Flame in Winter’s levels may be short, but that’s because they’ve trimmed all the fat. It’s terse. Succinct. To the point. And still a goddamn white knuckle thriller that absolutely exhausted me. Just about every single action or conversation is guaranteed to have consequences for you down the line, and it starts immediately. Case in point, in the very beginning, I tried to have Gerda speak with her father as he chatted with some Nazis outside of her place of work, only to have a Dane walk by and witness me appearing cozy with the occupiers. Like damn, the game has barely started and I’m realizing how much a simple thing could potentially become a big problem. There wasn’t too much time to ruminate on my stupid decision, however, as an eventful day at work was just around the corner, followed by an eventful day at the factory, followed by an eventful evening at home… back to back to back situations that definitely prompted fight-or-flight symptoms, no release for that tension in sight.
The last thing I want to mention is one that really drives home the real-life experiences this game is based on: you are going to fail some challenges, and you’re going to have to deal with it. I know in gaming it’s usually frowned upon to purposefully set the player up for failure, but the intention was to show how impossible some of these options were for the actual people in similar situations. Like yeah, it would be ideal if you — a civilian — could plow your way through a Nazi prison and free your friends and loved ones, but that’s pretty far-fetched. Maybe some other, less factual games will allow you to do that, but I applaud the dev team’s commitment to realism (I mean, considering this was based on his grandparents, like… how out there were they gonna get?). I finally felt like I got a game that allowed me to see exactly what I would — or even could — do in Gerda’s shoes. If you want to storm a Nazi castle B.J. Blazkowicz-style, there are plenty of games that will allow you to do that. But this? Wow. A true league of its own in terms of WWII narrative experiences.
Gerda: A Flame in Winter is a masterful work of art in both the gaming and storytelling spheres; both aspects enhanced by the other, their impact reduced should they be somehow disconnected from each other. Every moment I spent with it was simultaneously energizing and exhausting, as I was emotionally drained on Gerda’s behalf after each level but couldn’t stop myself from continuing the story, desperate to know what happened next. If you’ve ever wondered what you would do as a civilian in WWII, Gerda: A Flame in Winter gives you the ability to see through the Danish resistance’s eyes.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Switch, PC (Reviewed); Publisher: DON’T NOD; Developer: PortaPlay; Players: 1; Released: September 1, 2022; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Gerda: A Flame in Winter provided by the publisher.