Home > reviews > Attentat 1942 – Review

Attentat 1942 – Review

With this post begins a regular practice of blogging at least monthly, in addition to the mid-month review of links. I’d like to fill this space with reviews of historical video games that have good prospects for use in history classes from middle school through college. With that in mind, it is my pleasure to begin with a review of Attentat 1942, (Steam Page).

Note: I received a review copy of Attentat 1942 at the developers’ initiative. I also played through the game once; clearly multiple playthroughs will bring different experiences

Attentat 1942, (Steam Page) is an intriguing historical adventure game developed by  Charles University, Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. The prologue, in full motion video footage from the Second World War, tells the player the story of the historical 1942 assassination of Reinhard Attentat CaptureHeydrich, a primary actor driving the Holocaust and the Nazi governor of the protectorate of Moravia and Bohemia, the territory that included Prague after it came under Nazi control. The assassination of Heydrich by Czechoslovak paratroopers, while a blow for the resistance, resulted in the brutal execution and deportation to concentration camps of several thousand in the protectorate.

Fast forward almost 60 years to the game’s setting in 2001 Prague. The player character, ATTENTAT1942_1a nameless, faceless man or woman, begins the game by helping grandma, Ludmila Jelínková, pack her belongings (presumably to move to an adult care facility). Conversation with grandma quickly turns to the topic of her husband and your grandpa, Jindřich Jelínek. On the day that Heydrich was assassinated, the Gestapo knocked on the couple’s door, arrested Jindřich, and ultimately sent him to a series of concentration camps; grandma would not see him again until the end of the war.

So begins the player’s in-game goals: to determine exactly why grandpa was arrested by the Gestapo and what connection he had to the plot to assassinate Heydrich. The player does this using two mechanics. The first consists of conversations with the main characters of the story, each portrayed by elderly actors in full motion video. The player chooses which questions to ask, and the characters, played convincingly by their actors, respond. If the player asks the right questions, they will ultimately get the information they need to solve the mystery. If they botch the job, by failing to pursue promising lines of inquiry or asking offensive questions, they will not obtain important information. The second mechanic is a combination of graphic-novelistyle recaps of the main character’s recollections from the spring of 1942 combined with a series of connected mini-games. The graphic-novel style is dynamic and engaging, with varied camera zooms and animated overlays of sound-effect text to heighten the tension. Some of the initial mini-games are simplistic, however: cleaning up the Jelínek apartment after the Gestapo arrest Jindřich is little more than a hidden-object point-and-click. The historical items the player can pick up are fascinating, but it is hard to imagine a typical player, especially a student player, spending time on these details when they are not critical to gameplay.

Attentat Room CaptureJust a little patience in this area, however, is well rewarded. Later mini-games are very engaging and draw on the historical content well,  like trying to write a collaborationist journalist’s article on the assassination from a series of possible clips,

Attentat typeCaptureand deciding which of a character’s personal items might draw the suspicion of the Gestapo. These games place the player in the challenging circumstances in the game world where the player learns about Nazi-occupied Prague in the course of playing an intriguing mini-game. Success in these mini-games give the player coins, which they may use to repeat interviews with the key characters, in hopes of asking better questions and getting more clues to solve the mystery of Jindřich’s arrest.

As the note at the start of the game indicates, “The game is based on historical research and real testimonies, yet the characters in the game and their stories are fictitious.”  What this seems to mean in practice is that the characters you interact with during the game are fictional, but they tell stories about the real actors and events of 1942 Prague: Nazi’s like Heydrich, the President of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, Edvard Beneš, the assassination. Most importantly, the fictional tale of Ludmila Jelínková and Jindřich Jelinek is set within an authentic historical Nazi-occupied Prague brought to life through a rich display authentic period photos, video, and images of the ephemera of every-day life: clothing, music, ration booklets, pamphlets, and much more.

At first, I confess, I was a little unsure about Attentat 1942 in a class setting. Not that it wasn’t a fascinating glimpse of the past. But the question that kept recurring in my initial hour or so (the game takes about four to five hours to play) was: would I be called upon to use all this interesting information from the war? The detailed encyclopedia, for example, that allows the player to further investigate historical details ranging from Heydrich, to concentration camps, to Jazz music in 1940s Prague.  Fascinating stuff, but the player can skip all of this, and the typical student-gamer might very well do so. It made me wonder, how much can a historical game rely on the goodwill and interest of the player to deliver its historical experiences? The teacher in me began to develop a series of questions that might be assigned to students to accompany their play through. I saw the game almost as an interactive museum piece, where the player could examine all manner of artifacts from daily life and read well-written historical background notes on a variety of topics. Strategizing about how to leverage this, how to get students to actually immerse themselves in this rich world got me brainstorming. Students playing the game might beneficially be asked to:

  • Write reflections on the perspectives of one or more characters in the game complete with relevant screen snips.
  • Create a mini digital museum exhibit using screen snips of related artifacts in game. The student then writes the explanation text to go with each and an overview of the topic, just like they might see in a museum.
  • Assess the debate between resistance supporters and collaborators: how did each view the Nazi occupation and how best to deal with that reality?
  • Hold a concluding discussion, perhaps a recorded and graded discussion, of what the game reveals about life in Prague under Nazi occupation

These are just some possibilities a teacher might explore to add the critical debrief to the game that gets students to reflect on and internalize what they have experienced. Attentat 1942 has a lot to offer in this respect.

Then things got really interesting. I botched an interview of a collaborator journalist and had no coins from mini-games yet to retry the interview. For the first time, the game hinted that it would not just present information to me; it is an honest-to-goodness mystery game. I would truly have to play my character and respect the NPCs, choosing questions more carefully.  The story continued to have twists. There was the possibility that grandma was, perhaps, not as innocent as she seemed to be. And, as noted earlier, the quality of the mini-games improved dramatically, challenging the player and immersing them in the historical setting much more effectively than the initial games. I will avoid spoilers here, but the point is that Attentat 1942 came into its own as a full-fledged adventure game.

It’s important to note a personal bias at this point. I do not personally seek to play adventure games (the first Telltale Walking Dead series being the one recent exception) nor do I have much interest in the so-called “walking simulators” (here’s a Polygon article discussing the debate around these games). I prefer strategy games and role-playing games that immerse the player character directly in the historical environment. So it’s a bit difficult to judge Attentat 1942 as a historical version of one of those genres, to assess the extent that it gets the genre mechanics and appeal right.

But here’s the bottom line. I found the story and game engaging and found myself eager to learn more about the characters and solve the mystery. I even found myself reading some of the the non-essential encyclopedia entries, just because I wanted to know more about the world of 1942 Prague that these characters occupied. That this compelling world is a historical world based on careful research and well-designed presentation is the achievement of the game. For someone with an interest in the genre and a passing interest in the historical subject matter, the game will likely be enjoyable. For someone with a deeper interest in the subject matter, the game offers a compelling interactive glimpse of the past that is well worth playing.

Even these caveats largely disappear, however, in the classroom. There is a “floor effect” involved when using videogames in the classroom (which I believe is a term coined by my friend, Kurt Squire). In short, students will generally not contrast a video game used as part of a class unfavorably to the AAA game they can play at home. Rather, they will tend to compare the in-class game very favorably to other typical modes of instruction: lecture, textbook reading, class discussion, etc. Attentat 1942 is a gripping way to engage the past in a history class and encounter the details of daily life that are so often lost in historical accounts. I do, however, strongly encourage teachers to provide appropriate debriefing/reflection activities and prompts to ensure students get the most out of the experience (if you are a teacher working on this, please feel free to contact me and I will gladly help you design debriefing questions and activities).

In short, Attentat 1942, as a game, is an excellent meld of historical documentary authenticity and solid genre gameplay. As a game with sights set on teaching and learning history, it is a notable contribution to the genre and would make an excellent choice for a class that intends to investigate the Nazi occupation of Europe.

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