‘Gerda: A Flame in Winter’ review: a tale of compassion

Heavy themes and tough decisions for a simple adventure game

gerda: A Flame in Winter is an adventure game where the main puzzle is navigating a web of personal relations. It is “a tale of compassion and community”, as the game’s own marketing describes it, but one where half of the community is made of Nazi sympathizers, and half of that compassion is directed towards those Nazis. Because of this, it is not an easy game to recommend. But that’s also what makes the experience special in a way a cleaner, simpler story can’t hope to be.

Gerda is the perfect protagonist for a story like this: as a nurse of both Danish and German families, living in a village with a Danish and German population, everyone is at least amicable to her. Be it because they’re friends, family, or for her useful medical skills, every faction seems to give her one more chance than they would to anyone else. She can go from the Danish pub to the Gestapo headquarters without raising any suspicion, though that doesn’t mean her choices don’t have consequences.

Choices are the bread and butter of Gerda, but they boil down to three mechanics: choosing what to do with limited time slots, interacting with the environment, and following dialogue trees. Often enough, players will feel as if their choice didn’t really alter the story how they wanted it to, and with good reasons. When this works, it lends every action a sense of desperation and highlights just how out of place these characters are in the war. Occasionally this might frustrate players, as they’re funnelled through a path they didn’t choose, but that frustration never lasts long: the best scenes come from choices that a player would never consciously make.

Gerda: A Flame in Winter. Credit: PortaPlay.
Gerda: A Flame in Winter. Credit: PortaPlay.

More often, what happens after a player makes their choice won’t be this inscrutable, but this doesn’t make the consequences easier to deal with. Questions as simple as whether to greet the patrolling Nazi officer suddenly become difficult when that officer is your father, but it’s still easy to tell that the Danish population won’t like your actions. Those are some of the simplest, most interesting questions in the game, hitting players with the consequences of their own naiveté and ignorance.

Gerda’s story isn’t exactly surprising. It has its twists and turns, and even multiple endings. It’s certainly very interested in giving weight to your choices. But it’s set in an occupied Danish village during the last days of the war. This certainty is what allows Gerda to look past the war and focus on the conflicts of the village and of its people.

It’s also what makes it possible to argue with Zeitfreiwillige Dieter Klein and feel sad; in the war, he’s a member of the voluntary Nazi police, but in the village he’s Gerda’s father. It’s what allows a wealthy German collaborator to convince you that his business has merely adapted to the occupation, while his railroads lead to concentration camps. It’s what makes bombing his factory a real dilemma since the money from that factory is what keeps the villagers afloat.

Gerda: A Flame in Winter. Credit: PortaPlay.
Gerda: A Flame in Winter. Credit: PortaPlay.

Gerda’s stories aren’t a shade of grey. The Nazis are bad, and your dad was wrong to join them. You can’t build a character that really agrees with their ideology. Yet, compared to the jingoistic WW2 shooters of old where three American soldiers personally kill Hitler, Gerda’s stance on Nazism might seem almost neutral. This isn’t the case.

A bad choice made from desperation is still a bad choice. But as Gerda demonstrates, there are ways to reconcile with those choices, with our past, without falling back to a simplified version of history. This isn’t “a tale of compassion and community” for the sake of being nice to Nazis, but because it’s the only way to reconciliate with our past without creating a fictional one.

Besides making for great dilemmas, the Second World War must be a fascinating time to Gerda developer PortaPlay. Either in conversation or with the “Historical Facts” menu, they never lose a chance to teach somewhat obscure facts on the Danish civilians’ side of the war. How much you know (or learn) on the war might even influence what route you take through the story.

Gerda: A Flame in Winter. Credit: PortaPlay.
Gerda: A Flame in Winter. Credit: PortaPlay.

Gerda: A Flame in Winter is sharply focused on the setting, the conversations and a handful of set pieces. This doesn’t mean that everything else here is sub-par, but it’s not hard seeing the corners being cut. The art style is hit and miss, the low-poly villagers looking great at a distance, with nice hand drawn portraits and a clean UI completing the picture. The problems start when the action zooms in: the camera work and the framing is great, but the 3D assets and robotic animation don’t stand up to scrutiny.

The sound is a mixed bag too. On one hand, the solitary piano can quickly become repetitive and often remains too subdued. On the other hand, the few times where it raises in intensity can cut as deep as most games’ bombastic scores. If anything, the ambience and environment sounds could have stood to fill more of the silence left by the soundtrack.

Despite some nit-picks and minor bugs, Gerda: A Flame in Winter is an exceptional, approachable adventure game drenched in actual history. It’s easy to think of history as a perfect, abstract version of our past, but the way to really understand it is to know that real, imperfect people made all the decisions that brought us here. They made them with no retrospective, with little context, and often with no real alternative. Gerda understands this, and it can’t wait for you to understand too.

Gerda: A Flame in Winter launches on September 1 for PC and Nintendo Switch. This review was played on PC.

The Verdict

Gerda: A Flame in Winter is a brilliant adventure game that’s not always as exciting as it is interesting. Simple and approachable mechanically, the same can’t be said for its themes. But if you’re fine with feeling bad for a Nazi while constantly reminded of the damage their ideology did, or if you want to be presented with two horrible choices and be convinced, each time, that you took the worst one, then Gerda is for you.

Pros

  • Simple gameplay that jells well with each scene
  • The rich historical reconstruction makes for a fascinating setting
  • Interesting moral dilemmas

Cons

  • 3D models and animations look bad when seen up close
  • Heavy themes could turn some players away
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