My Child Lebensborn Review
An estimated 12,000 children were born in Norway under the Lebensborn program, Nazi Germany’s attempt to breed Hitler’s master race. Born of German soldiers and unmarried Aryan women, these children were often taken from their mothers and given to SS officers or other “racially pure” families to raise the blonde-haired and blue-eyed future generations of the Nazis’ wet dreams.
But with the fighting over, Hitler dead, and the Nazi regime toppled, many of these kids were given up for adoption, becoming the unwitting outlet for Norwegians built up frustrations and hatred for the collective trauma they survived. They were branded as children of the enemies. Nazi kids.
In My Child Lebensborn, you play as one of these adoptive parents. Living in a small provincial town, you juggle the mundane struggles of parenthood with the impossible task of trying to brace a child for the undeserved consequences of their birthright.
Keeping your kid healthy
The game works by applying the Persona series’ time management system to taking care of a Tamagotchi. Each day, you have a set number of time periods to spend between working a modest factory gig, tackling chores, and attending to your child’s needs to keep their various meters full. You play hide and seek and paint pictures with them to maintain their “comfort” meter. Cooking meals with scavenged or purchased ingredients keeps their belly full, while washing their face after a good night of sleep or scrubbing off the mud from the latest run-in with bullies in the tub fills their “cleanliness” meter.
As in real life, there are only so many hours in a day, so you inevitably have some hard choices to make. Do you work overtime to afford that brand new backpack your kid’s been eyeing or head straight home to help them study for an upcoming test? Do you comfort them with a bedtime story after bullies send them home crying (again) or retire to your office to fire off letters to their biological family in the unlikely chance they’re willing to connect and answer your child’s lingering questions about their past?
Going into the game, my knowledge of the Lebensborn program was limited to a single projector slide from a half-remembered high school history class. But the game does a great job of painting an unflinching picture of the program’s cultural fallout both in Norway and elsewhere in Europe. Your character’s journal entries detail how Norweigian mothers bore the brunt of the abuse, were branded “German whores”, and sent to concentration camps by the thousands. That same scorn was passed down to their children who were left behind. Through newspaper clippings I get snapshots of a country stretched thin by the ravages of war, headlines about food rations and foreign aid, and cautious steps toward normalcy. And the through-line of it all: a lasting and bitter resentment of Germany.
This often put me at a loss for how to raise a Lebensborn child, a living reminder of the Nazis Norwegians rightfully eschewed, in a way that prepared them for the hardships they inherited without stamping out all their faith in the world before they even got the chance to experience it. Through dialogue options, you advise your child on how to deal with classroom tormentors, help them navigate friendships, and, if you choose to answer their questions honestly, reveal the identity of their parents and explain where all this hostility stems from. Alternatively, you can opt to shield them from this cruel truth until you think they’re old enough to understand it. With some choices, you’re notified with a message a la Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead about your kid’s emotional response, whether their heart was hardened or softened by your words or if you managed to maintain their trust.
Not so consequential
At the end of each chapter, the game breaks down how your choices stacked up between three categories—optimism, assertiveness, and open-heartedness—and compares how you and other players handled pivotal decisions such as whether to explain what a Nazi is when your child inevitably asks or chance a meeting with their estranged grandparents.
These were the only moments where it felt like my actions tipped the scales at all. In the first few chapters, I fretted day in and day out about mending the kid’s clothes in time for school or balancing my time so I had a meal cooked and ready for dinner because heaven forbid I send them to bed hungry! Eventually, I wondered what would happen if I did the opposite of what the game wanted me to, as one does. I began to ignore the meters, instead wiling away the time fishing at the lake or catching up on the latest news in the study or basically any available option that wasn’t responsible parenting. But even with your child dressed in tatters and going days without food, everything continues like normal save for a passing comment or two (Note: dear God, please do not try this at home!).
A heartbreaking tale
Stepping back for a moment, this lack of consequences makes perfect sense in a meta context. Teknopilot, the Norweigan production company behind My Child Lebensborn, has largely marketed it as an interactive documentary or an educational tool. The game uses the interactivity inherent to the medium to foster empathy and compassion for the plight of war children, building a more emotional connection than simply learning the history might be able to. Playing is ancillary to that end.
My Child Lebensborn focuses instead on being an unflinching look at the horrors these children went through and capturing the terrifying helplessness of growing up as “the other” in a hostile world through no fault of your own. And to that effect, whew boy, is it successful. Your day-to-day routines become a slog after a while (as they do in life, let’s be real), but your child’s running commentary about their setbacks and triumphs shoulders the bulk of keeping you invested. Watching their reactions shift from confusion to anger, and from frustration to quiet hopelessness and shame, the instinct to comfort them with promises of a brighter future is hard to ignore. On the other hand, the idea of giving them false hope, well-intentioned as it may be, is just as heartbreaking. Repetitive as My Child Lebensborn is, as a video game it falls short of what most players might consider “fun.” But as an education about Lebensborn and the poignant struggles of war children to this day, it leaves an enduring impression. Way more than any history class ever did.