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Svoboda 1945: Liberation Review

Encyclopedic, thematically hefty

Svoboda 1945: Liberation is a game which explores how looking back at the past means different things for different groups of people. It’s a story about the difference between those who benefit from the act of looking back, and those who are punished and aggrieved instead.

It’s an adventure game employing full motion video and hand-drawn art to tell the story of a historical society volunteer visiting Svoboda, a small village on the Czech-German border, in order to decide whether an old schoolhouse there deserves to be made into a landmark and saved from demolition. It’s also a chronicle of the region’s tumultuous and complex history, of the Czech Republic’s role in World War II, particularly along its border with Germany.

In practice, the game’s adventure game framework often takes a back seat to its encyclopedic, history-documenting one. While your protagonist certainly plays a personal role in the game’s narrative, their primary duty is as fact finder, as absorber of dates, people and places. A townsperson you’re interviewing might leave in a huff at a rude question, or slam the door in your face, but they will usually immediately open it again, artificially available to serve as history-imparting vessels.

Historical research

And there is a ton of history to be found here. Even to those knowledgeable about the major events of the second World War, Svoboda’s geographical particularities will likely introduce numerous new names and faces to anyone without strong familiarity with the area. Players are introduced to Czechia’s Revolutionary Guard, its kulak farmers, its Volhynian Czechs; all groups with deep ties to the country and its history, who were all brought to Svoboda, drawn together by greater political forces, while needing to navigate and survive intensely personal ones. Playing the game provides important witness to the often overshadowed history of the Czech Republic during WWII and afterwards.

Still, Svoboda goes to great lengths to show us that the same history which is set in stone for one group of people might appear as heretical rubbish to another. Everyone in town who you speak to has their own ghosts from the war, whispering in their ears. Everyone has their own banner, their own household to defend, their own stories to honor. The war was a knife dug deep into the heart of the country, and the remaining residents of Svoboda are left to deal with the many festering injuries from that old wound.

Distorted identities

Svoboda shows us that a town can have an identity, and that that identity can become distorted and confused through trauma. Before WWII, Germans and Czechs coexisted in Svoboda. But living through occupation, anti-semetic purges and death marches took its inevitable toll. The Germans who remained after liberation day were like a miserable hangover, a reminder of everything that the Czech people suffered. And so they were driven out. Strangers from inland Czechia came to take their places, themselves resented by Svoboda’s surviving inhabitants for being gifted all that free land. A few years later, a communist government took over, causing even greater transformations and social disruption before disappearing along with the USSR in the late eighties.

The town you visit during the events of the game feels thoroughly spun around and dissociated by its tumultuous history. The school you are tasked with reviewing is itself threatened by the greedy capitalistic intentions of the town’s resident landlord. Yet there is lasting disdain for the country’s collectivist, communist past. A German expellee returns to her birthplace while others in the town refuse to display any guilt about her being driven away. An old jewish man cleans a swastika off of his grandparent’s tombstone. A mayor mourns her father’s losses, caused by the same government which she now encapsulates. All practically anyone can agree on is that the past should be forgotten, that the future is all that is left.

A past without a future

But how can there be a future without ground to seed and grow it from? Everyone you interview in the game is old, their minds and spirits still ensnared by half-century-old events. Svoboda itself is crumbling and decrepit. If its timeline has a terminus, you’re standing at it. If you decide to save the school building, the old teacher, Studnička, will turn it into a museum. There’s no indication though that anyone will continue his work after he has passed on. Who will tend the graves and keep them clean of hateful markings after Hein is gone? Who will remember the names on the photographs you carry after Jánský, the last proof of his expelled German family’s ties to the land, dies? What does it mean for a town which refuses to look at its painful past to also have no future?

In one flashback set in the late 1940s, on the eve of communist takeover, four men play blackjack around a table. The men exchange their hopes and their dreams, their fears and regrets. Despite everything–the war, the displacements, the retaliatory violence–they still mostly look toward the future as something full of promise, of possibility. But one by one, each man folds his hand and retires for the night. Because in the town of Svoboda, as in cards, someone has to lose just as surely as someone has to win. At least until tomorrow comes.