Inside Controversial Game That's Tackling the Holocaust

'Imagination Is the Only Escape' isn't the first game to use a complex subject, but it has a lot to prove

Luc Bernard spent the last eight years designing an educational video game called 'Imagination Is the Only Escape.'

When he was 18, Luc Bernard joined a neo-Nazi gang in his hometown outside Besançon, in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France. His intentions were honorable: He wanted to spy on the group and report its activities to the local police. When his cover was blown, he was beaten and left to die in a field. "It was a small French town with a lot of prejudice and racism," Bernard tells me. "I was trying to do something about it."

Now 30, Bernard has spent the last eight years designing an educational video game called Imagination Is the Only Escape. It's presented through the eyes of Samuel, a young Jewish boy who is forced to flee Paris after his mother is captured and killed by Nazi soldiers during the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup, a mass arrest of Parisian Jews in July 1942. Samuel escapes the city with the help of a Catholic priest, who smuggles him to a village in southern France, where citizens hide Jewish children by passing them off as Christian orphans. Most of the adventure game takes place inside Samuel's imagination, a lushly illustrated world of simple puzzles and quests that help him deal with the bleakness of his surroundings.

Similar to Roberto Benigni's Holocaust film, Life is Beautiful, the point of the game is to underscore the importance of imagination in the face of horror. Yet unlike in film, games have been slow to win the kind of approval necessary to tackle subjects larger than themselves. That's partly because mainstream games have been slow to master subtlety – Call of Duty can hardly be called a meditative contemplation on World War II, for example. But that doesn't mean the medium is incapable of such feats. One of Bernard's goals with Imagination Is the Only Escape is to prove that games can, in fact, comment on history, even tragic history, in meaningful ways. "The majority of games about real events, especially war, focus on action and military strategy," Bernard said. "This will be one of the first games to focus on the human element."

In 2013, independent game developer Lucas Pope released a small puzzle game for the PC titled Papers, Please, about the life of an immigration officer working at the border of a fictional totalitarian country. The game is purposefully mundane and bleak: players must inspect people's paperwork and decide who to let into the country and who to turn away. "The most rewarding feedback for me is when players say the game has given them a picture of how difficult someone else's job can be," Pope told me.

Ryan Green, who made That Dragon Cancer, a video game about his son's battle with cancer, told me making a film about his family's experience would have been easier, but that it would have failed to produce the same reaction as a game. "Asking if the interactive medium is ready for such subjects is like asking if we should bother with books of fiction, or protest music or war films," Green explained. "There is a tremendous difference between being a passive observer and being given agency inside of a work of art. This medium is the closest we have to imitating the conditions of our reality, and to simulate what it means to swim against the current of fate with our own will. It is a profound tool for evoking empathy in players."

But this way of looking at games is markedly different from how most people view them. Pope and Green don't necessarily see entertainment as their objective – the point is to give people something to think about, maybe even educate them. "We are at the point where games can be more beneficial than books in teaching children about history," Bernard said. "Give a kid a choice between a book and an iPad, and guess which one he's going to pick?"

Bernard was raised predominantly by his maternal Jewish grandmother in Devon, England, until the age of ten, when he returned to the village outside Besançon with his mother. He obsessed over games like The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros., playing them over and over to see how they worked, and eventually began making demos for Nintendo's Game Boy Advance in his spare time. After a brief stint in London at a public relations firm, he returned to France in 2007, where he designed his first game, Eternity's Child, a hand-drawn, fairy-tale-inspired side-scrolling platformer. (It was released to poor reviews, and Bernard now cheerfully admits that the game was a "load of shit.")

In 2008, Bernard pitched Imagination Is the Only Escape to the British video game publisher Alten8. It was inspired in part, he said, by his grandmother's stories of sheltering Jewish orphans in London during the Second World War. Bernard's research led him to Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a largely Protestant village in the south of France, which had provided refuge for more than 3,000 Jews hiding from Nazi authorities, including around 400 children, from 1940 to 1944. The village is the basis for the setting of his game.

Bernard wanted to release it on Nintendo's portable console, the DS, but before Alten8 could contact Nintendo, a journalist from the New York Times called Bernard to ask about the game. The resulting article introduced Imagination Is the Only Escape as a "darkly illustrated" game that "describes how the Nazis tortured children." This prompted a follow-up article in the Jewish Chronicle, which included damning comments from the Holocaust survivor and author Jack Kagan.

"I think people were scared off. Art games are understood and accepted now, but this is something completely foreign."

Bernard claims that when he contacted Kagan to explain the idea in more detail, Kagan, in contrast with what he'd said to the Chronicle, told Bernard to make the game as realistic as possible. (In an email, Kagan told me that, while he remembers speaking to Bernard, his opinion about the game never changed. "The Holocaust story is not for a game, for children or adults," he wrote. I asked him to elaborate, but he declined to say anything further.) Alten8 was unable to secure funding for the game, and the idea was shelved. (Alten8 declined to comment on the agreement with Bernard.)

In 2014, Bernard moved to New York and launched a crowd-funding campaign for Imagination Is the Only Escape on IndieGoGo. The campaign lasted for more than a month, but managed to raise only $5,000 of Bernard's $125,000 goal. "I think people were scared off. Art games are understood and accepted now, but this is something completely foreign."

Bernard didn't want to shelve the project a second time, and, encouraged by the supportive messages he'd received, has continued to work on the game using his own savings. He contacted a number of Jewish organizations in New York, asking them to look at the game and offer suggestions. Some didn't reply; others politely declined.

The only organization that offered help was the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, which said that Bernard could use its Holocaust collection and resources to fact-check the game for historical inaccuracies. "People still write to me thinking Imagination Is the Only Escape is a Holocaust-simulation game – managing people in death camps, that kind of thing," he said. "They keep telling me I'm doing something terrible."

Bernard says only the beginning and end of Imagination Is the Only Escape actually depicts scenes of the Holocaust, and even then, these are rendered in black-and-white, with SS soldiers drawn as faceless, all-black cutouts with swastika armbands. None of these scenes, including a brief moment inside a concentration camp, are playable. Bernard insists no part of the game depicts torture of any kind.

And yet, it's quite possible Bernard's intentions will fall short. The Holocaust is an emotionally complex subject, and the risk that any kind of simulation, however stylized, will trivialize events is high. Even the most well-intentioned creative projects about the Holocaust can sometimes have negative consequences. "Labeling it a game instantly conjures up the wrong image," says Deborah Lauter, civil rights director of the Anti-Defamation League in New York. "It devalues the seriousness of the topic." Bernard already knows this – he wants Imagination to be thought of as an "interactive story" to dispel the notion that it trivializes a topic as sobering as genocide.

That said, Lauter doesn't want to discourage new ways of exploring the tragedy, particularly if young people stand to benefit. "It's like The Diary of Anne Frank," she says. "I'm going to guess when that came out, there were some who dismissed it, asking if that really was the right medium to talk about the Holocaust. Fast-forward to today and games are the way kids are learning now. As we move further from the Holocaust, it's imperative that we find new ways for new generations to understand it."

Sony Interactive Entertainment has offered Bernard a self-publishing deal for Imagination Is the Only Escape on the PlayStation Vita and the PS4. Bernard says he wants to release Imagination in an episodic format; he hopes the first episode will be ready at the beginning of next year. In the meantime, Bernard is working on a Sony-exclusive title, Death Tales, due for release this October.

Thinking ahead, Bernard wants to make his next game about another dark chapter in human history: the Nanking Massacre of 1937, in which hundreds of thousands of civilian residents of Nanking, China, were murdered by Japanese troops during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

"You can't really understand the horror of something like this when you learn about it in school," Bernard says. "But if you can somehow interact with this history – become involved in it somehow – it starts to sink in. You become attached, you learn from it."