A relentless dream and nightmare

For decades, video games have provided players an escape from the challenges and tragedies of the real world.  Whether we’re searching for a reprieve from everyday stressors or a way to live out unattainable fantasy goals, games have filled that need. 

In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in gaming experiences that aim less to strictly entertain and more to inform, educate, and empathize: titles like Actual Sunlight and That Dragon, Cancer offer interactive opportunities to explore the personal, emotional topics of depression and illness, respectively.  Papo & Yo confronts the demons of alcoholism.  And soon, Imagination Is The Only Escape will provide a new way for modern players to remember the Holocaust: through the eyes of a child.

Imagination Is The Only Escape

Creator and director of Imagination Is The Only Escape, Luc Bernard, aims to craft an authentic and haunting portrayal of France’s Nazi occupation in 1942.  The story will follow a young Jewish boy named Samuel and begin just before the Nazi invasion; his life is normal at this time, filled with friends and schoolwork, the normal events of youth.  This soon changes, though, during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and mass arrest of Jews in Paris: Samuel’s mother encourages him to flee the city and find sanctuary with a Catholic priest, but she is shot and killed during their escape.  In one instant, Samuel’s life—and that of all Parisians—changes dramatically.

Samuel follows his mother’s final advice and seeks out the priest, who disguises Samuel as a Christian orphan to help smuggle him to Southern France.  During his search and subsequent transfer, though, the atrocities of the Holocaust surround him.  Samuel retreats into a fantasy world to help cope with the current reality, and it’s there that he meets a fox named Renard.  Renard offers a way for Samuel to see his mother again, if he agrees to help her first. 

Bernard told Gamezebo: “You will control Samuel; during the realistic segments you will live his life like most other Jewish children during the war and get to experience how it was.  During the imaginary parts, you will have control over Samuel and the fox—you can give it actions to do to help you solve puzzle(s) and defend yourself.  Samuel is still a defenseless child, so he needs Renard’s help in his imaginary world.” 

While this fantasy world might sound like a whimsical reprieve from the game’s core focus, Bernard’s explanation is less light-hearted.  “The imagination parts are very different than the realistic ones; that will be very noticeable.  The fantasy Samuel imagines is very colorful compared to the realistic parts, but it doesn’t mean it will be lighter in tone,” he said.  “It will be linear, there is only one ending, one outcome in this title—which is not a nice one, but a realistic one.”  The juxtaposition of Samuel’s idyllic imaginary world and the horrific reality that keeps forcing its way in creates a jarring immersive experience for the player or viewer.  “Imagination is still hard to compare to films, but [A Beautiful Mind] might be the closest to it,” Bernard said.  “For those who know the story, when reality comes back it will hit a lot harder since people experiencing this might start to get lost into Samuel’s fantasy world like himself.”

Imagination Is The Only Escape

This empathetic absorption into Samuel’s story and world is meant to encourage players to learn more about the Holocaust outside of the game itself.  It presents specific, real events—like the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and disguising Jewish children as Christian orphans—in an attempt to educate on a topic that is shadowed by the grandiosity of World War II overall.  “I will be honest, I don’t remember learning about it that much when I was in school,” Bernard said.  “They focused mainly on the other things that happened during World War II.  I ended up researching it by myself when I was older, and then started really feeling sick with everything I was finding out.  Then during one point I did research on Neo-Nazis and even infiltrated a group in France, which you can imagine didn’t end well for me.”

Bernard’s dedication to exploring the Holocaust and similarly weighty topics, to the point of putting his life in danger, was inspired by very strong women in his life.  “I was mainly raised by my grandmother [who cared for Jewish orphans after WWII] and one of her best friends; they were the reason I started drawing and doing stories,” Bernard said.  “When my gran passed away and then her best friend, I felt like I had no one left around me.  For the first weeks, I was incredibly depressed and even tried to commit suicide, which didn’t work out (thank god, otherwise I wouldn’t be here…), but after that moment I stopped pitying myself and decided to focus more on trying to bring something to the world while I am still alive.

“Another inspiration was my ex-wife who passed away in a car accident; she taught women how to be more comfortable and accept themselves.  That was really quite admirable.  Even today that she is gone her influence is still seen.”

Imagination Is The Only Escape

With such strong female influences, it’s no surprise that Bernard is interested in exposing other tragedies that have affected women, following his work on Imagination.  “There is one event that I would like to show, which is the Nanking Massacre.  Not many people know about what happened to that city in our culture,” Bernard said.  “Another topic which has made me very uncomfortable is sex trafficking: most people don’t realize how much of it actually goes [on] and how it’s right in front of them.  I have been doing a lot of research on that, and closer than just reading about it, but actually finding the places where it is being done.  Quite a lot of my close friends have told me that I am utterly stupid for trying to undercover such things, but someone has to.  I think a lot of people don’t realize how awful the lives of these girls really are, and it’s not a choice.”

These ideas almost border on investigative game development and reach a level of commitment to truth-telling through immersive media that we have hardly even considered.  Having tried to release Imagination Is The Only Escape back in 2008 only to meet a lack of funding support, Bernard is intimately familiar with the challenges of presenting ‘serious’ video games to the world.  “I think we have difficulties in our industry because it’s called ‘video games,’ when a lot of them are going more towards interactive experiences.”  But after five years, Bernard remains determined.  “I plan to finish Imagination now, there really is no going back.  I don’t know how much longer I might have in this world, and this is one title I feel like I must bring no matter what.

“Ideally, I would like to use my career to make titles with serious topics and also be able to contribute more to the world than being selfish and becoming successful just for myself.  If I can change someone’s life with my work that is all I want.”

You can help support Bernard’s goal and Imagination Is The Only Escape via Indiegogo.