Most war games begin and end with combat, and in upcoming indie release Fritz, players get to do their fair share. They control the titular German soldier as he charges across the battlefields of World War I and grapples with the French army in the trenches. But it's in between battles that the game's real action happens.
During those lulls, Fritz visits wounded friends in the hospital, and kills time on guard duty. He reads letters from home, and struggles with the trauma of life and death on the front. By putting the player in a soldier's shoes, developers Truceful Entertainment hope to do something few games have aspired to: put a human face on one of the world's most dehumanizing practices.
"I hope people will think a little bit harder about why people fight," says Fritz writer Mel Cody, who lives in Longmont. "I believe that the vast majority of humanity tries to do what is right. Even during World War II, most Nazis weren't cackling with their fingers templed as they watched the world burn. They were trying their best in a really awful situation."
Fritz's development team is as international as the Great War itself, with its three members split between as many countries. The game started as a series of pixel artworks by Swiss artist Daniel Tschanz, a longtime collaborator of Cody.
"As I grew fond of the little soldiers, I came up with the idea of a game whose focus is on getting the player to connect emotionally to the faceless little guys," says Tschanz. After fleshing out the concept with Cody, the pair put out a call for programmers on a forum, and ended up inviting UK-based Jordan Springett to join their team. With few opportunities to meet face-to-face, the trio does most of their collaboration through Skype and e-mail.
Unlike World War II, which has spawned literally hundreds of first person shooters and strategy games, very few titles have tackled World War I. (One notable exception, Ubisoft's Valiant Hearts, hit the market earlier this summer, just in time for the conflict's centenary.) That's partially because the war's nuanced politics and lack of a clear moral high ground make it hard to translate into the kind of good-versus-evil narrative that game developers love.
It was that very ambiguity that convinced Truceful's founders to base their game around World War I. "We really want to examine the way people, as individuals, react to war; we don't want to make another game that glorifies battle and victory," says Cody. "This is such a human war, but I think there's a tendency in the Anglophile world to villainize Germans, especially after World War II."
Chief among the misconceptions that the team hopes to tackle is the idea that Germany's army was a homogeneous horde of Aryan ubermenschen. In Fritz, players will find comrades of a variety of ethnicities, Jews included: As Cody points out, Germany's Jewish population fought enthusiastically for their country during World War I.
In order to get players invested in Fritz himself, Truceful designed the game's title character to be a bit of a blank slate. "He wants what everyone in the war wants: to survive and get back home to the people he loves," says Cody. "Whether, for example, he's a loyalist or an anti-war agitator? That's up to the player." While Fritz's experiences will affect his health, players will also need to keep an eye on less-tangible statistics, like loneliness or mental trauma.
While Fritz departs significantly from the war game script, the developers say their goal isn't to make a statement against mainstream shoot-em-ups like Call of Duty. Instead, they're trying to provide players with an opportunity to go beneath the surface, and think about the deeper causes and consequences of conflict.
"I enjoy getting a head shot on a friend from across the map as much as anyone," says Cody. "However, when that's all you know about war, I think that can be a problem."
You can learn more about the project or contribute onFritz's Kickstarter page; the campaign ends Wednesday.
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Follow Adam Roy on Twitter at @adnroy.