One of video games’ greatest strengths lies in their ability to offer escape from real life. Imagination is allowed to run entirely unhinged as the dreams of designers go digital, and we lucky folk are invited along for the ride.
Sometimes, though, the real world seeps into video games in surprising ways – whether that is in the form of politics rearing its ugly head or actual murders being depicted for entertainment. Games can get every bit as real as the world outside.
It’s thrilling to play games that offer a space where real-life can be filtered into something controlled, and the truly insidious explored. After all, reality is always stranger than fiction and controlling and altering moments from the past is truly exhilarating.
The following is a list of games that draw their inspiration from the real world, and sometimes become a little too real.
1. Through the Darkest of Times
No matter how intelligent or empathetic you are, it’s incredibly difficult, sometimes even arguably impossible to truly comprehend the enormity of the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Games usually seek to loosen your grip on the concept further, by saying little more than “go shoot every German you find in the face”.
Through the Darkest Times is one of those very few pigeonhole-defying games that open your eyes wider in a very impressive way. You and your small band play as a German resistance group living in Berlin during the Second World War.
The story begins with Hindenburg appointing Hitler Chancellor in 1933, and runs right through until the aftermath of the war in 1946. The story is firmly grounded in reality, so there’s no chance of preventing WWII or having any effect at all on historical events.
Your missions don’t often involve violence, but instead the weapons of the weak – sabotage, graffiti and spreading leaflets. It’s all about doing what little you can for the persecuted, trying to spread the truth of what the Nazis are doing and even looking on helplessly as huge amounts of the populace cheer Hitler on.
This game embraces a unique approach as it aims to expose players to a history most people don’t know while the game’s mechanics illustrate for the player how difficult resistance to Nazism often was for ordinary people.
2. Call of Duty: WWII
Most Second World War games don’t mention the major tragedies or anything related to the Holocaust.
And while CoD: WWII does fall into clichés and traps with WWII video games where you’re getting a lot of bombast, blockbuster set pieces, at the same time, the developers at Activision did something rather brave, which is bringing up the Holocaust in a major AAA video title. This version is surprisingly a fast-paced take on the classic setting.
For folks who have played Call of Duty since the beginning, this is a welcome return to the game they fell in love with. Soldiers appear more human, instead of looking like some futuristic, cyber-mutant Marine. And because the soldiers’ physical ability is limited, they can’t sprint too long before tiring or jump more than a few feet — strategy is now a priority.
For the younger generation of CoD players, this is a brand-new type of Call of Duty. Without jetpacks and the ability to wall-run, CoD: WWII is mostly positioning, decision-making and gun skill. But at the same time, the new game returns to a time the series hasn’t visited in a while — World War II — and doesn’t shy away from the horrors of it all.
As is standard with CoD games, World War II is truly three games wrapped up into one. There is the Campaign, an immersive single-player story that takes the player (Private Daniels) on an actual tour, fighting in historic battles, of the Western Front. Then there is Multiplayer, a cornerstone of CoD titles, where players face off with other players online in a range of game modes.
And, finally, there’s Nazi Zombies, a co-op mode where players go head-to-head with game bots. It culminates in a mission where you are liberating a concentration camp. There is no violence but you’re solemnly going through the remains at the concentration camp.
Nioh may not be the Samurai game we deserve, but it’s the Samurai game we needed. Koei Tecmo’s title is one of the best games to record Japanese lore and history crossing over into the digital realm.
In the game, you control the character of William Adams, a real-life samurai who was one of the very few Westerners to ever serve a shogun. Adams’s ship landed on the Izu Peninsula in Japan over 400 years ago, but his exploits as an explorer were well documented.
As per the gameplay, the government of Queen Elizabeth I wants to secure victory over Spain by obtaining Amrita, a mystical golden stone found in Japan. For that, Adams is trained in combat so that he can defeat Edward Kelley, another westerner who is driving the war in Japan using his dark abilities and is also after the golden stone.
Nioh is one of the few games that are a gauntlet of brutal combat set in a demonic feudal Japan, and it will beat you down, chew you up and spit you out. And yet, as hard as the game may be, it’s even harder to beat that sense of satisfaction you feel when you crush your enemies, master the game’s systems, and emerge victorious.
Nioh is also one of those games that offer you a slick and responsive combat, with a huge variety of potential combinations of weapons, skills and stances, as well as magic. Swords, bows, spears, guns, throwing stars and a ton of other choices make up your character’s arsenal as you do battle against wicked men and demons through mission after perilous mission.
4. Fight of Gods
Graven images have long been taboo in many religions throughout the world. For literal ages, religious types have been arguing over who has the better god.
Thankfully, Digital Crafts have found a way to buck that cultural trend by letting them scrap it out in the form of a video game. One of the most imaginative games, it lets you pick your favourite deity and go toe-to-toe with the likes of Jesus, Moses, Zeus, Odin and even Santa.
Much of the game’s godly pantheon of fighters consists of deities long out of vogue in the worshipping world, but a few are timely enough to ruffle some feathers. Jesus rips himself off the cross, keeping the nailed pieces of wood attached so he can use them as weapons. Moses crushes people with the 10 commandments and Santa rides his sleigh into his enemies.
The main focus is, of course, on the fighting and every character has exactly the same move set, just with different visuals. You have two resource bars – one for your ‘super’ and another to activate a buff when things get a little hairy. Jesus, for example, has the aptly named ‘Resurrection’ buff which gives him some health back.
After battling through the arcade mode, you also get a chance to see who’s behind all these shenanigans. You are presented with a purple opaque being known as ‘Boss’. If you are a big fan of history and mythology, this is one of the few games that are out in the gaming industry for you. Start playing and satisfy your heart and soul.
5. The Town of Light
The Town of Light is an interactive psychological thriller that takes place in the 1940s at the Volterra Psychiatric Hospital in Italy.
It tells the fictional story of ex-patient Renee, who has returned to the hospital to find some form of closure, following the atrocities she experienced there as a teenager. But while the story might be fiction, its inspiration and setting of the game are chillingly real.
The hospital itself, for instance, is a faithful one-to-one recreation of the actual hospital that sprawls across the hilltops of Tuscany. Unlike the other games on this list, which are based on specific events, The Town of Light is based on numerous disturbing letters, diary entries, and published books by former patients and staff of Volterra.
According to the game’s developers, “Renee’s story has been created to be as credible as possible, it is similar to a lot of real stories, but it is completely fictional and totally written by us”. They further said that a huge work of research and documentation has been done to achieve it. The developers took up this theme to pay respect to the huge amount of people who have really suffered such kinds of experiences.
Considering this statement, coupled with the atrocities that 16-year-old Renee experienced at Volterra, such as sexual abuse, rape, abandonment, loneliness and man-handling, you can imagine what a horrific experience The Town of Light can be.
In a way, Renee acts as a composite for multiple experiences of numerous individuals, not only at Volterra, but at various mental institutions of the time – a time when the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness wasn’t backed by any real academic facts. A woman with sexual urges, a man drunk in public or anyone that didn’t fit into society’s standards of normality were considered credible reasons to have a person institutionalised.
And the treatments are anything and everything, including shock therapy and forced labour to being tied to a bed for days at a time – none of which ever had any real effect and lead to most of the patients spending almost their entire lives locked up in a place that treated them like guinea pigs.
The truth behind The Town of Light makes it one all the more shocking and just comes to show that humans can be more terrifying than any other fictional demon or monster they imagine.
This is one of the few video games who have succeeded time and again to slap humans on the face and make them realised their harsh nature and untamed ways.
6. 1979 Revolution: Black Friday
1979 Revolution: Black Friday is one of the most fascinating narrative-driven adventure games that take place amidst the 1979 Iranian revolution against the Pahlavi Dynasty under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran.
In this interactive adventure game from Ink Stories, you take on the role of photojournalist Reza Shirazi, who has returned to his homeland to find himself in the middle of a brewing revolution. As a journalist, it doesn’t take long for Reza to become involved in the unfolding events and soon he is faced with life-changing decisions and horrific occurrences.
Like most games, it is a fictional work but its narrative is based on several troubling accounts from freedom fighters, witnesses, casualties, and civilian prisoners under the oppressive Pahlavi autocracy, touching events such as “Black Friday”, a turning point in the 1979 revolution where hundreds of protestors were killed by the Iranian military after the government declared martial law.
As the playable character of one of the most historically accurate games, you are armed with a camera and tasked with taking various pictures. Often, after taking the picture, your photo will be compared side by side with actual photographs and sometimes, even videos of the same events or moments and provided with historical insight into their significance.
It’s a fascinating process that immerses you in the role of a photojournalist and the history of the revolution, but at the same time reveals some harsh truths and truly shocking moments.
With its choice-driven gameplay, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday also highlights the moral dilemmas one could have faced in this period, emphasizing that in such a dire and sensitive situation, there rarely is a right and wrong answer, and that you have no control over the consequences of said choices.
7. That Dragon, Cancer
Unlike most of the other games on this list, which revolve around epic wars and other global events that reshaped our world map, That Dragon, Cancer is a heart breaking autobiographical game based on Ryan and Amy Green’s sombre story of losing a child to cancer.
When Joel was only twelve-months-old he was diagnosed with an atypical tumour and given less than four months to live. That Dragon, Cancer aims to deliver the sense of hopelessness and grieving that the Green’s felt during this ordeal.
The game chronicles the events from Ryan and Amy discovering that one-year-old Joel has cancer, up to his eventual death. The story is told over fourteen vignettes, each exploring pivotal and highly emotional moments during Joel’s fight with his disease.
Even if you’ve never been a parent, That Dragon, Cancer does a remarkable job of putting you in Ryan and Amy’s shoes, allowing you to experience their hopelessness and grief with raw honesty.
That Dragon, Cancer does boast some religious undertones as both Ryan and Amy are religious Christians and it is definitely a theme that is explored. However, it is also one of those games that certainly doesn’t try to convert you or detracts you from the story.
At its core, this title is about loss, hope, and the search for meaning in times of great pain. The death of a child is unimaginable, a young, innocent and oblivious soul taken before they could even fully comprehend the strange mess we know as life.
In stark contrast to a gaming world saturated with meaningless death and glamorized violence, That Dragon, Cancer is one of the beautiful and rare games that celebrate the sanctity of life and explores the utter sorrow that comes with its end.
It’s raw and honest titles like these that truly show how special and poignant the medium of video games can be, not only as a medium of entertainment but as a tool of understanding.
Kholat is one of the most beautiful but terrifying indie survival horror games based on the eerie and unsolved Dyatlov Pass Incident.
In the winter of 1959, ten young skiers, all students and peers from the Ural Polytechnic Institute, started their hike into the Russian Ural Mountains. The group were all experienced Grade II hikers and with this very journey, they were looking to earn their Grade III, the highest level offered by the Soviet Union at the time, which required an individual to have at least 300km of hiking experience.
The journey already had a shaky start when one of the members had to abandon the trek on the second day due to growing health issues. But this was followed by even further complications when the remaining group got lost in severe weather conditions and found themselves off-trek on the Kholat Syakhl Mountain which is also known as the ‘Dead Mountain’. Unbeknownst to them, this would be the end of their journey.
When Igor Dyatlov, the leader of the expedition, failed to send a telegram to confirm the completion of their trek, various family members of the hiking group requested that a search party be sent to locate them. The initial volunteer search party failed to find the missing hikers and eventually had to call in the help of the army and local Militsiya police force.
Days later, the hikers’ campsite was discovered totally abandoned. According to the inspectors, their tent was severely torn from the inside and most of their belongings were left behind, indicating that they fled the scene in a hurry, seemingly trying to escape from an unknown threat inside the tent.
A trail of footprints outside the tent led the team to five of the now deceased hikers, whose bodies were discovered hundreds of meters apart. None of them were wearing shoes or proper weather proof clothing, once again confirming their hasty departure from their tent. It took another two months before the bodies of the remaining four hikers were found.
The autopsies revealed that many of the hikers had broken and cracked bones, but strangely no soft tissue damage such as bruises or wounds. The degree of the injuries also ruled out the possibility of murder as the force behind them could not be inflicted by a human.
One of the hikers was found in a considerably worse condition though – she had major external injuries and was missing her eyes, tongue, lips, and a skull fragment.
To add to the bizarreness, various other groups of hikers and nearby residents claimed to have seen strange “orange spheres” on the night of the incident, and those attending the hikers’ funeral said their bodies had a peculiar deep brown tan.
To this day, the Dyatlov Pass Incident remains unsolved and the title based on this mysterious incident is unarguably one of the best adventure games of all time.
Dark and disturbing, all the more so for it having been based on real events; Masochisia is not an escapist entertainment. Nor is it exactly violent in the way video games usually portray violence. Yet pain is the central motif – enduring it, causing it, enjoying it and being compelled by it.
There are two ways of looking at Masochisia – the story, the writing, and the presentation, and secondarily the game play. The story, without spoiling too much, is about a serial killer’s gradual descent into madness, both at the hands of a bipolar mother and sadistic father, and equally at the behest of an escalating chorus of voices and characters in his own head.
Masochisia has you play as the killer – a young Albert Fish who is known to have killed, molested, and even cannibalized countless children in the early 1900’s, Fish was eventually caught by police in New York City and thankfully sent to the electric chair to cook for good in 1936.
This is one of the few games that have the kind of story that we’ve seen in film, but almost never in games, because it does not have anything like a clearly innocent protagonist or a defensible moral centre. Everyone in the story is broken in significant ways.
Games rarely go down the path that Masochisia takes, and the developer Jon Oldblood is to be applauded for taking gamers into a really dark corner of experience. In the end, Masochisia is not a very successful game no matter how unflinchingly or creatively it examines its subject matter.
10. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
There are many World War II games around, but how about jumping into the first World War?
Beginning in 1914, when Germany declared war on Russia and France began deporting German citizens, Valiant Hearts: The Great War focuses on five average citizens in World War I. It stars a German soldier, a French prisoner of war, an American volunteer, a Belgian nurse and a failed English pilot, whose stories are inspired by real-life letters from the time period.
Each character’s tale is linked by that of a dog, which all will encounter at some point. But the stories are told in a non-linear order; and action flits between different points-of-view and sides of the conflict.
Many of the accounts are based on real stories from the war, and all of the battles represented in the game are real conflicts. Valiant Hearts even features several encyclopaedic accounts from the war accompanied by actual war photos.
Valiant Hearts has a comic book aesthetic, where speech is delivered through speech bubbles and cut scenes are delivered through panels that appear on parts the screen, so as not to pull players out of what they’re doing. Players will jump back and forth between the different characters, and they’ll also jump backward and forward in time to different parts of the war.
Valiant Hearts is one of the few games that tell the story of The Great War and it can be your picture perfect scenario to know more about the war.