Crystal Slaves might be described as a story-focused dungeon crawler, but this honestly doesn’t cut it. A short and more fitting description: This game is experimental, bold, and rather challenging – but not in the sense of difficulty.
Returning readers might have noticed (or know otherwise) that I only do positive reviews on this blog. I honestly wasn’t sure if I should or could review this game, and I still wasn’t as I begun writing these lines. There might be a discrepancy between what this game is, what the developer wanted to do, and what I think of as good about it; this is not only because this game is not only strange in its making, (maybe purposely) glitchy and bug infested (and sometimes also certainly so on purpose: cutscenes are without text or speech, but accompanied by some rough noise), but also rather hefty in the topics that are thematised. The story could be interpreted as a charge against the status quo, as a failed attempt of someone who aimed to high, as an pessimistic outcry, or even as a cynical parody.
You play a cute anthropomorphic animal that was sold off into a dehumanizing slave camp (there are at least slight reminiscences of Art Spiegelmanns Maus – noteworthy, however, is that the perpetrators in this game have a quintessential human form while they appear as cats in Maus). Every day you are sent into the shafts beneath the camp to mine crystals; according to the game developer’s description, you chat with your inmates, learn to know them and their stories, and eventually develop the plan to escape with them by digging a tunnel.
While this description is basically correct, there is a thing missing: The protagonist enters the hierarchy of the labor-camp as a foreman. Not only does she lead a mining squad into the depths and directs them, she is also the only one able to cure her wounded fellow inmates to prevent them from dying and is given the control over the distribution of food for the members of her mining squad; the sinister connotation is clearly intended („You can decide who deserves to eat“), even though partly counteracted by a bug that allows you to distribute more food after using it up by re-opening the GUI. Or maybe this is a purposeful implanted „error in the system“? Maybe the developer had scruples to create a „let your fellow camp inmates starve“-simulator – I can tell that I would have. And this isn’t a singular case: At another point, a member of the mining party was killed since I failed to notice the attack in time; afterwards, the protagonist wasn’t able to go to sleep anymore – the icon to do so was still there, but didn’t work – and since this was the only way of further progression, I had to reload. On another instance, people who agreed to help me didn’t appear later on.
The missions in the mine are cast in an „heroic“ aesthetic that is quite common in modern popular media: Followed by their henchman, the courageous leader is entering an uncharted area filled with dangers in the dim light of helmet lamps; but the context re-frames the stereotypical picture – the proto-fascist component within the trope of the hero who is turning his followers into commodities and sacrifices them for own means, that Horkheimer extrapolated in his text about Odysseus in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, is very tangible and present in the mining sequences.
Also it is noticeable that while it does look extremely good, the process of mining is labor. Nearly nothing changes from day to day, only the caves layout is different each time and the amount of material you have to bring up to earn your food will steadily rise; the seemingly adventure is empty and meaningless routine that costs you your lifetime, attention and energy nonetheless – and at the beginning of the game, there is seemingly no escape (other than to quit the game). Again, it is probable that this is not a faux-pax but a voluntarily decision to transport a message; if you seek a good time, you’ll have to turn elsewhere – this game is not about fun (the gamification of work, and the tendency to create „fun“ working simulators as video games, as well as games that promise to generate revenues for there players would be interesting topics to discuss on their own, especially in the context of underground gaming – but where? The discussion of gaming as a medium is so backward in its tendency to be a prolonged arm of marketing that it severely hinders the development of the medium itself. Also, they are overshadowed by more pressing topics here).
Eventually you’ll meet a guy who is offering you a plan for escape. The person is the shopkeeper who is selling you upgrades for your equipment but is seemingly also a prisoner within the camp. But just like the protagonist, he is using his higher position in the slave camps hierarchy to exploit his inferiors: On the protagonists question if he would also participate in the digging he answers in a evading fashion. But he also tells you that nobody managed to escape until now: They either gave up or died before they could dig through the stony and difficult ground under the camp.
From this point on, the dialogues that your character has with his inferiors become more close and more interested; if you talk to them, „Emma“ will more often ask about their past and their feelings. Again, this could be simply in cause of the underlying game mechanics, but another possible interpretation is that the outlying system of omnipresent exploitation is also shaping the kind how communication and relations are arranged within this (or the?) society.
The dialogues that are opened up through this paint a gloomy picture about the world outside of the camp: Most of the slaves were sold of by their families who couldn’t keep up in the seemingly unregulated economy. Even if the escape would prove possible: Where should the protagonist and their inmates turn to in such a world, and is the escape meaningful at all if there is no redemption in realistic reach? Your character is tormented by fears about her past, treason, and death; these are showed in soundless, crudely rendered nightmare sequences between the days.
One could argue that this is not a game about the holocaust: The camp that is depicted in this game is not a concentration camp per se, but differs in many aspects. The number by which the inmate is identified is not a tattoo but a printing on the prisoners uniform, and the commitment that is depicted is spacious when compared to the NS concentration camps. There is no implication of gas chambers, and the deep terror that is denoting for the NS-concentration camps is not depicted here. Detention camps have existed before Auschwitz, and have existed afterwards. The uniqueness of the holocaust is intensely discussed, and the question won’t be resolved here.
But holocaust images entered the popular culture, and might have end up here, even without the developer consciously intending it – and since the cultural break and the unmasking of the promises of enlightenment were such a severe tremor within the western (if not global culture), they can not be easily ignored; even right wing politicians who finance and upkeep detention camps, promote group-focused enmity, commit or advocate war crimes, and attempt to prevent remembrance of the holocaust to happen usually try to dissociate from it (if they don’t deny it – the next escalation on the ladder). It is a common symbol for ultimate evil, and if you are near it, it gripes you.
Things like the established camp hierarchy that turn inmates into tools to control and undermine the prisoners are a dynamic described in Eugen Kogons Der SS-Staat. The concept of extermination through labour is directly addressed in dialogues, the prisoners are in the camp to die. Also, the framing of the forced labor camp as a direct result of unhindered capitalism is compatible to the Marxist view on the holocaust and fascism. Noteworthy is also the postcolonial aspect: Imperialism is often regarded as the necessary precursor of fascism by allowing a division of humanity into those who are worthy to live and those who are free for exploitation, mainly with the marker of constructed „races“ as a vehicle (the extermination of the Herero and Namaqua, ethnics that were exploited for labor, is often cited as the schematic for the holocaust).
The „race“ marker is present here, but hidden in the fact that the victims are shaped as animals while the guards are humans (but behave inhumane; the anthropomorphic prisoners on the other side have clearly human qualities):
Die stets wieder begegnende Aussage, Wilde, Schwarze, Japaner glichen Tieren, etwa Affen, enthält bereits den Schlüssel zum Pogrom [...] was nicht als Mensch gesehen wurde und doch Mensch ist, wird zum Ding gemacht („The often heard statement that savage-, black-, or japanese people are similiar to animals is already containing the key to pogrom […] what isn’t viewed as human, but is human, is made into a thing“). From, Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, taken from the mid of a passage where he reflected about the holocaust and its preconditions.
So, while this game might not be about the holocaust, it clearly can be said that it deals with imagery and concepts related to the holocaust and is compatible with debates about the holocaust. The developer couldn’t bring themself to complete it, and I’m hardly unable to write a review about it, because it is placing its finger right into the wound. The quality of this game lies within the questions it opens up and directs to. It is not fun to play, just as John Zorns Kristallnacht is not fun to hear or Night and Fog isn’t fun to watch; those are much more direct, but both don’t seem as off as this game does: This is because the debate, the view, and the development of video games as a medium are severely underdeveloped – „The light within the darkness„, a game that is explicitly about the Holocaust and that was released this year stopped the interactivity except for a ~5 second long walk after the deportations took place, probably because the developers also felt that the medium can’t deal with the topic. Video games are still treated much like pinball machines, and this is a problem – not because the holocaust needs to be dealt with within video games, but because the things that can be done within them since they aren’t taken seriously:
Many of the mechanics that are used in this game are used in common gaming without much of noticing (healing the „right“ people and prevent them from dying to be successful in a video game is one common example, deciding about who is worthy to get abstracted „food“, sometimes even purposely killing „useless“ eaters – a thing, to example, common in Age of Empires – another). Most video games set during World War II ignore the holocaust and sometimes even war crimes at all, and thus enable the myth of the clean Wehrmacht (as other video games, set during others or fictional war usually ignore the struggles of the civil society; exceptions, like „This war of mine„, are rare). They are actively used as propaganda to promote militarism. Games developed by right wing extremists are sold on major platforms, and were used as a medium of propaganda by them, often in the most repulsive ways, for more than thirty years. On a more fundamental base, many video games are based on the logic of violence and extermination; critique on this is often rejected by stressing the fictional and entertainment-oriented nature of video games – a cheap figure to defend the medium against critique that probably couldn’t work with any other medium nowadays.
Yet (or maybe because of this?) they are the economically most successful medium of our time. Not addressing problematic things within video games won’t help – because those who have ill intentions do address them, and they do it on their own terms. This has already given them a much stronger position in a medium that is increasingly important. Crystal Slaves courageously opens up important questions, and I believe it does so in good faith. And it doesn’t take its topics lightly: The fact that the developer couldn’t bring themself to complete it, but left the full horror as a non-realized, yet threatening indication prevented by bugs and other small faults they never could iron out makes it somewhat more complete – not necessarily as a game but surely as an piece of art, that escapes finalization just as its topics it deals with escape the imagination of probably nearly any empathic person.