A screenshot from Luftrausers. Image: Vlambeer
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Why do gamers get squeamish when they might play as Nazis?

Plane shooter Lufthausers has players fighting on the side of a team that looks suspiciously like the Third Reich - a design choice that's left some players feeling uncomfortable.

Sometimes it takes a silly controversy to see something interesting. The silly controversy in this case is that provided by the indie shooter Luftrausers which has been attracting some attention for the fact that the developers have denied any particular intent to make it look as if you play as a Nazi in the game. It is notable that the actual denial made a much bigger story than anybody claiming that the game, which has been around a while now, has a touch of the Third Reich about its aesthetic.

Personally I was more surprised by the denial than I was by people taking offence. To me it made some sense, in what little narrative Luftrausers has, that you might be playing as some sort of fascist bitter-ender, railing against the forces of freedom from a submersible aircraft carrier in a spiffy Hugo Boss uniform and a top secret jet plane. The fact that skull motifs feature so much in the game was in itself enough to trigger my "Hans, are we the baddies?" instinct. The imagery is not as blatant as the Nuremburg Rallies, but the hints are there. And just hints, mind you, which in some ways is the greatest strength of Luftrausers' design - it never tells you whose side you are on. You have to figure it out for yourself, if it matters to you. I had presumed the games characters were villains of some sort and it didn’t bother me.

With a lot of games the goodies and the baddies are very clearly defined and even if you happen to be a baddie, well, that’s okay, at least you know. However, Luftrausers' nearly-Nazi design for the heroes of the game is interesting precisely because it’s unclear. When you know you are playing as the villains it is not necessarily a problem - it can even be liberating - but not knowing creates uncertainty, and uncertainty breeds discomfort. Luftrausers never gives an answer to who you are fighting for or why, but the implication of the aesthetic that the people you are fighting for are possibly not on the side of righteousness is one that provokes some thought. That Luftrausers can make some players feel somewhat conflicted in the gleeful destruction of ships and planes merely through character design and visual style is quite an accomplishment, even if this effect might be unintentional.

Usually with a game like this the developer will take pains to ensure the players can enjoy their violence entirely without having to think or feel in any way like their actions in the game are not morally justified. This is exemplified by the original shooter itself, Space Invaders, where the enemy were invaders, from space. Clue is in the title. Over the years plenty of different groups have filled in for aliens as the target of choice for violent games of whatever sort. Aliens, zombies, monsters, robots, we can shoot them all to bits and it doesn’t really bother anybody. When games start to put human faces on the victims things can get a bit more conflicted (even when we know that what we are seeing on the screen isn’t real), but often games will paint the villains as the worst kind of scumbags: Nazis, mercenaries, terrorists or, increasingly in recent years, police officers.

But that’s not the only way that a game can try to make a diet of destruction more palatable - they can also try to make the heroes of the story more relatable and engaging. This is where the choice of protagonists for Luftrausers hits complications, because not everybody wants to help what looks like a bunch of caricatures from Wolfenstein blow up, well, anything.

Obviously Luftrausers could have taken the direct approach and just had you play as a German in WW2 shooting down Spitfires and whatnot, but that wouldn't have had the same effect. Knowing you are the bad guy is not as unsettling as worrying that you might be him, because it suggests that your actions might have some effect in ultimately determining which side you end up on. At least this is true for most games. Luftrausers doesn’t do anything with the ambiguity however; you still just launch from the submarine and shoot everything that moves until you are blown up.

It is ironic the game itself isn’t nearly as interesting as the art style would suggest. There have been better shooters than this one going back a couple of decades, dozens of them in fact. Beneath the swagger and bold presentation is a game that doesn’t do very much - there are no levels, only a tiny number of enemy types, frustrating controls and little continuity. At times it can feel a bit like Flappy Bird, except the bird now has a gun bolted onto the front. Luftrausers generally serves more as a reminder of how much fun a good shooter can be rather than being one itself.

That said, if a game encourages critical thinking from its players through the way it is presented then that can only be a good thing, even if it does it in a way that is largely unconnected to theact of playing the game. Of course for all we know Luftrausers might have just been trying to mooch the edgy coolness of a fascistic style for its characters and all the speculation about it could be an unintended consequence. Or maybe it is a very clever subversion of the typical militaristic setting of a game. Either way the only downside really is that it’s not that good.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

SIPA PRESS/REX
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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge