“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” – Anne Frank
N.B. I played a pre-release version of the game that is subject to change.
Brukel is a short, first-person, exploration game focusing on the memories of Bie Verlinden, the 92-year-old grandmother of the game’s developer. She grew up in Geel, Belgium, during WWII, residing in a farmhouse named Brukel. Whilst, in reality, the building has been renovated and changed, the game recreates the environment based entirely on Bie’s subjective memories to create a poignant, historical experience.
“While most war games use the perspective of a heroic male soldier, Brukel brings the story of a strong female bystander who does not really understand why people are killing each other in her backyard […] By putting people in the position of an innocent family whose house is now in the middle of a war zone, the game hopes to generate empathy for war refugees worldwide.“Bob De Schutter
The game is set to release tomorrow, on Sunday 3rd November 2019, which will mark 75 years since Belgium was liberated from German occupation.
The player adopts the role of Bob, visiting Brukel for the first time and must use their smartphone camera to illustrate Bie’s recollections. The game starts out feeling fairly casual, exploring the farmhouse at a relaxed pace, trying to find a number of listed objects to photograph that will effectively illustrate (and trigger) Bie’s corresponding memory which was recorded directly as she recalled it to her grandson. De Schutter explains that “every line that my grandmother delivers in the game is authentic. She cannot act to save her life, so I had to work with the stories as she told them while reminiscing.”
Brukel is made up of a number of chapters and after the initial photography section the game becomes much darker and the horror elements come into play. The focus shifts to specific events and memories during the war, ranging from appeasing the orders of home-invading German soldiers to hiding in makeshift bomb shelters, the terror and uncertainty of the situations are only emphasised by the relatively sudden and somewhat violent shift in tone.
The game is short and can be played in 30-90 minutes, however, limited phone battery for photographs and the increased urgency of the later chapters mean the player is unlikely to uncover and experience all available memories in one playthrough, adding some replayability.
The game has a realistic aesthetic that is pleasant and cleanly implemented. The game itself was compiled by a single individual but many of the assets you see in the game come from third parties with most of the custom assets having been made by de Schutter’s students of the AIMS Games department at Miami University of Ohio. Brukel doesn’t offer anything new in the visuals department but succeeds in creating an atmospheric and convincing environment with some evocative and personal touches.
The sound effects and music in-game are minimal but again, implemented well for the most part. However, Bie’s audio is by far the stand-out feature and USP of the game yet seems to play at a lower volume level to that of other audio elements such as Bob’s voiceover or footsteps making the overall volume hard to balance and overpowering some very emotive commentary. This was one of the few negatives elements within the game and was a minor bugbear and its impact waned as I delved deeper into the experience. That said, it is an issue known to the developer with a fix incoming.
Brukel cleverly combines harrowing and very-real events with the unreliable, subjective of memories of a young woman who couldn’t fully understand the horrors going on around her. Hearing Bie’s voice throughout and being able to connect the scenarios to real people, conjures strong feelings of empathy for those that experience the terrible violence of war, whilst reminding the player that they will (probably) never fully understand. As Bob de Schutter himself says, “my generation has been fortunate to have lived in abundance and first-world problems, but my grandmother was never so lucky. While we consume horror stories as entertainment, she spent her teenage years scrambling for food and gasping for fresh air amidst gunfire and explosions.”
Overall, Brukel is an innovative and moving title that I would definitely recommend to anyone looking for a slightly different gaming experience with a strong focus on narrative, history and the personal interpretation of world events.