A Video Game That Doubles as a World War I History Lesson

When the video game producer Petr Kolar and his future colleagues made a research trip to the Legiovlak, a replica World War I-era train that chugs around the Czech Republic, he noted the pristine Czechoslovak Legion uniforms worn by the museum guides.

“The Legion were like gentlemen fighting,” said Kolar, who co-founded Ashborne Games after that visit. “They always made sure that they were well cleaned, well equipped. That’s one of the reasons 70,000 men could control the whole Trans-Siberian Railway.”

Foregrounding historical accuracy was a priority for Ashborne’s first original game, Last Train Home, which retells the Legion’s rolling evacuation eastward across Russia in the embers of the war. Its journey for homebound ships at the port of Vladivostok was tangled in Russia’s internal conflict between Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik armies.

World War II has been the dominant historical battlefield in video games, from the Medal of Honor franchise and early Call of Duty titles to Hell Let Loose, a multiplayer recreation of the war’s various fronts that pits two teams of 50 against each other.

But that means studios like Ashborne, which released Last Train Home this week on the PC, can potentially pluck fresher narratives from World War I. Players could be a message runner in the Battle of Gallipoli in Battlefield 1 and experience the horrors of chlorine gas in Valiant Hearts: The Great War.

Last Train Home forces players to make uncomfortable decisions that explore the murky morality within conflict.Credit…Ashborne Games

Jos Hoebe, the founder of BlackMill Games and a longtime producer of World War I shooters, said video game developers had a responsibility to get details correct, especially when a particular battle or event has few depictions in popular culture. For his games, Hoebe digests historical documents in an attempt to understand the average soldier and shed light on overlooked aspects of combat.

“It feels like we’re responsible for creating the image that people have of this theater of war,” Hoebe said.

Last Train Home is a real-time strategy game in which the player orders specialized squads around rural battlefields. Scouts clear the fog of war, riflemen charge at enemies — usually the Bolshevik Red Army — and medics heal wounds. Another significant portion of the game is managing the armored train and exhausted infantry while fighting disease, starvation and the cruel Siberian cold.

The Legiovlak museum was not the only inspiration for Ashborne, which is based in Brno. A researcher from the Association of Czechoslovak Legionnaires, a veterans’ group, taught the studio about equipment and weapons. And by chance, the game’s narrative director found a book full of Legion soldier sketches in a secondhand store.

“Our landscape is drawn in a similar way to those illustrations,” Kolar said.

To cram years of conflict into 40 hours of gameplay, Ashborne does bend history.

Sometimes those changes are cosmetic, softening camouflage so soldiers stand out onscreen. Other changes raise the stakes: The players can save the relatives of Czar Nicholas II, Russia’s last emperor, when in reality they were executed before the Legion reached the city of Yekaterinburg. And evidence of female Legion fighters led Ashborne to tell the fictional story of an all-female squad called Valkyrie.

Historical accounts inspired Ashborne to create “traits” — religious, nationalist, pacifist, lucky — that decide how soldiers behave. Herbalists can forage for food and find berries to bolster the train’s food supply.

The traits also determine how soldiers react to player choices. Annoy them too often and you will face mutiny.

Legion soldiers may survive the Russian winter and bullets but could still die in unexpected ways.Credit…Ashborne Games

Ashborne considered telling the stories of real soldiers but ultimately avoided it. “We realized their descendants would be possibly angry because of some decisions their virtual ancestors make in the game,” Kolar said.

These decisions are designed to be uncomfortable. In one scenario, a Red Army soldier hails the train and pleads for you to take his family members to a doctor. It might be a trap. You can slaughter them, pleasing soldiers with the vengeful trait, or help them at the cost of food.

Last Train Home is generally sympathetic to the Legion soldiers, but scenarios like this do explore the murky morality within conflict.

Kolar said some people, mainly from Russia, have accused Ashborne of “hiding the crimes of war,” pointing to civilian deaths at Chelyabinsk during skirmishes between the Legion and Bolsheviks. It was an event Ashborne omitted, according to Kolar, because it did not fit the flow of the story.

Critics also claimed that the Legion raided villages and stole food. Kolar said his team tried to verify those details but noted that “it is difficult to tell what’s actually a verifiable source and what is propaganda.”

The studio, which is part Czech and part Slovak, hopes to have done the saga justice, said Kolar, who expects some of the story’s most remarkable details to stick with players. At least one Legion soldier survived Russian bullets and snow only to die in an unusual way on the boat ride home.

“‘The soldiers were attacked by a shark? That doesn’t make sense,’” Kolar said, channeling what he expects some players to say. “And then they Google it and realize, ‘Hey, this is something that actually happened.’”

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