Sensitive content warning: Due to the nature of the game, this review contains references to child abuse, bullying, and atrocities committed in the wake of World War II.
Every once in a while a game comes along with a message that gut punches you. It reminds you that the world is a cruel place full of people just trying to navigate their lives in difficult situations. My Child Lebensborn is one of those games: it is not an escapist game by any means. Not that escapism is a bad thing – I think that there’s great value in not thinking about your problems for a little bit.
My Child Lebensborn is a “nurture game” developed by Sarepta Studio AS and produced by Teknopilot AS, both Norwegian companies. Think Tamogatchi, where you are caring for a creature (in this case, a child), and trying to keep them happy and alive. Set in Norway, 1951, during Norway (and Europe’s) slow recovery from WW2, you are the adoptive parent of a Norwegian Lebensborn child.
For background: Heinrich Himmler, notorious Nazi, created the Lebensborn program: the offspring of German soldiers and Nordic women were specifically bred to be as “Aryan” as possible and raised under Nazi ideology. They were put into Lebensborn homes, where they were raised by Nazi nurses and indoctrinated at birth. Teknopilot and Sarepta Studio based My Child Lebensborn on the stories of Lebensborn children who grew up in Norway, where they experienced cruelty and maltreatment in their adoptive homes and communities simply for being the offspring of these unions.
When the game begins, you choose between Klaus and Karin. I chose Karin (I’ll be referring to the child as Karin throughout this article for simplicity’s sake). The player is a single parent, very poor, and struggles to get by. As adoptive parents, we end up finding a factory job in town as Karin starts school, and have to balance making enough money to eat (and buy a few things to make the kid happy), and spending time with the child.There are three meters that you need to pay attention to with Karin: hunger, hygiene, and happiness. In the beginning of the game, these things are relatively easy to manage. You have 7 chances throughout the day to perform an action. Cooking food, taking a bath, changing clothes, brushing her hair – these all take up your precious actions. Then you have to find time to mend her clothing, read your own mail, forage for food, go fishing, or play with Karin to make her happy. This game forces you to put certain things on the backburner, like not eating a wider variety of food in favor of something that’s more filling but doesn’t require cooking (freeing up that action for something else).
The parts that stood out to me the most were twofold. First, when Karin inquired about her parents – who they were, why they gave her up. Second, when Karin started experiencing bullying at the hands of the community and her peers at school. Finding out who Karin’s parents are is one of the overarching plot points of the story. You find out that her father was a soldier in the German army, and her mother was a Norwegian woman who fell in love with him and Karin was the result.
There are a lot of complicated feelings and concepts you can choose to talk to Karin about. There tend to be three “types” of choices: open, kind, or aggressive. I found some of the kind/open choices to be basically telling Karin: “Grin and bear it, kid. Keep your head down. Let them do it. Turn the other cheek” and some of the aggressive choices to be…too much to express to a child. When I (as the guardian) wrote a letter to her teacher, asking for her to address the bullying Karin was experiencing, the teacher responded by reading it out loud to the class and making fun of Karin for it. A 7-year-old. A child.
So many incidents in this story infuriated me. I wanted to burn the entire village down a few times. The child I ended up raising turned out to be kind-hearted and smart with a slight defiant streak. Many of the choices you make when you talk to Karin form her into who she is. I opted for honesty, openness, and reminders that the world is full of awful people, but I will always be there for her. I tried to balance the jaded reactions I had to the cruelty with raising a child who would still be open to connection with other people.
There is a point, later in the game, where I suspected that Karin experienced extreme abuse. Part of me feared it was sexual abuse, but that was never outright confirmed. Karin’s teacher kept her after school for detention for almost a week, and stopped letting me feed her, bathe her, give her a hug, or even read her a bedtime story. I was, as a player, incredibly infuriated. I wanted to rescue this girl and protect her from the horrors of the world.
My version of the story had a happy ending – as happy as it could be. I’m not sure if there are multiple ways this can end, but it seems to me like there are, given the dialogue choices that we have as the guardian. This game has replayability just to find out the other ways the story can end, although if you’re anything like me…some of those choices just aren’t acceptable.
My Child Lebensborn made me think. I believe that it has changed me in a lot of ways. I learned a lot about a period of time in a country that isn’t talked about that often in American education systems, and I feel that I am richer for the knowledge. I am glad that games like this exist – they are so important. My Child Lebensborn is important.
My Child Lebensborn is available on Google Play for $2.99.