Luftrausers: Inspiration vs. Depiction in World War 1 and 2


When I first heard that some people had raised criticism of Luftrausers for its Nazi imagery and claiming that you were playing as a Nazi, I went “huh”. I didn’t totally disagree with them. I too noticed a call back to a time of dogfighter World War 2 aces and super weapons, with stylized and exaggerated Nazi uniforms. What made me go “huh” was that these people had looked at the same thing as I had, but had come to a different impression, a different feeling. Whereas I saw the slight nods to the Luftwaffe as means to instill a feeling of t he time rather than portray an actual event or evil group, they drew a line and removed the barrier that exists between inspiration and depiction. And that was pretty interesting. While I disagree slightly, I completely respect that they choose to interpret the game in that way, and it is unfortunate that they felt offended because it really wasn’t the intention.


In Luftrausers, it should be said, you play the “bad guys” – a dogfighter flying an experimental Thunderbird-esque craft blowing crap like airplanes, boats, blimps, and submarines up. While there is no direct Nazi symbolism in the game, there are plenty of elements in the design that bring to mind the World War (1 and 2) eras, particularly the Axis powers. I felt I knew why they had chosen to go this route and Rami of Vlambeer would later confirm this in an open letter addressing this criticism. The letter is very good and is an example of a good way for a creator responding to criticism of their work.

Now this all happened 2 years ago, but I have been thinking about it lately because I have finally gotten around to playing Luftrausers and I had heard these things before I had a chance to try the game. These visualizations should mean the same thing to different people. I do not wish anyone to get offended, but where I disagree with the criticism is that there is a line between inspiration and depiction.

If Luftrausers was presented as a historical game where you play as a German in World War 2 blowing the crap out of allies, then I could side with the argument that its design is problematic. However, there are no overt symbols of the Luftwaffe or Wehrmacht, and the barebones “story” behind the game never sets the setting in any conflict in modern history, or even on Earth itself. What the design direction of the game does, though, is using elements of that time that we are familiar with. The aim was to set the mood for the player, nothing more. As Vlambeer wrote in their response:

We wanted to be genuine about the timeframe that inspired the universe in the game, and that means that yes, there were some stylistic cues we took from World War II to construct this enemy force, as well as from characters, aesthetics, and technology from World War I, the Cold War and the smaller conflicts during this timeframe. For the technology, we were inspired by things that would exist in a world in which the documents we were inspired by were true. For the characters, we took the idea of puppets from Thunderbirds and dressed them in exaggerated outfits.

In one sense, what we have here is a case of “based on” vs. “inspired by”. One is more of an interpretation of events, of what actually happened, and the other is a much more fictionalized account of something that serves as the creator’s inspiration.  Why that matters in Luftrausers is because Vlambeer took inspiration from many sources, including Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe to create something unique that still references a particular feeling that a lot of people are familiar with. This missed the mark because some people interpreted these design decisions to mean Nazi Germany rather than the more abstract feeling of a specific era withing military history. This is, of course, fine and totally valid, but there is a good thematic reason that Luftrausers was designed the way it was, and it requires a little bit of military history.

The use of aircraft in a war on a large scale began in World War 1. Planes were first used for reconnaissance before being fitted with weapons and bombs. While there were advances in technology at this time, by the end of the war, aircraft were still rudimentary. Technological advancements in aviation would ensure that the planes of World War 2 were dangerous, scary, and very effective. It is in this era that Luftrausers draws a lot of its inspiration. World War 1 was also the time of “fighter aces”,  individual pilots who became famous for their skill from both sides of the war. The most famous of these was Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron, a pilot in Germany’s Luftstreitkräfte. 

In addition, Germany was the first country to develop a synchronization gear, which first was applied to the Fokker E.I. This gear allowed a machine gun to fire through a rotating propeller, meaning that the Fokker could fire straight ahead. This offered a significant advantage over other fighter aircraft at the time as well as damaging the morale of their enemies. By the war’s end, only 27,637 German planes were lost compared with the Entente’s losses of over 88,613.

On the advent of World War 2, it was clear to both sides that air superiority was an important tactic to focus on, and as strategic bombing started to become a core part of the Allied airforce strategy, it was clear that fast fighter planes were the answer. These fighter planes were tasked with both destroying enemy bombers and their escorts, as well as escorting friendly bombers over enemy territory to allow them to drop their payloads. Once again, Germany was at the forefront of innovation in this area with the fuel injected Messerschmitt Bf 109, which had multiple design features that took the Allies to task in the air. First off, it had a fuel-injection engine which allowed the pilots more maneuverability in the air versus other engines at the time. It was designed to be built with as few parts as possible, allowing parts to be exchanged easily and quickly, not to mention produced faster. Finally, it had automatic slats which allowed greater horizontal movement when in flight. The end result was a fast, mobile plane which could be produced, repaired, and modified quickly and easily. Although the Allies would catch up and eventually surpass Germany in the air, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 remained the backbone of the Luftwaffe throughout the war and stood toe to toe with even the newer Allied fighters.


messerschmitt bf 109

Messerschmitt bf 109, courtesy of the SDASMA archives.


The search for a faster fighter plane would naturally lead to the jet and rocket engines. Here too, Germany was the first with the Heinkel HE 178, the world’s first aircraft to operate on turbojet alone. Shortly thereafter, Germany would have the world’s first jet fighter aircraft (Messerschmitt 262) and the world’s first jet bomber (Arado Ar 234). Compared to the Allies’ singular jet powered plane, the Gloucester Meteor. While their jet and rocket aircraft might have been impressive, they arrived too late in the war to help Germany’s ailing Luftwaffe, which was getting beaten due to poor management and ultimately a lack of resources.

Considering the aims of what Vlambeer set out to do with the feel of Luftrausers, it was no surprise to me that they would take inspiration from the Axis powers. Although it failed to secure them the war, their advancement in aviation during both of the World Wars fits perfectly in the loose narrative of the game. They were the ones developing the experimental aerial “superweapons” that Vlambeer wanted to emulate. Drawing inspiration from one facet of a horrible force in a horrible time period in history does not, and should not, mean an endorsement of said horrible things. ) Videogames are supposed to allow us to experience things from multiple facets in a way that movies and books rarely can. There is something to say about the player taking an active leading role in the story in a videogame, and at the end of the day, some of those things might be uncomfortable.

When it comes to Luftrausers though, it is a simple arcade game which draws on a few vague symbols from the collected human experience; from a time when the skies were our enemies. (Well, they still are depending on where you live in the world) The fact that some people drew parallels between the game’s design and Nazi Germany is understandable and if it offends, it offends. But my interpretation is that the design was used to paint an exaggerated picture of a world and a time when fighter pilots were celebrated and aviation was growing by leaps and bounds for better and worse.

At the same time, people come from different backgrounds and experiences and they will not focus on the same things or get the same feeling out of a work. As a non-Jew, the nod to the Luftwaffe did not bother me so much and I was able to get the feeling of the time period rather than see it as me playing a Nazi. A Jewish person, of course, would approach this in a different way, and be more sensitive (rightfully so!) to some of the imagery. It doesn’t mean I am right or wrong, or they are right or wrong. It does mean, as Rami did in his post, that we can acknowledge differences and faults while still refraining from picking a side, or even making sides. We are all right when it comes to how we view videogames and other mediums, and instead of disagreeing or arguing, we can learn from each other.



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