Gloria Victis: Polish History Meets Gaming
#technology & innovation
#photography & visual arts
small, Gloria Victis: Polish
History Meets Gaming, ‘Mali Powstańcy’ (Little Insurgents) boardgame, created by Filip Miłuński, photo: Egmont publishing house, mail_powstanczy.jpg
Historical motifs have appeared in board and computer games for a long time. Creators, fans and researchers of games quickly began noticing that this interactive form of historiography has many distinctive qualities, ranging from the players’ deep engagement in the story and action to the possibility of exploring alternative paths of the past.
Games based on fact are a clever way to get both kids and adults interested in history. At the same time, historical narratives in games also have some substantial flaws. The most jarring one seems to be the need to end a game with… a win. Players, of course, like winning, so they don’t necessarily warm to ‘boring’ narratives which take place in times of peace and stabilisation. Worse still is their response to stories about defeats.
Scenes of heroic resistance ending in defeat or death hold a special place in the Polish national consciousness – and, at first glance, these themes do not seem to be suitable for the plot of a game. As a matter of fact, however, it is precisely these kinds of themes are favoured by the local creators of board games and computer games alike. How do you then win a game about the Warsaw Uprising, while still holding true to historical fact? How do you win during the invasion of Poland?
How The Witcher Plays with Polish Romanticism
standardowy [760 px]
A screenshot from ‘Enemy Front’, CI Games studio, photo: manufacturer’s press materials
After the release of Mali Powstańcy (Little Insurgents), a game about the Warsaw Uprising, some praised it for its educational value, while others did not warm to its depiction of the tragedy of a young generation of Warsaw’s inhabitants as a scouting adventure. Cooperative games have a long tradition of portraying the struggle of a small group with a great, evil force, against which alone would one be defenceless. This is the way the most famous examples of the genre work, like Pandemia or the infamously difficult Ghost Stories.
In Mali Powstańcy, the players lead a group of young scouts who serve as military couriers who deliver orders to the underground in various districts of Warsaw. The representation of the enemy is quite abstract: a Nazi German soldier circling the map, imprisoning the couriers (they can escape prison during their next turn), and army units invading the districts which didn’t receive the orders on time. If the cooperating players deliver the orders successfully, they reach the card with the emblem of the Polish struggle, the Kotwica, and ‘Victory’ written on it.
A Crash Course on the Warsaw Uprising Through Film
Thus, a win turns the story about Warsaw’s tragedy into an optimistic tale about a bunch of smart scouts tricking the sluggish Nazi German war machine. It may (contrary to the best intentions of the creators) invoke the myth of the Poles charging German tanks on horses – the ambition to show the Uprising as victorious reduces it to a bland, pop-cultural scheme. It doesn’t deepen the understanding of the insurgents’ experience – unlike the characters in the game, they didn’t successfully escape prison shortly after getting caught or win battles only by efficiently delivering orders.
‘Seven Days of Westerplatte’
standardowy [760 px]
The cover of ‘7 Dni Westerplatte (Seven Days of Westerplatte)’, designed by Łukasz Woźniak, photo: courtesy of G3 publishing company
In the cooperative board game 7 Dni Westerplatte (Seven Days of Westerplatte), the conditions of victory are more in line with historical fact – the players’ goal is to fend off the Nazi German attacks as long as the actual Polish forces managed to in 1939. The aversion to defeat, however, is visible in the intro to the game.
The capitulation of Westerplatte is depicted as almost exclusively the result of Major Sucharski’s baffling decisions – after all the Polish high morale, excellent training and the marvellous equipment made the Germans withdraw in panic. Yet again, myth prevails over history. Westerplatte becomes a winnable battle, not the location of heroic struggle against the inevitable.
standardowy [760 px]
‘Pandemia’ board game, design: Matt Leacock, photo: Lacerta Projektant
Enemy Front is about the Warsaw Uprising, a spectacular shooter game filled to the brim with dramatic explosions and loads of action, which would bring even the best special forces to shame. It’s an unfortunate choice of convention – if the Polish soldiers effortlessly eliminate hundreds of Germans, where does the eventual fall of the uprising come into the plot?
Subsequent stages of combat in Warsaw are interwoven with the main hero’s memories of successful operations led by antifascist resistance movements in other countries. The taste of defeat comes into play at the ending, when our character safely evacuates from Warsaw, saving several civilians along the way. Clearly, the death of the main character, which would serve as a much stronger symbol of the uprising’s tragic fall, would be too risky for its developers.
Post-War Warsaw – Rebuild It Yourself!
Historical games are still looking for ways of presenting tragic events and losses of the past as skilfully as they weave stories of triumphs. Their need for the ultimate win drives them to transform historic defeats into potential or imagined successes. This, in turn, is in line with one of the alarming trends in today’s thinking about the Polish history – seeing the past as a sequence of military, political or moral victories, and diminishing the sensitivity which leads to accepting defeat and respect for those, who were defeated.
world war ii
Originally written in Polish, translated by AP, 20 Jun 2017