Investigating the Polish School of Video Gaming
#technology & innovation
full-width, ‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’, photo: promotional materials, the-witcher-3-wild-hunt_1.jpg
Back in 2013 at Digital Dragons, Poland’s biggest video games festival, a discussion panel was entitled: ‘From the Polish Film School to the Polish Game School’. Among the panellists were the eminent Polish cinematographer Sławomir Idzik, as well as the creators of the Witcher game series – the analogy was apparent. Culture.pl takes a look at the state of this so-called Polish Game School.
The overwhelming success of the series The Witcher seems to mirror the popularity of the young Polish cinema from the early post-war period. At that time, Polish films were so outstanding that the problems of a rather large, yet peripheral country were discussed by cinema aficionados worldwide. For this reason, many believed that video games might soon become Poland’s flagship export product, serving as a gateway to the popularisation of Polish culture. But this comparison is as accurate as it is not.
Two issues call for analysis here: on the one hand, Poland did at some point become a promised land for a burgeoning video games scene. The problematic question, on the other hand, is to what degree Poland itself is visible within Polish games.
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‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’, photo: promotional materials
Let’s begin with the first question: what are the actual scale and importance of the Polish game industry?
In 2013, Polygamia.pl made the rather heroic effort of cataloguing all Polish video game developers. It resulted in a list of 149 teams and 31 individual game makers. To date, it’s the most thorough research that has been conducted on the sector. Yet today, it should be regarded with reservation, as the number of smaller- and larger-scale developers in Poland is growing – with more and more developers either going commercial, or merely making games for free distribution or for their own use.
A grassroots culture of game development is gaining momentum in Poland – which is especially visible during game jams, as they are known. At these events, participants develop a video game within a limited time frame (typically very short), often taking on a specific topic or exploring a certain convention. Usually, the results are selfless feats of creativity and coding skills and therefore made available online for free.
A look at the statistics on game jams leads to an interesting observation. To take an example, Global Game Jam (GGJ) – one of the most popular game events, is held annually in many locations worldwide. In 2016, the vast majority of Central and Eastern European countries organised only one national event, except for Bulgaria and Lithuania, as well as Russia (with three and four events respectively). Poland, however, topped the ranking with a total of six events.
48 Hours at the Global Game Jam in Bydgoszcz
GGJ represents only the tip of the iceberg, as Polish participation in such events is constantly on the rise. Sometimes, successful performance in a jam translates into market recognition. This was the case for the purely nonsensical McPixel, created by Sos Sosowski (aka Mikołaj Kamiński). Developed after its prototype was created at the 48-hour Ludum Dare jam, McPixel was the first game accepted for the Greenlight programme, founded by Steam to promote indie video games.
Similarly, in 2013, at the 7DFPS jam, a group of employees from a Łódź-based IT company (led by Piotr Iwanicki) developed what later became a prototype of the SUPERHOT game. The subversive idea that this shooter game is based upon – that time moves only when the player moves – stunned gamers and, shortly afterwards, industry bigshots as well. The game’s creators became internationally recognised developers overnight. The commercial version of SUPERHOT was released in 2016.
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Meanwhile, the big-budget games sector in Poland is doing fine as well. Alongside CD Projekt, Techland is the country’s leader here, having developed such commercially successful titles as Dead Island or Dying Light.
In mobile games, Vivid Games is increasingly more influential, with Real Boxing as its flagship game. Flying Wild Hog is going ever stronger too. They recently revived a 1990s hit called Shadow Warrior and have already successfully introduced two (both rather well-received) instalments into the market.
Since 2015, nearly every article about socially engaged video games has mentioned This War of Mine by 11 bit studios – a gripping account of the life of a civilian trapped in a besieged city. While the scenery brings to mind the Balkan War, it’s not devoid of allusions to the civil war in Syria. This War of Mine is one of the top titles in the ‘serious games’ sector, meaning games that take on important real-world issues of today.
This War of Mine Awarded at the SXSW Festival
Quite crucially, Poland has somehow managed to avoid a scenario typical for other Central and Eastern European countries. Namely, talented teams are quickly bought out by big international corporations, subsequently functioning merely as outsourcers working only on successive episodes of well-known series. In this way, the creative potential of such groups is often easily squandered.
Poland has seen only one such case. In 2013, the team People Can Fly morphed into a newly created Polish branch of Epic Games. As early as mid-2015, however, the name People Can Fly was reinstated, and the company now operates independently again – while also continuing its cooperation with Epic. This genuine independence greatly influences the creativity and diversity of Polish video games, thus contributing to the reputation that the Polish gaming industry enjoys abroad as its popularity grows.
A comparison with the Polish Film School no longer works, however, when analysing the second aspect of this topic: themes. Polish video games have always been very diverse, making it difficult to single out particular currents or motives. There is no such thing as a particular topic or feature that would undoubtedly suggest a given game was developed in Poland.
This phenomenon is nothing unusual, given the diversity of the larger industry itself. No unified ‘school’ has emerged in the sense of a group of companies that would take on similar, local topics.
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Discussion around the non-inclusion of themes linked with Polish history, tradition or culture is a true boomerang in the industry. It is perhaps best exemplified by the discussion that started about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which was developed by The Astronauts.
The game is set in the United States, but the featured locations and buildings are a direct transplant of Silesian neighbourhoods. It was possible thanks to a technology called photogrammetry, which consists of transforming photographs into 3D objects that can then be copy-pasted into game scenery. Thus, the game’s version of Red Creek Valley (Wisconsin) incorporates such unbearably Polish elements as the Vang Stave Church from Karpacz or a dam from Pilchowice (together with a nearby train station and railway bridge).
As the game premiered, questions understandably arose as to why The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is set in the USA instead of in the south of Poland. Adrian Chmielarz, the head of the project, was quick to explain that the game is largely inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, which is further underscored by the choice of scenery. There is also the commercial factor: an argument could be made that the American context is more relatable than the Polish one. Global sells better than local, and in the context of the game industry, this is all the more important. As opposed to films, developing games for local markets is largely uneconomic in the modern world.
Indeed, there are few examples of games developed in Central and Eastern Europe that have successfully capitalised on their local realities. Two of the most noted examples are two Ukrainian series: S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Metro. The former is loosely based on Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky; the latter is inspired by the novel saga written by Dmitry Glukhovsky. It’s worth noting, though, that both titles are set in post-apocalyptic worlds rife with sanguinary mutants and even crueler humans. This is little more than a projection of the Western perspective on Russia and Ukraine as terrains of utter chaos, where dark forces struggle for power and dominance over what remains of the post-Soviet landscape.
In games, such clichés work far better than games aimed at promoting local culture and history. In mid-2000s, the Russian gaming industry tried to conquer the Western market with games showing the Russian perspective on important historical events. There was Real Warfare, a series that features an interesting period strategy, exploring the most important battles in the history of mediaeval Ruthenia. Here, players command armies of Prince Alexander Nevsky or Prince Daumantas. Death to Spies was a stealth series about Smersh, the Soviet counterintelligence unit.
Fortunately, plans to introduce the series in Poland were abandoned. While mechanically and quality-wise, both titles were rather decent, they were utter flops commercially. That’s why in the last instalment of Real Warfare, we drop Ruthenia to join the Teutonic Order instead. This game, however, also proved to be rather commercially unsuccessful. Death to Spies took a similar turn, with its unofficial next instalment following a Soviet spy who, joined by American colleagues, is on the trail of Kennedy’s assassin.
Polish efforts to sell the local were equally unfortunate. In recent years, two games inspired by the Warsaw Uprising have been released. Sadly, Uprising '44 – The Silent Shadows was quickly declared one of the most poorly made Polish commercial games ever. The theme was completely overshadowed by unsightly graphics and sound, countless bugs and an ill-planned story.
The developers of Enemy Front did a far better job with their story of an American reporter who strives to show different facets of anti-Nazi resistance. In its genre, Enemy Front is not a bad title, but it is certainly not extraordinary. There were hopes that players around the world would appreciate the interesting topic and the unusual plot (as it concludes in defeat). Unfortunately, that game was a commercial failure as well, with far worse results than similar games developed by the company. Unsurprisingly, the creators abandoned their plans to develop further instalments.
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In the commercially driven gaming industry, in order to communicate their content effectively, developers must focus on high sales volumes: these guarantee a high number of recipients. But sales volumes, in turn, depend strongly on how much the topic appeals to players. This is precisely why the creators of This War of Mine chose to set their game in a fictional Balkan country – readily recognised by Western players as a conflict theatre – and not in, say, occupied Warsaw, although the experiences of civilians during the Uprising were among the main inspirations behind the game’s creation.
The developers of The Witcher were very careful in introducing local elements into their game in order not to startle foreign players with too much of the unfamiliar. For international players, it is the solid plot construction and cohesive mechanics that influence their opinion on the game, rather than Central and Eastern European themes. This is also true for games developed elsewhere – whether it’s the British province in Everybody's Gone to the Rapture or the Canadian locale in Assassin's Creed IV, which was developed in Montréal.
How The Witcher Plays with Polish Romanticism
Is it therefore pointless to even try to promote a country through a video game? This is certainly not the case, but this goal cannot be achieved as immediately and spectacularly as some may think – especially for those dreaming of a large-scale Polish video game that would tackle significant Polish themes.
The success of The Witcher did bring about an upsurge in translation contracts for the book by Andrzej Sapkowski, as well as a comic book series published by Dark Horse Comics. Moreover, a film in English, directed by Tomasz Bagiński, is underway. Thanks to This War of Mine ,gamers worldwide could listen to the music of Cool Kids of Death, featured in one of the game’s radio stations. They were also stunned by the game’s trailer, which featured the timeless song High Clockmaster by Tadeusz Woźniak.
The Song From This War of Mine
The promotional campaign behind The Vanishing of Ethan Carter underscored that the game features real places and buildings. This generated heated discussions online, mostly ending with users posting photos taken in Pilchowice or Karpacz. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate into a broader initiative that would allow tourism to capitalise on the game’s popularity. Similarly, no effort was made to popularise the saga by Stefan Grabiński that the game alludes to – despite the fact that it has already largely been translated into English.
Doubtless, Polish video games are now far more popular abroad than Polish films or books. It is high time we stopped expecting them to exert an influence similar to that of the Polish Film School. Instead, we should focus on finding these moments when the success of a game created for the global market yields other, previously inconceivable opportunities for promoting Polish culture.
polish video games
video game design
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Originally written in Polish by Paweł Schreiber; translated by MS, Feb 2019