Play If You Dare: Horror in Polish Video Games
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Horror in Polish Video Games, Concept art for Darkwood, photo: promo materials, Concept art for Darkwood, photo: promo materials
Horror never fully settled into Polish cinema, however, it took off in video games. Here’s a review of some of the most interesting examples of horrifying Polish video games out there. Feel free to peruse, but beware!
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014)
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game-changer when it comes to Polish horrors. It fuses different styles, as it starts off in film noir convention with detective Paul Prospero investigating mysterious crimes deep in the backwoods of Wisconsin. It quickly turns out that paranormal powers are in play – H. P. Lovecraft’s oeuvre reverberates in the plot.
Horror, however, is just one of the layers of the game. It tells the moving and all too common story of a family who couldn’t find happiness, in a town forgotten by God and people – a story which we unveil through the experience and imagination of Ethan Carter, a boy whose sensitivity is completely misunderstood by the society. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter astonishes not only with its engaging, unusual plot, but also its captivating landscapes transferred into the digital dimension straight from Silesia. In Ethan Carter’s virtual world, you’ll find the Vang Stave Church in Karpacz, the Pilchowice Dam and more.
Polish Game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Awarded by BAFTA
The game begins with the mysterious 1959 tragedy of the Dyatlov Pass in the Ural Mountains – a group of students died in inexplicable circumstances. What followed were numerous potential explanations and plenty conspiracy theories. The protagonist of the game follows in the steps of the victims. Real landscapes of snowy mountains quickly become hazed with increasingly eerie visions, suggesting the involvement of the supernatural. The plot links the authentic story of this tragic expedition with conspiracy theories about KGB’s secret laboratories, elements of Mansi folklore and the conventional vocabulary of horror.
Frankly, the assortment acts to the detriment of the game. However, Kholat is all about the immensely strong sense of setting. The player’s character hopelessly searches for campsites with just a map and a compass and has to navigate the landscape alone, remembering key spots and trying to figure out their present location. It’s a bold experiment by the developers – in modern video games, players are rarely allowed to become that disoriented and lost, a state which adds to the horror of the experience. Harsh mountain landscapes interweaving realism and hallucinations and Arkadiusz Reikowski’s melancholic, spooky music – they make Kholat an incredible experience, despite its shortcomings.
Layers of Fear (2016)
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One of the biggest surprises in the Polish video game industry of late. Layers of Fear is a perfect representative of its genre – monsters attack the player’s character numerous times. The main task in the game is just exploring a big house owned by a painter, who can’t distinguish between reality and hallucination as a result of alcohol abuse and the despair he feels after the loss of his wife. The mansion’s topography transforms before the eyes of the player – passages appear and disappear, rooms shapeshift, walls crack and spill onto the floor like a splash of paint. As you go, the game becomes increasingly more captivating: fruits from a still life painting spill out onto a table and bury it, the ceiling disappears to reveal infinite copies of the room, and children’s drawings come alive.
The developers of Layers of Fear are guilty of excessively multiplying these techniques to the point of repeatability. Another of the game’s flaws is its clichéd plot. Nonetheless, the ways that Layers of Fear makes use of space to scare the player turned out to be a long-needed breath of fresh air. It’s now a point of reference for horror games developers, who are trying to revive the genre. Arkadiusz Reikowski created this game’s soundtrack as well.
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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Even though Darkwood’s final version was made public in July 2017, its previous releases were available beginning in 2014. From its creation, the game intrigued players with its rich audio and visual design. The austere graphics, which are more suggestive than straightforward, are dominated by the top-notch audio backdrop. The eponymous woods, where the game is set, don’t just rustle, they also hiss, mumble and sometimes howl. Darkwood intertwines horror and brutality with poetic surrealism – while strolling through the dark woods we find terrifying human-hunting animals, burnt-out houses filled with corpses, and the mysterious leftovers from a country wedding (there are still burning candles on the tables adorned with flowers). The woods become frightening at night – players have to barricade themselves in a hideout, listen to the sound of slow steps, and pray that the unknown creature outside the window doesn’t come inside.
The feeling of mystery is the name of the game in Darkwood – we don’t know what catastrophe turned a Polish village into a surreal nightmare, we don’t understand the rules of the freakish universe and we don’t know if there’s a way out. The game’s developers know very well that what we can’t fully understand frightens us most – and this is how they managed to design one of the most interesting interactive horror games on the market.
Originally written in Polish, Sep 2017, translated by AP, May 2018
Bringing Out the Fear in Players' Imaginations: A Chat With Artur Kordas, Co-Creator of Video Game Darkwood