These titles may dominate the headlines of the gaming press, however, there is a wealth of Triple-A and indie titles from the minds of brilliant Polish creatives that have made their mark as well. More interestingly for us, many of these games have included a little bit of home in them as well! So what else is out there? The selection below are some of our personal favourites from Polish developers, with many of them including some degree of cultural or historic relevance to Poland, as well as some including key locations from around the country.
This War Of MineIf there was a third place, behind CD Projekt's two biggest titles, that would be the stirring experience that is This War Of Mine. First released in 2014 by Warsaw's 11 Bit Studios, your screen takes you into the besieged and war-torn fictional city of Pogoren, where a doll-house view of an urban squat is occupied by 1 to 3 characters. With strongly Central-European names, each character possesses a unique trait, which can be used to repair and maintain your 'household' during the day, and scavenge for supplies in the evening when there's a lull in hostilities. As it is with many war survival experiences, there are numerous confronting situations and difficult, game-changing decisions to be made, as well as a genuine sense of appreciation and hope, when you achieve even the smallest of tasks.
This War of Mine has had such an impact and achieved such a level of conversation domestically that, in 2020, the Polish Government placed the title on the official school reading list. With the thematic similarities the plight of Ukrainian civillians still living in combat zones to the east, 11 Bit Studios generously donated 100% of their game purchases in February and March of 2022 to Ukrainian refugee programs.
Bulb BoyRepresenting the revived format of point-and-click adventure games, Bulb Boy is the troubling creation of Kraków-based developer BulbWare. Released in 2015, this horrifically-adorable indie release presents the sickly-green world of the eponymous character and his family, with an atmosphere that is best described as Stranger Things meets Eraserhead meets Ren and Stimpy. After grandfather is kidnapped by an unknown entity, Bulb Boy must venture through the filth of his derelict, Kafka-esque household (also shaped like a massive light bulb), scavenge through miscellaneous bugs and scraps lying around, in order to progress and solve the mystery at hand.
Bulb Boy may not have reached the same heights as The Witcher series, however, it did catch the eye of gaming YouTuber, Pewdiepie (AKA Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg), who took the indie developer under his wing and gave his name to their highly-anticipated follow-up project - Poopdie. Equally as adorable as it is infantile (in its humour), this dungeon scrawler tells the story of Poopdie, a rectum-shaped worm, who uses fecal matter to craft weapons and defeat the 'butt-shaped' monstrosities of his world. Toilet humour is particularly strong in BulbWare productions!
Phantom DoctrineTurn-based games often fly under the mainstream gaming radar, with a loyal following of developers and hardcore boardgamers who like obsess over the numbers and matters of probability. One Polish production of the genre that deserves a mention is Phantom Doctrine, developed by Warsaw's CreativeForge and released in 2018. This espionage thriller set in the 1980s presents an alternate Cold War reality where you operate 'The Cabal' a spy cell (You can choose whether you're the CIA, KGB or Mossad) and take on the fictional 'Beholder Initiative', an organisation aiming for world domination through mind control.
Phantom Doctrine does an exceptional job of balancing the turn-based format with an atmosphere and player experience that perfectly captures the spirit of a Cold War spy thriller. Amongst the inclusion of historic events, such as the US Invasion of Grenada and the CIA's infamous MK Ultra program, is a mission to extract a moustachio'd trade union leader from the Gdańsk Shipyards, which are phenomenally recreated in the game's charming artistic style.
The MediumSet in 1999, self-deprecating spirit medium, Marianne, visits the fictional town of Niwa in Poland's hinterland. Following a lead, she investigates the derelict communist-era worker's resort (based on Kraków's Hotel Cracovia), which was the site of a massacre that the state authorities had tried to cover up. As Marianne peers deeper into the realm of deceased spirits and gradually uncovers more secrets about the town's troubled history, a malevolent entity begins to make itself known, hinting that the nature of the massacre may be connected with a darker, supernatural element.
Kraków's Blooper Team were clearly inspired by the tone and visual look of Japanese horror franchises like the Resident Evil series and Silent Hill, combined with the dystopian surrealist artwork of Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński. At various times the game applies a split-screen effect to show both the living and spiritual realm simultaneously, providing a contrasting experience to Marianne's environment, as well as a unique approach to puzzle-solving that has rarely (if at all) been explored.
Dying LightA post-apocalyptic zombie survival title was bound to make its way in here eventually, and whilst it's a concept that's been done to death, this game by Wrocław's TechLand has offered a fresh enough approach to allow it to stand out from the crowd. The fictional Middle-Eastern city of Harran (no relation to the town of the same name in Turkey) has fallen victim to (yet another) zombie pandemic, and your character is an undercover agent sent into the city's quarantine zone with the mission of recovering essential viral data from a rogue politician.
While the storyline will probably be forgotten in the years to come, what is great about Dying Light is the parkour mechanics, not only a cool way of getting around town but also a pragmatic way of outrunning zombies and negotiating a post-apocalyptic landscape. The other unique aspect is the unique day-night cycle, which sees zombies sluggish and ineffective when the sun's up and wildly hyper-aggressive after dark - we call it 'zombie measles'. On top of all that, triple A open-world games never cease to impress with the environments they present, and the middle-eastern setting of fictional Harran is no different.
ObserverA title that injected a little bit of home into its creation. Released in 2017, Observer is set in Kraków, where developer Bloober Team hail from, only it's the year 2084 and the city's dystopian predicament is the result of a 'nanophage', a digital plague that has caused a general collapse in society. In search of his estranged son, the game's main character, Detective Daniel Lazarski, investigates the hauntingly-impersonal buildings that have taken over the city's old town center. Using his police scanner, Lazarski retraces the final steps of murder victims by accessing their microchip implants. What is uncovered are horrific distortions of reality that provide immersive puzzles that have to be negotiated in order to establish a sequence of events and progress in the game's narrative. One vision of note is a gigantic pidgeon that dominates a tenement courtyard!
Lazarski's voice and likeness were provided by the late Rutger Hauer, a Dutch actor best known for his role as the replicant 'Roy' in the similarly-themed sci-fi work Blade Runner. Observer would end up being one of his final performances, as he passed away in July 2019. A mini arcade-style game called With Fire and Sword: Spiders, which can be accessed through computer terminals in and around the tenement buildings, is a reference to the famous Polish novel 'With Fire and Sword' (PL: Ogiem i Mieczem) by Henryk Sienkiewicz.
SuperhotIn independent game development, the mantra 'more is less' is often embraced as a means of making a concise game from start to finish, as well as encouraging innovation and the creation of unique puzzles and mechanics. This is what makes the 2016 release Superhot stand out from other titles in the exhaustive list of FPS (first-person shooters) that have come before and after. The concept behind the game is that a .exe file has been made available to you by a friend, and curiosity leads you to starting the program and immersing yourself in its ultra-minimalistic environment. As red hostile NPCs (non-playable characters) have at you, and the trajectory of their bullets form angular black lines against the white-washed surroundings, you quickly realise the core mechanic of the game - When you stand still, time stands still; When you move, time returns to normal. As you seamlessly flow through the first section of the game in polygonal Matrix-style, the environment starts to turn on you, suggesting that an individual behind the program does not want you playing!
Superhot has since garnered a huge amount of praise from the gaming community, with Forbes calling it 'the most original shooter I've played in years'. The developer team from Łódź, known simply as 'The Superhot Team', have also released this title on VR platforms, making for an even more mesmerising experience of a game that has proven that triple A graphics and an limitless arsenal of fancy weapons don't necessarily make a good FPS!
The Vanishing of Ethan CarterIn 1973, paranormal investigator Paul Prospero receives a fan letter from 12-year-old Ethan Carter, inspiring him to journey to Ethan's hometown of Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin. Upon arrival, he learns Ethan has gone missing and begins encountering unsettling paranormal phenomena, as well as evidence of recent violence in the tiny mining village. It is from these fragments that Prospero pieces together the circumstances behind Ethan's disappearance and other confronting truths about the investigator's understanding of the world.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an exquisitely-created autumnal environment of regional mid-western USA, where even the smallest graphical details are essential to solving individual puzzles. Warsaw-based developer The Astronauts, which includes Polish game-dev veteran Adrian Chmielarz, purposefully made the decision to introduce the game without any tutorial phase or breaking the 4th wall in order to give the player assistance. In this way, you are free to explore and experience the world without a strictly linear progression in the storyline and piecing together the mystery as you wish. A true masterpiece!
DarkwoodA plague is ravaging the land and a forest has engulfed the land. While the origins of these disturbing anomalies are unclear (of course), you know you must leave your cottage dwelling to scavenge for supplies and, eventually, find a way out of the forest. Progression is slow (not to mention incredibly unnerving) and mapping out the forest in the dark with a limited perspective is incredibly difficult. There are also entities in the forest that will do you harm, and a limited amount of weaponry will not make it much easier. You are not alone, however. There are other deformed-looking characters that will trade goods with you, known as 'The Wolfman' and 'The Chicken Lady' to name just a few.
Many have disputed the exact setting of Darkwood, whether it's specifically set in the PRL or somewhere else in the Soviet Bloc, however, many have joked that the bleakness of it all could only have been achieved by an 'Eastern European developer'. Whether you consider Poland to be east or central, you can certainly see a Beksiński-esque influence in the art-style, as well as the occasional demented take on Christian symbolism. Developed by Warsaw's Acid Wizard Studio and released in 2017, the game style is purposefully a throwback to 2D top-down style adventure/action games from the 80s/90s, with your perspective limited to the torch-front of your character. The dialogue is text-based, there's often very little musical score, whilst the sound design is dominant, innovative, and rather troubling. The developers proudly claim that there are no 'jump scares', which makes the effect of the overall horror experience even more remarkable.