Poland and Horror Games

The video game industry can be a toxic place right now. There are numerous stories on overworked employees that had to work insane hours to make deadlines. Developers publishing unfinished and broken games for premium prices. Legal forces coming down on things like loot boxes. As well as general frustration from gamers that continue to mount with developers, publishers, and the industry as a whole. As all this toxicity boils in a single pot about to burst, there is one studio that being herald as an industry leader and what other studios should try to be like according to gamers.

That studio is CD Projekt Red. The studio’s claim to fame is the highly acclaimed video games series The Witcher. The focus is now on their new game CyberPunk 2077. The game has a massive hype train that was only made bigger at E3 this year when it was revealed that actor Keanu Reeves would be in the game. His appearance was one of the biggest moments of E3 and is still talked about to this day. It also became a really good meme.

What people might not know about the video game giant is that the company is Polish.  The company was founded all the way back in 1994 in Warsaw, Poland. They started off simply doing localizations of video games, but have now grown into one of the biggest game companies in the world. They are the leading company in a fast-growing Polish video game scene. You also can’t forget about People Can Fly, a studio that worked on the Gears of War series along with the extremely popular Fornite.

As a couple of studios in Poland continue to work on some of the largest games in the industry there is one genre where Poland maybe silently one of the leading countries. That genre is horror.

The genre of horror has undergone many changes since it’s inceptions. It is one that struggled to find it’s true identity. It was once just more composed of side scrollers, shooters, and beat them ups in spooky levels or against scary enemies like skeletons or monsters. Then came the game of Sweet Home. Sweet Home was based on a Japanese film of the same name. The game focused more actually surviving than overpowering an enemy. It had a lot of puzzle elements as well. It laid the groundwork for a sub-genre of horror games called survival horror.

Survival horror contains most of the games that most people think of when thinking about horror games. This genre includes games like Alone in the Dark, Clock Towe, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill. These games all focused more on the atmosphere in your setting. The concept of being unfamiliar whether with a location or enemy. With the exception of Resident Evil, you are not a suited up military trained soldier ready to fight enemies with ease, but you are a normal person and you can’t just overpower your enemy. You mainly looked for ways to hide or avoid them while studying and learning along the way. Puzzle solving was a key gameplay element. The games had psychological elements never seen in games before. The identity of the horror genre really started to form around these ideas. The market was relatively dominated by Japanese developers with many Western horror games attempting to mimic the Japanese style.

The genre changed forever though when one of the most popular horror game franchises, Resident Evil, switched from survival horror to more action based horror games starting with the release of Resident Evil 4.

The game was immensely popular and starked another change in the genre as now horror games were mostly geared to be more action-oriented. The horror landscape quickly switched from the Japanese style of horror games to a more Western-based one. It did end up killing off some legends of the horror genre or at least diminished their popularity. Silent Hill was probably the biggest of these. Konami published lackluster titles produced by Western studios after the original games were made by the Japanese based Team Silent. The change did give birth to series as well with new games like Dead Rising,  F.E.A.R., and Left 4 Dead. Another series that was born during this time was NecroVision.

NecroVision was developed by The Farm 51, a Polish studio based in Gliwice. The studio was started by former members of People Can Fly. They previously worked on a game called Painkiller, a shooter game versus demons. When starting off their own studio they kept the shooter element but went with a horror vide to create NecroVision. The game was released in February of 2009. The story takes place during World War 1. You play as a British soldier going up against the German army when during the war, your squad is ambushed. Our protagonist collapsed and when he re-awoke found the battlefield being rampant with zombies and creatures from hell. It was the first dive into the new horror genre by a Polish studio. The game did well enough to earn a prequel in NecroVision: The Lost Company. The Farm 51 has made other games since NecroVision including a sequel to PainKiller. They are now returning to their initial horror roots. This time with a survival style, instead of a shooter, in their new game Chernobylite. A game based around a person returning to the Chernobyl disaster site in order to find their former partner 30 years after the event. The game is set to release in Autumn of 2019.

The next Polish studio to put make their mark on horror genre was Techland. Techland is a studio that was started all the way back in 1991 originally just distributing software. They would enter the video game market in 2000 and have been a growing developer since. They currently have headquarters in Warsaw and Wrocław. Their biggest break came in the horror genre with Dead Island. The game was announced in 2006, but we wouldn’t see anything of it till 2011. In 2011, the announcement trailer came out.

The announcement trailer took the gaming world by storm and is truly what an announcement trailer should be. It sets up the setting and world they are creating in a very intriguing way. I was so excited for Dead Island at the time. The game would release in early September of 2011. The game received generally solid reviews with most being in the range of 7 out of 10. It went on to sell over five million copies. It is still one of my favorite games to this day and I have played through it multiple times with each character. The game takes place on the fictional island of Banoi, a destination tourist Island. The island has now been overrun by a mysterious plague that has caused people to turn into the infected, which want nothing more than to eat and kill the living. The survivors now must battle their way off the Island to survive. Dead Island went on to become a franchise getting several spinoffs and other media properties like comics. Only one of the spinoff games was developed by Techland. This was Dead Island Riptide, a direct sequel to what happened after the story in Dead Island. Dead Island 2 was originally supposed to be developed by Techland but they became involved in a new horror project.

This new project was Dying Light. Dying Light is similar to Dead Island in a lot of ways, but also much different. The game is so fun to just move around in and there are so many ways to traverse the game’s world. The game’s combat feels wonderful and there are a lot of interesting concepts in the game like the Day-Night cycle. It was much dangerous to be out at night, so you better run. It really feels like the evolution that Dead Island would have needed. The game has an amazing story involving the survivors stuck inside the quarantine zone of a town called Harran. You play as Kyle Crane, an undercover agent, is sent into the city to retrieve some stolen information that is vital to the Global Relief Effort. The game received generally strong views mostly in the 7s and 8s when out of 10. I loved the game and I continue to replay it. Part of the reason I love the game is how well it has been supported by Techland with expansions and other things being adding to extend the life of the game. They really tried to create and care for the community. Dying Light 2 was announced at E3 2018 and is scheduled for a release in the first half of 2020.

Now Dead Island, Dying Light, and NecroVision are more on the side of action or shooter horror that really started to take over the horror genre in the mid to late 2000s. Most survival horror games during this time and the early 2010s were being done by indie or smaller developers. Poland saw quite a few studios trying the survival horror style during this time.

The first attempt at a survival horror game was done by the Nibris. Nibris, based in Krakow, was developing a Nintendo WII titled called Sadness. The game was in all black and white and used the WII’s motion controls to simulate running away from some kind of creature or evil. It had a fair amount of interest but was sadly canceled when the company was closed. When the company was active they had created a studio called Bloober Team SA. The studio had become independent from Nibris before Nibris shut down.

Bloober Team started out creating mobile and other smaller “cheap” games. Things did not look good for the studio. Their 2014 title Brawl, received really poor reviews. The game was so badly received that the Bloober Team promised to completely rebuild it from scratch. The team apologized to gamers and promised to try and rebuild trust within the gaming community. The first step they did to do this was giving the new version of Brawl free to anyone who originally bought the first game. Their next step was more impactful though.

In 2016, a game came out titled P.T. It was discovered the game was a playable teaser for the next game in the Silent Hill franchise. It was a return to the roots for Silent Hill and appeared to be the evolution that survival horror needed to reignite the glory days of the sub-genre. Unfortunately, Konami would cancel the game in a series of very controversial moves. P.T.  was still able to have an impact on the horror genre and that can be seen in a lot of games that came after it like the playable demo to Resident Evil 7 as well as Layers of Fear.

Layers of Fear was a really drastic change in the type of games from Bloober Team. It was a physiological horror game. It is a really amazing experience and the story of the self-torture of a deranged creative mind. It came out of nowhere from Bloober Team and I think that adds to the experience if you know their history.  Bloober team has now stayed in the psychological horror lane. Just a year later they would release Observer. A more futuristic psychological horror game that is also set in Poland. It has a lot of cool concepts and I am currently just starting my playthrough of it, I haven’t been able to put it down since I started.

Bloober team also released a sequel to Layers of Fear in May of 2018. Layers of Fear 2 again focuses on another creative person and the twisted way they see the world. The team also announced their newest project at E3 this year with Blair Witch. This game is based on the cinematic series of horror films of the same name. The game earned a fair bit of hype and trailer was well received. The studio has now become one of the top psychological horror game studios after such humble and different beginnings. I applaud their work and what they have turned their studio into.

In 2014, another studio made up of former employees from People Can Fly jumped into the horror genre with their first game as well. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter developed by, Warsaw-based studio, The Astronauts came out of nowhere. It is a beautiful game with amazing environments to explore and challenging puzzles as you try to figure out the disappearance of a missing boy. The game is regarded as very good earning many high scores and praise. The game also won Best Game Innovation at the 2015 British Academy Games Awards. The Astronauts are currently working on a shooter for their next project titled the Witchfire.

A newer face in the scene is Madmind Studio. They are made up of many former employees from various Polish game studios. They released Agony in 2018 to generally poor reviews. While many survival horror games feature plenty of gore and sexual content it is usually done in more subtle ways or used in moments to stress the severity of the situation. Agony immediately goes to these big moments and never comes down from them, which did not resonate well with most people. The game has generated a niche fanbase though. They are scheduled to be releasing a new trailer for their next game Paranoid soon.

The Polish video game industry is growing and thriving. That is especially true in the horror genre as there are numerous new games coming from Polish studios including  Dying Light 2, Blair Witch, and Paranoid. So many of these studios started at such small scales and worked their way up to now producing large international titles. As well as not just making good horror games, but starting horror franchises. In a genre that has sometimes been know as Japan dominated, I think Poland is starting to really start making themselves known as one of the leading countries in the horror genre, as well as one of the leaders in the video games industry in general.

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