Although North America and Japan are the reigning champs of development in the gaming industry, the wealth of talent in Eastern Europe is beginning to draw the eye as well, particularly due to the boom of gaming in Poland.
Following the success of Warsaw-based studio CD Projekt RED on the Witcher series, the Polish government have stepped up and invested in the artistic and technical development of video games, as well as their promotion on an international stage. The results are quirky and thrilling products with the backbone to discuss topics that Triple A titles could not. Holding court at FANEXPO Canada this weekend in Toronto, a number of independent developers were on hand to discuss their projects and what makes them shine.
Trailer for first-person crime drama Bohemian Killing, created by IQ Publishing
Martin Makaj, creator of Bohemian Killing, was a real-life lawyer before switching careers to video games. His hands-on knowledge and experience helps create a realistic experience and unique challenge for those whom play his game. (And it is quite literally his game, having written, coded and animated it by himself.) Since it’s release on Steam last summer, Martin has showcased Bohemian Killing at gaming expos in Tokyo, Germany, and South Korea. He clearly has worldly tastes, given the game’s setting in Paris.
Where most mystery games and crime dramas follow the exploits of the “good guys” attempting to solve a case, Bohemian Killing puts you in the shoes of the murderer, trying to weave their own narrative to evade prosecution. Martin sites popular legal simulator series Phoenix Wright as his inspiration, but not without putting his own spin on the game play style – “I’m a huge fan of Phoenix Wright, but I always thought it was too linear,” he explains, “I wanted to be able to build my own line of defense, so the easiest way to do that was playing as the accused.” Even more interesting is the game’s cold open on the murder being committed – “The studio wanted a cutscene, but I wanted people to feel responsible for that death – when it comes to killing the victim, a lot of people stop playing, don’t want to press the button.” – this presents a telling contrast to the stereotype of gamers as being violent and remorseless presented in mainstream media. Despite the popularity of games in which raking up a body count is encouraged, such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, Martin finds that his players hesitate because of their empathy: “They don’t want to kill anyone in real life, so they won’t in the game, especially because they don’t know who the victim is or what they did.” Curiously, the killer’s motive is never revealed in the game, a deliberate choice in order to craft the character of the killer – “What’s important is that you lie to get out of it.”
Trailer for point and click puzzle game Indygo, created by Pigmentum Studio
Another striking game on demonstration was the point n’ click game Indygo. Although it has a simple premise – solve puzzles and make choices in one room – the topics covered within have considerable depth, depicting a brutally honest look at clinical depression. Although mental illness itself can be difficult to depict in a reliable, easy-to-understand way, the visual and sensory symptoms of it are what drive the game’s visual style and gameplay. The protagonist’s room is washed in dark and sketchy tones, with puzzles and narrative choices progressing the story, as well as revealing the character’s mental state. Seemingly small decisions – like how to respond to letters from your girlfriend or what music to listen to – impact how the protagonist feels and ultimately affect the outcome. Chatting with Krystian Mucha, programmer and music designer on the game, he was particularly vocal about building an experience that hopefully lessens the stigma around the disorder: “We want people to experience what it looks like, how it feels, so maybe people can learn something. We want to show that games can talk about diffcult subjects.”
Although the premise bears similarity to infamous text-based game Depression Quest, the developers of Indygo stress the audio-visual elements of their game make it stand out: “Ours is more of a sensory experience, with information from a medical point of view”. The development took a multidisciplinary approach, hiring psychologists to work as consultants on the game to more realistic effect: “We want people to understand better,” Krystian stresses, “It’s not just a bad day, it’s an illness that shouldn’t be taken lightly.” Indygo will be available on Steam on October 10, 2017, with hopes for a future console release.
Overall, the emergence of new nations as game development “stars” is a positive sign for the industry. It allows countries outside of the monopolizing game producers to have a stake in the industry, contribute to a global culture and stimulate jobs, all of which are vital in communities that have faced hardship. With the meaty subject matter addressed in their games combined with the support of national grants and PC gaming markets, Poland has a real shot at democratizing the gaming industry.