From Darkwood to The Medium: The Future of Horror Gaming is Polish

It’s often we consider America and Japan as the powerhouses and tastemakers when it comes to video games. Between them they have produced nearly all of the games that define what video games are. Be it Pac-Man, The Legend of Zelda, Call of Duty or Resident Evil America and Japan are key to the video games industry as we know it. There’s a dark corner of gaming however that’s only recently been discovered, like an abyssal sea creature or a cabin deep in the forest. For the last decade deep in the dark, snowy forests and the haunted, cobbled streets of Poland there have been people hard at work shipping deeply disturbing games out into the world.

Poland is not exactly unknown when it comes to video game production. Some of the most popular RPGs of the last decade-plus such as The Witcher series and Cyberpunk 2077 have come from Polish powerhouse CD Projekt Red. In the shadow of this leviathan other studios like Bloober Team, Acid Wizard Studio, Techland and The Farm 51 have been developing highly acclaimed and massively popular horror games at both an indie and AAA level. Whether it’s parkour running from zombies in Dying Light, trying to escape a mutating forest in Darkwood or helping the souls of the dead move on in The Medium Poland had us covered.

It’s not necessarily true that a country’s history will actually have an impact on the kind of games that are produced there. It’s easy enough to link the first Resident Evil in 1996 to the Tokyo Subway Sarin Attacks in 1995 but that all falls apart once you try and dive deeper into it. Sometimes horror games care more about scaring you on a physical level rather than the psychological level a lot of today’s modern games try for. That’s where games like Darkwood, Layers of Fear, Observer and The Medium come in. Where zombie game series Dead Island and Dying Light leaned harder into satire and themes of corporate malfeasance like Resident Evil did it’s easier to see the aforementioned games by Acid Wizard Studio and Bloober Team as successors to the psychological end of the scale as initially seen in Silent Hill.

It’s games like Acid Wizard’s Darkwood and Bloober Team’s The Medium that feel closely connected to their country of origin. It helps that they’re set in Poland but time is just as important as setting. Darkwood sees you play as the Stranger, a nameless protagonist who wakes up in an abandoned house in the center of an ever expanding forest filled with mutants and insane survivors. The top-down game is as much about the horror of survival as it is about survival horror. Each day has the Stranger explore the forest in search of supplies, allies and a way out. Every night he barricades himself in his house, arms himself and sits and waits as the beasts and madmen of the forest howl and smash themselves against his barricades.

Darkwood is set in the 1980s – the decade that ended with much of the Eastern Bloc overthrowing their Communist governments – and Poland’s own politically flammable situation can be seen in the metaphor of the forest. The forest is at once a land poisonous to its inhabitants but hospitable to the things that have grown to adapt to its fickle mutations. Darkwood is a game with it’s own thoughts on the politics that led to governmental collapse in the late 20th Century but it never forces players down paths they don’t agree with, though every story choice in Darkwood has a consequence. At it’s climax Darkwood codes it’s two endings as either “good” or “bad” with one ending having the Stranger fall into a forever sleep of “bliss and ignorance” and the other having the Stranger sacrifice themselves.

The endings to a lot of these games are often bleak or bittersweet with protagonists either embracing madness or death or sacrificing themselves to rid the world of a nameless horror. This is best seen in Bloober Team’s work. Influenced by the likes of P.T. and the stories of horrifying madness found in Weird Tales Bloober’s first foray into the horror genre was Layers of Fear. Ever since their dive into psychological horror in 2016 Bloober Team’s clout has grown considerably. Since producing the tale of a painter wandering the haunted halls of both his mansion and mind they have made Observer, a cyberpunk horror game starring the late, great Rutger Hauer, an even more critically successful sequel to Layers of Fear and a spin-off to the Blair Witch series of horror films. In 2021 Bloober Team released the game they’d been working towards for the guts of a decade: The Medium.

“It all starts with a dead girl”. 

Marianne is the medium of The Medium. Able to see both the real and spirit worlds simultaneously Marianne works in her foster father Jack’s funeral home and occasionally helps spirits pass on. When Jack dies in 1999 Marianne receives a phone call from a mysterious man named Thomas claiming to know the origin of her powers but he will only tell her if she comes to the Niwa Workers’ Resort in the Polish countryside. Marianne finds the resort abandoned after a massacre took place there. It is now haunted by a benevolent little girl called Sadness and a hungry, rage-filled entity known only as the Maw. Marianne dives deep into the traumatic past of Niwa and its inhabitants in order to understand why she sees dead people.

The Medium, like every other horror game Bloober Team has produced, is fully voice acted in English but it’s world has a distinct Polish feeling to it. The game’s period setting – 10 years after Poland’s Communist government was ousted – feels like a country trying to connect with a new political, economic and social identity. New religious freedoms in a country that never stopped being deeply Catholic can be seen all over Jack’s apartment at the start of the game. Marianne’s fondness for practical late 20th Century fashion – sturdy boots, blue jeans, a wool-lined leather jacket and a cozy red turtleneck – shows a country embracing styles and symbols that would have been frowned upon if not actually illegal under Communism. It’s these little details as well as numerous historical references to World War II and life during the Warsaw Pact years that gives The Medium, like Darkwood, a distinct national identity.

But while national identity gives certain games a unique flavour it’s rarely the main reason people buy games. They buy games to play them and, hopefully though not all the time, experience a good story along the way. The Medium combines the exploration and puzzle solving of Bloober’s early horror games but within a unique framing device. The actual visual framing of the game is unusual enough as it’s rarely seen these days unless you’re a fan of the old school Resident Evil and Silent Hill games but the split-world setting of The Medium makes its gameplay and storytelling elements unique in a way few games have been before. Certain items are only available in the spirit world or vice-versa. Likewise with certain doors, climbing points and clues. It makes puzzle solving feel less like guesswork and more like having an advantage by virtue of literally having a second opinion on reality.

The worlds of The Medium are full of things that compliment and contradict each other. The nice-seeming nurse turned condescending carer. The kindly old man turned monster. The father willing to abandon a child in order to save them. It’s why a monster like the Maw is both terrifying and tangible. For all its leathery, scarred, butterfly-like design the Maw feels like something that was created rather than just accidently slipping over from the spirit world into reality. Bolstered by one of Troy Baker’s best vocal performances in years and a haunting soundtrack by Silent Hill stand-by Akira Yamaoka and Bloober Team regular Arkadiusz Reikowski players will buy that the Maw is a monster not just for the sake of The Medium needing a villain but a monster understandably born from deep, festering trauma and black, uncontrollable rage. By the end of the game the Maw elicits as much sympathy as it does shock.

The Medium is not a perfect game, few horror games ever are, but it shows what can be done with the resources and skill Bloober Team now have at their disposal. There is great potential in Polish horror and Bloober Team took that potential and ran with it. Though they might not have made it to the end zone this time it’s easy to see how in only a few years Poland could have it’s own Resident Evil or Silent Hill but with an identity that feels distinct and authentic in a story that spins a good yarn just as it draws out a scream.

Further Reading | No Weapons, No Hope: In Defense of Defenseless in Horror Gaming.

Featured Image Credit.

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