How WARSAW Balances The Tightrope Of History

How WARSAW Balances The Tightrope Of History

I still think about WARSAW from time to time, even nearly two months after I reviewed it. The historical setting was always going to put me in a happy spin, but that’s not why I’m still giddy. The way that the game portrays the Warsaw Uprising – a desperate final struggle for freedom – is utterly unique. As I put it in the review, WARSAW ‘makes you feel the tragedy of a hard-lost fight.’ Thinking of another game that manages to convey the melancholy of a historical setting through its gameplay proves difficult, but it almost didn’t happen. To explain the details behind WARSAW’s development and its approach to history, I had the absolute pleasure of being able to mine the mind of the game’s producer Krzysztof Paplinski.

”We knew we wanted to tell the story of the Warsaw Uprising, an event that had a profound impact on the history of not only the city but the country as well’, says Paplinski. The Warsaw Uprising, which occurred from August 1, 1944 through to October 2 of the same year, was a last-ditch effort of the Polish resistance – its ‘Home Army’ – to liberate Poland’s capital of Warsaw from the Nazis that had occupied the country since 1939.

It ultimately failed, in no small part due to the inaction of the Soviet Red Army that waited for the Uprising to fizzle out before ‘liberating’ it from Nazi rule. Each year, the Uprising is commemorated by the inhabitants of Poland down to the very minute it began. The Polish people’s love for their resistance movement, and empathy for their cause, is very much on display in WARSAW.

Pixelated Milk, the game’s developer, was also keen to stress that the story of the Home Army, “with their factories, press and organisation right under the noses of Nazi regime.” Their uprising is about much more than just the resistance. While there were “young boys and girls in their twenties, full of passion, ideals and heroic beyond reason […] wanting to get back on the German oppressors having witnessed their friends and families terrorised by the Nazis”, Paplinski shares that there was another side to the uprising that WARSAW touches on:

“You have people who weren’t part of the Home Army and just wanted to live their lives in the city. Hoping that they can wait the Germans out and definitely not supporting the idea of the Rising taking place. And once it erupted the price they all paid was enormous, with the majority of those who perished in the systematic destruction of the city being Warsaw’s civilian population.”

Even the most niche historical details are present

WARSAW’s inter-day transitions feature a ticker, showing the trickling population of Warsaw as the game, and the uprising it depicts, drags into days, then weeks, then months. The characters, too, represent this dichotomy in a good way (but with unfortunately underutilised backstories, as my review argued). Each have their own reasons for entering the Uprising, and at different moments. Events encountered in between gameplay will often involve civilian lives – or their deaths, and as the Paplinski point out, Warsaw was literally being bombed into oblivion by the Nazi hordes, ‘almost vanishing from the face of the earth as a result.’

There are no punches pulled in WARSAW’s brutal depiction of the Uprising, and the decision to do so was made almost immediately into development. Paplinski references one discussion the team had early into development that would define the game and its tone. The conversation was around whether the game could be ‘won’:

“It took us all of five minutes to arrive at the conclusion of ‘no’. If you could, we might as well squeeze those jetpacks and tentacled monsters in there.”

The goal, they say, is for the members of your ragtag band of freedom fighters to simply survive. As I mentioned in my review, echoed by Pixilated Milk in my time with them, WARSAW can be beaten, but not won.

For inspiration, Pixilated Milk turned to their genre of choice: the tactical RPG. But before then, they toyed with the idea of something completely different – a Metroidvania game. Perhaps for the best, that prototype didn’t work out and it was back to the drawing board after only three months reveals Paplinski:

“…it didn’t allow for narrative vignettes to be applied where we felt they would work, plus the action oriented, twitchy gameplay did not lend well to the type of experience we wanted for the player.”

Upon release WARSAW drew comparisons to games like This War of Mine, Final Fantasy, Valiant Hearts, and perhaps most obviously Darkest Dungeon in reviews. Indeed, it was tactical RPGs like this that Pixilated Milk drew inspiration from. It proved to be a strong cocktail for WARSAW’s development as the game it ended up becoming. The (brilliant) art style was envisioned after experimentation with 2D graphics, with the team concluding that this was the game they wanted. This 2D style bought the characters ‘as close to the player as possible’. The extra layer on the combat grid, compared to Darkest Dungeon, was to simulate flanking – an all-important tactical manoeuvre.

“Pixelated Milk’s art department is definitely its strong point and we wanted to have that on full display”, Papalinski humbly brags.

I mean, just look at how good this all looks

But why use that actually terrific art department tell the story of the Warsaw Uprising, besides the obvious cultural relationship between the event and Pixilated Milk? In the studio’s opinion (and my own), each country in the world possesses a spiritual library of tales that can be told to anybody that span the entire emotional spectrum. In our own Australia, for example, the tale of the swagman who preferred drowning than be captured for stealing sheep is one that’s known – and sung – by almost every Aussie out there.

In my own travels overseas, telling stories like Waltzing Matilda or the rich stories of the Dreamtime is a real blast for both yourself and the one(s) listening to your tale. Telling stories like Tiddalik, the frog who drank all of the Earth’s water, or that of the Rats of Tobruk also helps you build a connection between you and your cultural heritage. For Pixilated Milk, WARSAW is very much a pea of this pod in a historical sense:

“…for someone who never heard about it, it’s two sentences in and you get it. Europe. WWII. Nazi German occupation. Capital’s population rising to the fight. And once you hear about it, you might be surprised you never heard this one story about a whole city rising up to Nazi Germany. […] Once you hear that you might be inclined to dig deeper.”

The primary focus of WARSAW was, in fact, primarily to tell the story of Warsaw’s great tragedy in the form of a video game. Historical accuracy was key to this with the team ensuring that the environment, as well as the objects and the events inside it, remained rooted in fact. Its characters, on the other hand, relied more on archetypes; the variety of people who fought and died in the real-world Uprising.

Paplinski explains that they didn’t want to portray real individuals out of “respect for the ever-shrinking number of the Rising’s survivors and their families.” That said, they insist that they’ve alluded to certain real people…but you’ll need to dig into the history to find out which ones.

When telling this history, Pixilated Milk recognises the difference between fact and history. “As history itself is basically just flavoured facts, we had to base our research on historical books”, Paplinski explains.

Alongside research of their own, the team also consulted experts on Polish history and the Uprising itself. Along the way, however, Pixilated Milk encountered many difficulties with bias. While the research and consultations remained valuable, the team “did struggle at some points on how to phrase something or how to portray certain events. Apparently, the opening of the game, a ”short outline of where the player finds him or herself in a couple of short sentences”, took a month to write.

Writing a historical game comes with unique pitfalls as well, and Pixilated Milk seems to understand that you can’t please everybody. Writing in four languages – Polish, Russian, English, and German – proved particularly challenging in achieving their no-nonsense approach to portraying the Uprising. While they were determined to portray the event without ‘prejudice or sentiment’, they accepted that they were always going to have harsh (and often misled) critics:

“…each of those languages has its own sensibilities and relation to history. And let’s just say that some people are a bit less enthusiastic in the way some facts are portrayed. But facts are something we didn’t want to sacrifice, so – we’ll live with those reviews and comments.”

Thankfully, Internet flame wars aren’t literal

Thankfully, historical controversy has seemed to avoided WARSAW. Whether that’s down to Pixilated Milk’s approach to historical narrative or its smaller media footprint as an indie title will probably remain a mystery. But what’s crystal clear, in this new decade, is video games’ ability to tell compelling stories like that of the Uprising in ways that only video games can. Gathering a personally emotional interacted investment in the cause of the Uprising, and being helpless in its ultimate demise, is a feeling that only WARSAW could – and has – provided. According to the team, while books “allow for very little leeway in the way you approach the content” and film’s reliance on engaging a variety of senses “can alter the way you absorb the content thrown your way”, games provide a means to go all-in with narrative. For Pixilated Milk, games aren’t necessarily a better form of storytelling than others but different.

”You might miss half of the things the creators prepared for you just because you went this way, and not the other”, Paplinski argues. ”You might witness a different side of a story just because you did something less expected. And everything happens at your own pace.” This is one of the benefits of games as storytellers: interactivity. 2013’s Papers, Please, for example, used player agency and intentionally claustrophobic design to hold a mirror to our morality – and our society’s.

For WARSAW, its drip-fed anxiety and constant state of desperation are also evident in its mechanics. Many of the game’s gameplay frustrations are intentionally built into the game to add more layers to the narrative onion. Design choices like the titular inability to win the Uprising, constantly running out of ammo, and even your people missing shots are there for us to “feel a sliver of what people in the Rising felt.” And as I mentioned in my review of WARSAW, it succeeds almost too well.

Pixilated Milk’s goal with the mechanics of WARSAW was to evoke the feeling of being on those Warsaw streets “while still being a game, and not an art project.” That said, there are some bits of the Uprising that the team felt weren’t suitable for inclusion. Tragic footnotes in the story of the Uprising, like the massacre of tens of thousands of Poles in the district of Wola, are respectfully left alone. Indeed, the studio is passionately intent on presenting the Uprising as delicately as they can – without their presentation coming off as too clean.

Having played WARSAW for a fair bit, it’s easy to conclude that Pixilated Milk succeeded in their goal. The quality and polish of their latest title is impressive for a new studio, and it’s left me hungry for more. Luckily, there’s been free post-launch content to add further depth to the game’s strategy. But, what’s next for Pixilated Milk?

“The work’s not done on WARSAW yet”, says Paplinski, “but there’s couple of projects underway in various stages of production.” No promises of any impending announcements, however, as their development timeline is never quite set in stone. If WARSAW is anything to go by, the future of Pixilated Milk looks bright. Hopefully literally; it’s hard to say what another thoroughly brutal historical game would do to them.

Aza blames his stunted social skills and general uselessness on a lifetime of video games. Between his ears is a comprehensive Team Fortress 2 encyclopedia. His brain, on the other hand, remains at large.