Right in the centre of Poland’s capital, Warsaw, the Rondo Dmowskiego streams as busily as London’s Oxford Circus or New York’s Times Square. It is always a bustling intersection of the city but today, with an abundance of vehicles and people careening by, it is an even busier picture. Where distinctive red and yellow trams would normally glide by the towering commercial buildings, instead countless thousands of all ages are mingling ever-closer together. The only vehicles are the odd interspersed police unit with a few broadcasting trucks, scrambled upon like ants by those wishing to get a better view of the rising groundswell. Amidst the occasional clustered chant breaking out, the electric atmosphere is not down to a megastar’s impending stage entrance, nor the solemnity of a memorial. There is however a rippling sense of pride, an energy bubbling underfoot, all building towards exactly 5pm on this specific day, 1st August 2019.
This date marks the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, whereupon 50,000 Polish Home Army insurgents took back their capital city, gaining control within a few days. In swift retaliation, German reinforcements attacked en masse, as well as bombarding with air strikes and artillery. The Polish forces held out, hoping desperately for the Red Army, which held positions close to the city, to move in and turn the tide.
The Russians wouldn't arrive until it was far too late. Eventually, with the Polish resistance’s resources exhausted and countless lives lost, including more than 150,000 civilians, the Home Army surrendered on 2nd October 1944. In all, the Warsaw Uprising lasted for 63 days.
Every year, the anniversary honours and remembers the heavy price paid by all those who lost so much, whilst celebrating the immense bravery and incredible actions carried out by these inspiring men and women.
At 5pm precisely, billowing red and white plumes erupt from hundreds of flares, thousands of flag-toting arms raised in solidarity amidst the drifting smoke. The soundtrack is a cacophony of sirens and revving engines that add a powerful reverence to such a memorable moment.
Within this crowd Krzysztof Paplinski and Michal Affelski of publisher 'the gaming company' are as reflective as all those they stand shoulder to shoulder with. Their desire to share this story has led them for the last few years, alongside developer Pixelated Milk, to create WARSAW; a tactical RPG built around turn-based strategy, releasing 2nd December on PC (consoles to follow later). Featuring a certain affinity to Darkest Dungeon, the player has their heroes battle through the entire 62 day Uprising, with painstaking historical detail permeating every element of the game.
Whilst the power of the story is universal and a passion for the whole team, Krzysztof is a Warsaw native born and raised in the capital. The Uprising is entwined with his family history; his grandmother cooked meals for the insurgents, while his sister was injured in an explosion. The retaliating Germans forced the family into labour camps, including his mother, who herself remembers a young boy protecting her rations of sugar.
Asked for his personal perspective on the Uprising, Krzysztof explains it's something he's cautious about sharing because he doesn't want people to think the game is working to an agenda: “we’re trying to show the facts, not the narrative.” But he admits he would love players to become more familiar with this incredible part of history, and that strong connections to the characters might prompt a little scratching beneath the surface to find out more.
Brimming with knowledge, Krzysztof and Michal’s affinity with the multitude surrounding them is, today, dramatically on show in the swathes of colour at Warsaw’s every turn. Typically this might be the city’s proud yellow and red: a motif reaching all the way from the streets’ interspersed flags through to its construction workers’ uniforms. Today, however, bold red and white fill every inch of your vision: not only flags but the omnipresent armbands on young and old alike. These latter adornments were a defining trait of the insurgents, worn to indicate friend or foe amidst the mayhem of street-to-street fighting. The excessive dirt & dust may have once hindered their usefulness amidst urban warfare, but they are emblematic of the Uprising.
Adorned on each is an unmistakable icon, the Kotwica or “anchor.” Aptly shaped through deftly combining the letters P & W, meaning Polska Walcząca (“Fighting Poland”), its rich black contrast creates an instantly recognisable symbol. Despite its familiarity, however, the developers did not want to take 'possession' of it in any way by using it as the game’s logo for example: the value and meaning belong to everyone.
It is striking to see the younger generations so involved in the anniversary, many wearing the armbands while others are clad head-to-toe in authentic period outfits. I mention this to Krzysztof, who tells me it should not necessarily be such a surprise: the actions of children, particularly the scouts, are another fundamental aspect of the Warsaw Uprising. They would audaciously paint the Kotwica in the boldest places possible, tunefully berate the Germans through Polish song, and even unleash homemade gasoline bottles as effective anti-tank weapons (the concoction could be devastating if it soaked through to the engine block.)
The game’s own boy scout, Franek, is outfitted as such, alongside his trusted pistol. Having him kill a couple of Germans with it in a turn-based street skirmish is somewhat sobering, particularly whereupon returning to the “hideout” base he sits happily on the floor, merrily playing with a train set. Feelings of confliction well up and rightly so, videogames still shy from such heavy realities: perhaps MGS V: The Phantom Pain’s spotlight on child soldiers is the only comparable example in recent years.
It is something the team has considered with great care, wary of the ease with which this issue can be romanticised. An infamous statue within Poland, Mały Powstaniec ("The Little Insurrectionist"), depicts a small boy in oversized helmet and submachine gun in hand. Though a powerful symbol of the Uprising, children never actually used such weapons or even pistols during the war.
Franek’s firearm is a player choice: the young scout’s battle load-out can be comprised entirely of assistive skills if desired. This flexibility was a design decision to ensure gameplay was invigorating enough in its own right, prior to harnessing the power of this story and setting. As authentic as WARSAW aspires to be, it is not a recreation of history, but a fictional work of art.
The nature of the medium is an opportunity. A video game like WARSAW can engross players in a fully coloured, audiovisual Uprising that bridges the gaps between oral history, grainy black-and-white footage, and textbooks. It is of a piece with other projects like Mikołaj Kaczmarek’s colourised stills, or Jan Komasa’s Warsaw Uprising documentary, and Krzysztof and Michal are passionate about WARSAW being its own style of preservation. The 75th anniversary is only one day but, as the last remaining insurgents pass away, the game can forever hold these memories for new generations.
Designed and developed by a Polish team in Warsaw, Krzysztof tells me that “every country has its own version of Polish history.” Standing on the shoulders of an engaging tactical RPG with its own strength, Pixelated Milk hopes to give the world its own version of this key chapter in the country's modern history through WARSAW. The Warsaw Uprising stands alongside the Battle of Britain and the D-Day landings, an event of such courage and defiance it remains unspeakably moving and inspiring: just ask the countless thousands of Polish people standing so resolutely, in such solidarity, to mark its 75th anniversary.
All images: copyright Jeremy Hosking