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The Warsaw Uprising: How a forgotten chapter of WWII is inspiring Polish game devs

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

I have been to many war memorials around the world, but only one has ever moved me to tears.

It has stood on a corner of Bonifraterska Street, next to Poland’s Supreme Court, since 1989. The imposing, 30 ft. tall black bronze sculpture takes up a city block. It is dedicated to a battle I’d never heard of before visiting Poland — the Warsaw Uprising.

On August 1, 1944 the remnants of Poland’s Home Army, with the support of hundreds of thousands of the citizens of Warsaw, launched the single largest civilian insurrection of World War II. And they failed.

The monument portrays a group of Poles, wielding a mix of captured Axis and scavenged Allied weapons, heroically running from the cover of a collapsed building. The armed men, women and even children in the scene are throwing themselves into the fight against their German occupiers so that their comrades can escape.

In the foreground another bronze soldier worms his way into a manhole. Next to him a woman, head low against the hail of bullets, is clutching a baby in her arms. They’ll spend hours traveling through Warsaw’s sewer system to hide behind partisan lines. But they will not find safety there.

The Warsaw Uprising was a tragedy. The Home Army held out for 63 days before being overwhelmed. What little was left of the city was systematically destroyed by the Nazis. By the time that Stalin’s forces entered the city less than 10 percent of Warsaw was left standing.

The monument itself is controversial. Not far from it is a museum, with artifacts as well as sophisticated 3D recreations of the city from that time. But for some Poles, its a part of their history they would rather forget.

"Around 200,000 civilians were killed during the Uprising," says Blazej Krakowiak, PR and Marketing Manager for CI Games. "Poland lost its best and brightest during that time. It did not recover for years and years."

But Krakowiak, like those behind the Warsaw Uprising monument and museum, want the story to be told. CI Games’ latest FPS title, Enemy Front, aims to do just that. Players take on the role of an American journalist, covering the stories of freedom fighters all across Europe during World War II. Key sections of the game take place in Warsaw during the Uprising.

For Krakowiak and the team at CI Games, it’s all about awareness.

"We’re trying to make the fact of the Uprising more recognizable," he says. "We had to build [the game] from historical references. From photos of buildings, of basements and of tunnels beneath the city. So it’s plausible, but not directly inspired by events.

"We also consulted with historians, with people who spend their whole lives researching [the Uprising]. There are many photos that are German photos, because German soldiers were taking them as souvenirs. They were showing off, sending them to their families. There are also maps from that time, some of them drawn by the Home Army."

After the Uprising many Poles fled the city. But there were those who tried to live among the burned-out buildings. Many retreated underground, to the same sewers that the partisans used to maneuver through the city. They became known as the Robinson Crusoes of Warsaw and their stories have been, in part, the inspiration behind 11 Bit Studio’s This War Of Mine.

"There was a total lack of resources in Warsaw," says Michal Drozdowski, 11 Bit Studio’s design director. "People needed to hide out because they could be killed on sight."

This War Of Mine is a survival adventure game that takes place in a modern  European city gripped by war. Players take on the role of a small group of survivors struggling to find the food, shelter and medicine they need to stay alive. It’s a situation very similar to the months following the Uprising.

"Our research has shown that that these kinds of experiences are present in many conflicts," Drozdowski says. His team is pulling on first-hand accounts from Sarajevo, Syria, Iraq and even present day Ukraine to make their game.

"We want to make people realize that while they’re sitting there playing a video game, a few hundred kilometers away there are people just trying to survive."

11 Bit’s art director, Przemyslaw Marszal, says that by looking into Poland’s past you can begin to see how history tends to repeat itself.

"People never believe that their world is going to change," Marszal says. "When you’re reading about the second World War, there was exactly that same feeling, that war was not going to happen. But in 1939 it did."

The danger in forgetting about the Uprising, Marszal says, is in forgetting to be prepared to survive the next occupation.

"When we read about some of the stories of Poles during the Uprising, they were also very surprised about how quickly all this happened to them."

Edit: Commenter gower has linked below to a beautiful video featuring the annual Uprising remembrance that takes place in Warsaw every year on August 1st.

Polygon's features team traveled to Poland in the first half of 2014. Our goal was not just to profile a single person or game. We wanted to go deeper.

Over two weeks we covered more than 300 miles. We visited some of the largest and oldest cities in Poland. We met with nearly two dozen teams, and spent time in the homes and workplaces of the individuals making games in the heartland of Central Europe.

This article is just the beginning.

Polygon's feature set, Polygon Goes To Poland, contains six feature stories and two short documentary films.

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