A new video game is to be set in Poland’s Białowieża Forest, one of the last remnants of the primeval forests that once covered much of Europe and which has been at the centre of environmental controversy in recent years.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest, which is set to be released later this year, is a narrative game exploring the conflict between nature and greed, inspired by real places and events in Białowieża.
It is being developed by Polish game studio Different Tales, whose developers previously worked on the renowned Witcher video games produced by another Polish studio, CD Projekt Red.
The new game is based on White Wolf Publishing’s tabletop role-playing game (RPG) Werewolf: The Apocalypse, part of the wider supernatural horror RPG series “World of Darkness”.
However, the typical American setting of the World of Darkness games will be swapped for Białowieża Forest, and gameplay is to be inspired by recent ecological issues in the area.
In 2016, the Polish government provoked protests when it allowed increased logging in the forest, which is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a special area of conservation under the European Union’s Natura 2000 programme.
The environment minister at the time, Jan Szyszko, claimed that the logging was necessary to combat a bark beetle infestation. However, this argument was rejected by the European Court of Justice, which ruled that Poland had violated of European environmental laws.
“One of the reasons we find Werewolf: the Apocalypse so appealing is that it uses modern horror as a way of tackling very real issues,” designer Artur Ganszyniec told Notes from Poland.
“Environmentalism and ecology has always been at the heart of the setting, and now – 30 years after the initial release of the game – those issues only became more important,” continued Ganszyniec, who was previously lead story designer for the Witcher games .
“Our studio focuses on interactive narratives that are grounded in reality and relevant to players all over the world. So, when we started working on Werewolf: the Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest, we immediately thought about Białowieża Forest.”
As well as being one of Europe’s last primeval forests, Białowieża is also home to 800 European bison, which have been brought back from extinction in the wild, as well as 60 types of other wild mammals.
However, according to Ganszyniec, climate change, infestations of woodworm and increased logging have left the forest’s “unique ecosystem currently at risk”.
“Untamed nature versus human greed is one of the core topics of the game, and we decided to use a place and a situation that we know, and personally care about,” added Ganszyniec.
“We took real places, events and points of view and built upon them a fictional situation, where shapeshifting monsters fight a losing war against technology and corruption.”
Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest is an example of a visual-novel RPG, an interactive game which includes text-based gameplay.
Players take the role of Maia Boroditch, a 24-year-old American woman of Polish descent, whose recurring nightmares lead her to explore the forest. Choices made by players influence Boroditch’s personality, interactions with other characters, and the direction of the narrative.
Ganszyniec says the game gives players space to explore their feelings and thoughts, and to find their own answers. “You don’t have to know anything about the forest,” he told Notes from Poland. “You will learn.”
Poland has a thriving video games industry, with the Witcher series – based on the books by Andrzej Sapkowski – becoming a global hit.
The firm behind them, CD Projekt Red, recently became the most valuable firm listed on Poland’s stock exchange, as well as the most valuable video games firm in Europe, overtaking France’s Ubisoft. Its eagerly anticipated next game, Cyberpunk 2077, is due to be released later this year.
CD Projekt also recently became the most valuable firm on Poland's stock exchange, overtaking the country's biggest bank https://t.co/8FjMlYJAPE
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) May 20, 2020
The success of the Witcher games helped spawn a Netflix series, which in turn catapulted Sapkowski’s books to the top of Amazon’s bestsellers list.
In June, the prime minister said that Poland would be the first country in the world to add a computer game, This War Of Mine, to the official reading list in schools. “Young people use games to imagine certain situations [in a way] no worse than reading books,” he explained.
Gaming has also been used to educate children during the coronavirus lockdown, with the Polish government launched a Minecraft server including educational activities and competitions. One school also organised virtual reality lessons via the Half-Life: Alyx game, which were arranged with the help of a local VR Studio.
“I think that video games are a very effective medium when it comes to empathy and learning new things. As a player you can’t just observe, you have to act and you can see the consequences of your actions,” Ganszyniec told us. “You are not just reading about Białowieża, you are there, you face the forest by yourself, you can choose what to do, and you can see how your decisions work out.”
“In the end, the story becomes part of your personal experience, and the memories stay with you for a long time.”
Main image credit: press materials