Video games are often described as an ultimate form of escapism — and as the planet sits in lockdown, roaming, expansive virtual worlds have never been more tempting.
Eastern Europe has long been a huge market for game development. In 2019, the local video game industry was worth more than $2 billion (with companies in Russia, Poland and Ukraine valued at $1.7 billion, $541 million and $179 million respectively).
You’ve probably heard of The Witcher, developed by Warsaw-based CD Projekt Red and based on the novel series Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Praised for sophisticated storytelling with an expansive and richly-conceived world, the games have sold more than 40 million copies (while the books were also turned into a Netflix series in 2018.) The studio’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 is also guaranteed to turn heads. S.T.A.L.K.E.R, by Ukrainian developer GSC Game World, is another heavy hitter: a first-person shooter letting you roam in a fictionalised Chernobyl area and interact with its otherworldly creatures.
But the region’s big players are just a tip of the iceberg. “[In Eastern Europe, there are more than] 1,000 game development studios, more than 25,000 individuals producing games, and many interesting success stories”, says the Central and Eastern European Game Awards. And while small studios might not be capturing headlines, they’re packed with games that won’t just keep you up to the early hours, but also draw on their own unique culture and history.
We’ve chosen six of the best indie releases on our radar right now — from pixel-art mobile punch ‘em ups to genre-bending survival strategy games. Draw the curtains and start downloading: after all, there’s never been a better time to stay indoors.
It’s Winter is a self-described work of “post-Soviet, sad 3D”. “Nothing awaits you,” its creators say, “there is no chance to get out, no room for adventures, nor a breathtaking plot.”
The game is set in a nondescript suburb in Russia, where the player can while away their achingly normal life. You can make eggs on toast, turn on the radio, take a bath, and take out the trash. You leave the flat and go for a walk around the deserted courtyard, past the corner shop and beauty salon — both of which are closed. It is almost so mundane as to be poetic: nostalgic for those who grew up in suburban Soviet tower blocks, and novel for those who have never experienced them. Endlessly calming, the game has been released as a part of a larger project by poet Ilia Mazo, which also includes a book, a play, a short film, and a musical album (which you can hear playing on the radio, in the game).
This War of Mine offers a radically different take on soldier-led shooters. On this virtual battlefield, you’re not a hero of front line combat, but a civilian scrambling for resources and survival amid a war torn city. Created by Polish developers 11 Bit Studios, the game was partly based on the atrocities endured by Bosnian civilians during the 1992–96 Siege of Sarajevo. Despite dealing with the most difficult of topics, the game draws you in with beautifully designed, dimly-lit cutaway buildings, relatable characters, and gameplay that exposes players to themselves in harsh and unexpected ways.
Battle for Basiani is a pixel-art, arcade-fuelled take on the raver protests which took place in Tbilisi in May 2018 after the illegal police raids on the city’s Bassiani techno club. Thousands of people gathered in front of the former Georgian parliament on Rustaveli Avenue to “Dance for Freedom”, as one slogan proclaimed. Now that building, alongside the beautiful mountainous skyline of Tbilisi, has been recreated in 2D by Golden Fox Studio. Players, meanwhile, take on the controversial role of a government official beating up ravers in colourful windbreakers. Some might say the simple fighter game seems to poke fun at bureaucrats and the demonisation of protestors in the press: but the developers shy away from political interpretations. To quote its official description, “the game is a parody, it carries no political or social messages”.
PUSS! by Ukraine’s teamCOIL is as visually overwhelming as it is unpredictably strange. In this self-styled “avoid ‘em up” puzzle game, you play as a cat in a maze — except that this labyrinth is built of surrealist sketches, psychedelic art, glitch visuals, and an occasional sprinkle of dolphins. The game mechanics are based on getting through each maze without touching the walls until you reach the exit portal — and because all levels are randomly sequenced, every run is different. Its unique visual mishmash might remind you of Ukrainian rave culture, or the tacky madness of 2000s Eastern European graphic design: making it not just great to play, but also an ode to the Y2K aesthetic.
Developed by Charles University and the Czech Academy of Sciences, Attentat 1942 tells the story of the Nazi occupation from the perspective of those who experienced it. Built on dialogues with survivors, interactive comics, and authentic historical footage, it’s the kind of project that proves that gaming’s all round immersion isn’t just for passing the time. Players take on the role of a grandchild investigating the arrest of their grandfather, Jindřich Jelínek, in a twisting take that exposes just how close to home history can be. Jelínek was arrested by the Gestapo shortly after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, ruler of the Nazi-occupied Czech lands, and the leading architect of The Holocaust. The objective of the game is to establish what role he played in the attack and the reason for his arrest, through facing the evidence of atrocities.
Developed by the Czech game company Amanita Design, Chuchel is a visually compelling and slightly surreal quest for a stolen cherry. You play as a small, round creature — a mixture of an acorn and a ball of fluff — navigating a world full of other curious inhabitants. Chuchel’s DNA certainly bears traces of Soviet cartoons and traditional Czech fairy tales – it’s child-friendly, but also odd and trippy enough to enjoy as an adult.