Being an Eastern European citizen myself, I am always excited when a game set in these part of the world gets released. However lately I was wondering, if the depiction of these countries does any favour to the image being formed about them.
Disclaimer: I am not criticizing the games mentioned in this article. It has nothing to do with national pride, being offended. They are simply observations and my opinion. Also it might get long, so get a cocoa or something.
One of the experiences of growing up and living in Central/Eastern Europe is getting super excited whenever your country is mentioned in a Western movie or a game. And even more excited, when the piece of media is actually set in your home country.
The AAA game industry is being dominated by games that are set in the USA, and maybe Asia on the second place. There is nothing wrong with this, it is simply how things have turned out.
A funny side effect of mainstream media being so “Americanized” is that we know a lot about American culture. We watch their movies, eat their food, frequent their fast food chains, wear their brands. But whenever someone visits us from the West, we go out of our way to introduce them to our less known culture.
We will make the poor visitors drink our pálinka, tuica, slivovica. We will make you try mici, cevapcici, gulyás, strapacky. Yes, these are actual spirits and dishes, I am not making the names up. They are super tasty and we will want you to try them, and hope you will like them. So you will learn a bit more about our culture. It is not because we think you would be ignorant, it is simply the fact, that we often feel that people don’t know enough of our culture. If I’d want to be blunt, I’d might say that it is a form of inferiority complex on our behalf. We want to be seen more as post Soviet states where everyone is depressed, people are poor and we squat in front of apartment blocks eating sunflower seeds.
But I am trying to build a gaming blog here, so instead of giving you a culinary lesson, I will focus on video games.
Keep in mind, I am focusing on the depiction of modern Eastern Europe. I will not include historical games. Also I will exclude where the setting is not playing a vital role in the game. This means that sports, driving, and simulator games will not be listed here.
At the end of the article I will try to decide whether the depiction is correct or not, and play with a few ideas how things could change.
A grim, war-torn landscape full of horrors
I will not pretend that I know every single game, or I have played every last indie release. But digging into the topic, I actually found what I was already suspecting.
I can categorize games set in Eastern Europe in roughly 3 main categories.
Eastern Europe the warzone
While checking the list of video games being set inEurope by countries, when opening the pages of Eastern European countries, there was an obvious pattern. Although the list is far from complete, war games absolutely dominated the field.
Starting from WW I and WW II themed games to modern conflicts, war is a permanent state in Eastern Europe. As one example, the Command and Conquer series portrays a decades long struggle in the region basically in all of the countries. Bulgaria, Poland, Croatia, and the list goes on.
Battlefield 2142 has parts playing in Belarus, Serbia and Russia, while Battlefield 3 brings war to Ukraine.
You can also fight the bad guys in the campaigns of the Call of Duty series in modern Russia, Ukraine or Czech Republic.
The Tom Clancy games (Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell series) are even harder to follow so I will just list a few of the locations where you can make the world a better place. And those are being Croatia, Czech Republic, Kosovo, Hungary, Serbia, Ukraine and all the others that I did not list.
Apparently Eastern Europe is living hell in these games, as there is always an evil general, terrorist mastermind or paramilitary organization to fight. Something, that is pretty far from reality, but we will get to that later.
Eastern Europe the dystopia
I am not a huge fan of war games, so I have more confidence in this category.
Things always go terribly wrong in Eastern Europe. Radioactive mutants, alien overlords, dictators. We have them all or will have them in the not so distant future.
Half-life 2’s City 17 is in Eastern Europe. Presumably it is based on Sofia, Bulgaria. Of course it is a special circumstance as it was overrun by aliens, however the inspiration was clearly the post Soviet architecture that you can find in many Eastern European countries.
Prague in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a dystopian hellhole, where Augs (people with artificial augmentations) are being hunted and forced underground. If caught, given that they survive the encounter with the authorities, they are deported to the Útulek complex. A massive ghetto for Augs. As the protagonist, Adam Jansen you can repeatedly choose to help them though. In one side mission for example you can get some forged documents so they can skip town and avoid deportation.
For sure it is a grim setting, something that the actual Czech Republic is pretty far from.
Observer is a cyberpunk themed psychological horror game set in Krakow, Poland. It is a dystopian universe, where a megacorporation took charge of Poland. A special unit of law enforcement, the Observers have the ability to hack into the mind of people. If found out, drug and hologram addicts are forced into ghettos. Cheerful isn’t it?
I think you get the idea. But I will mention two other well known examples, where at least parts of Eastern Europe are depicted as post-apocalyptic wastelands. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and the Metro 2033 series are set in Ukraine and Russia, where you are fighting for your life against different types of horrific mutants.
Eastern Europe the land of horrors
Eastern Europe has a rich folklore riddled with monsters, but probably no fiends are more famous than vampires. Unsurprisingly plenty of horror games are set here. The most infamous place to fight those blood-sucking beasts is obviously Transylvania, Romania.
And most recently, despite travel restrictions I had the pleasure to visit Romania again in Resident Evil: Village. My fiancée is Romanian, and I also speak some of the language, so it was an absolute pleasure to listen to Ethan butcher it.
Village is a perfect homage to all the horror tropes. Vampires, werewolves, creepy dolls and Frankenstein’s monster-like abominations. Superstitious village folk, and an eerie castle.
Actually I had the absolute pleasure to visit Castle Peles, which inspired the Dimitrescu castle. Just a fun fact, it was the world’s first castle that was fully powered by locally produced electricity.
Are the stories true?
The short answer is: in part, yes.
Question: Do we live in rundown communist blocks?
Answer: Many of us do. Many Eastern and Central European countries were ex Soviet or satellite states, where social housing programs took place. The idea was to provide affordable living arrangement to the people in densely populated areas. The result was the so called communist blocks. You can find them in many cities throughout Eastern Europe. I personally hate them, they are an eyesore. But obviously since they were built, they will remain here with us.
These buildings are actually made out of prefabricated, copy and paste modules. Basically they just had to pile these up on each other, the construction was super fast and these concrete monstrosities grew out of nothing like mushrooms.
Besides the fact, that they are hideous in my opinion, there are several other issues with them. One being is the paper thin walls. You can literally hear your neighbour snoring from upstairs. Also, many times the maintenance is lacking and the buildings are let to decay. So yes, what you see in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is pretty accurate.
On the other hand however there is plenty of architecture in our countries that compensates us for these abominations.
Question: are Eastern European people bitter, gloomy and depressed?
Answer: not at all. We are pretty cheerful, most of us like to drink and party. Well not me, but I am a shut-in.
However it is true, that we often have a pessimistic outlook on things. I am not entirely sure where this comes from, but I have my own guesses.
You see, Eastern Europe was indeed plagued with wars in the past. Many of our grandparents seen wars or the collapse of the Soviet Union, which lead to an economic crash. So since they experienced struggle, they are always preparing for the worse, even if only subconsciously. They hoard things, unless something is really broken, they keep using it. They never waste food, and they stockpile. Have you ever eaten frozen and then thawed soup? I have. And I don’t recommend.
Then they taught this mindset to our parents, and our parents to us. Obviously this mentality is fading as generations pass, but many of us still have this “it could be worse” and “let’s prepare for the worst” thinking.
Question: Are we living in dystopian regimes?
Answer: Without getting too political, I only want to say that a cultural shift is taking place. Just like in the West, ideas of the old and new are clashing constantly. I can only talk for myself here, but I can vote, have access to public health services, education, access to the Internet and I can travel freely. In fact, within the European Union you can freely move, work, marry, etc. Could things be better? Like I said above, it could be worse. Do I feel constantly watched and harassed? Absolutely not.
However remnants of the old systems are with us, and corruption is rampant.
Question: Are there wars in Europe?
Answer: Luckily no, and hopefully it will stay this way.
If you made it this far, I thank and congratulate you.
I think there could be more and different games set in Eastern Europe. Not just war, post-apocalyptic and horror stories. We have a rich and very colourful culture. In fact cultures, since our countries are pretty different.
I don’t expect GTA: Bratislava drop any time soon though. In Eastern Europe we have very strict gun laws. I personally only saw guns in my life carried by law enforcement. So running amok with a gun, fighting police is something pretty unrealistic here, as you simply don’t really have access to firearms.
But any kind of RPG, graphic novel, adventure game, detective story could easily take place here. In a friendlier, more cheerful Eastern Europe with less vampires.
Would it be appealing to the greater public? I am not one to say, but in my opinion it is a pretty undiscovered area. For sure, post Soviet architecture, art has its own charm. But our countries are so much more than these remnants of an old idea. Europe is a continent with many mistakes in the past. But also one that learnt a lot from these mistakes.
The entire world is in a bad shape right now. I can only hope, that eventually the struggles we are facing now, will unite us and not divide us.
I hope, that the examples above remain only fiction and not become reality.
Except for Lady Dimitrescu maybe.
What about you? Do you know different, better examples of the representation of Eastern Europe in video games? Or maybe you are from a place that is absolutely different than it is depicted in games?