Virtual Reality Takes on Historical Trauma

A wave of new Polish games reexamines Soviet repression.

Scenes from VR video games
Scenes from the VR video games Gulag, Siberian Run, and Kursk.

“Did you eat breakfast, young man?” an elderly woman asked as she smiled mildly. “If not I will make you a sandwich. I have starved so many times that I know how important it is to be full.” Irena Paduch sat this September in her apartment in one of the huge blocks of them in the Polish city of Lodz. She is almost 95 years old and comes from small village in Volhynia, which is now part of Ukraine but belonged to Poland before World War II.

After Russia invaded the area in 1939, she was sent with her grandfather to Siberia. “When the Soviets took us away, I was at my grandfather’s home, and my mother didn’t even know what had happened to me,” she said. Paduch, like hundreds of thousands of other Poles, was packed into a cattle wagon and taken deep into the Soviet Union. “The journey lasted many days. There were several dozen people in our wagon. Old, young, even babies,” she recalled. “One woman, whose husband was an officer of the Polish army and was probably murdered in Katyn,” the site of a series of massacres at the hands of Soviet soldiers. The woman took the trip with her infant twins. “They both died in her arms, and she lost her mind.”

From the train, exiles were loaded onto river barges and then sleighs and tractors. Their road ended in the barracks of a Soviet labor camp. Everyone worked for the lumber industry in the wild taiga. In summer there were bears and clouds of mosquitoes, in winter snow and bitter frost. Paduch was 15 at that time.

Her grandson, Pawel Jozwiak-Rodan, sat next to her and listened carefully to each word. “My grandmother’s story touched me deeply. She became part of my soul,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to tell it. I am a filmmaker, but I was searching for the new ways of storytelling.”

I could hear men’s voices, and when I took a look around, I realized that I was inside the cattle wagon. Around the walls of the carriage were people in worn clothes. Through the half-open door, a blizzard raged outside.

An inner voice spoke: “Maybe if the train slowed down, I would be able to escape.”

I jumped out, landed in a snowdrift, and suddenly I was again in Jozwiak-Rodan’s cozy apartment. “I think history should be told in a way that young people can understand it,” he said as I put the virtual reality goggles and controllers on the desk. And so, he and his programmer friend Jacek Ross started developing the VR game Siberian Run in 2018.

Immersed in a virtual Siberia, players take on the role of a fugitive trying to avoid capture. They can collect different objects that help on the quest and interact with the world around them. The shouts of guards calling out from somewhere in the snowstorm reminds players that time is running out—and that each mistake can cost you your life.

For now, only the first chapter of the story has been finished, but the creators would like to further develop the project. If they are able, they will be part of a growing movement that elevates video games beyond entertainment. “In my opinion, the moment has come when they are becoming something much more important,” Jozwiak-Rodan told me. “It is a modern storytelling tool similar to books or movies. We have, after all, entertainment, artistic, or documentary cinema. Video games are evolving in the same direction. This is new virtual experience.”

In the future, he is planning to cover other serious topics, such as the story of Irena Sendler, a Polish humanitarian who worked to save Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, or that of St. Maksymilian Maria Kolbe, who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the German Auschwitz death camp.

A scene from Gulag.

A scene from Gulag.

Jacek Ross, an unassuming software company co-owner in his thirties, sat in a small cafe in the shopping mall named Central Europe in the southern Polish region of Silesia. During the Russian invasion, Ross’s grandfather was exiled to a gold mine in Siberia. His grandfather’s two sisters were sent to one in Kazakhstan. Ross argues that although atrocities committed by Germans during World War II are widely known, the crimes of the Soviet Union are more forgotten. “We want to make a tribute to the victims and shout loudly to the world about their fate,” he said.

The inspiration for his game, simply named Gulag, comes not only from his ancestors’ experiences but also from the book The Long Walk, by a Polish Army lieutenant who said he had escaped from a Siberian gulag camp, through the Gobi Desert, Tibet, and the Himalayas, and on to British India. Ross’s idea was to create survival video game that is strongly based on real history. He does not conceal his motivation: to speak out against the cruelties of the Soviet Union.

“People were forced to work in mines and at taiga logging. They frequently died due to unbearable hunger, illnesses, unfavorable weather conditions, supervisor brutality, and inmate cruelty,” he said. “The ones trying to escape were beaten to death by officers, betrayed by the inhabitants of nearby settlements, killed by wild animals, extreme cold and hunger. Is it possible to survive and find motivation to become free in such conditions?”

Ross strongly believes that the answer is yes. And indeed, there were people who reached freedom. His point with this game is that, even when everything seems lost, it is better to struggle for freedom and dignity than to surrender. People, he believes, will always harbor at least some small will to protest against totalitarianism and the annihilation of the individual. “Such a heroic uprising, against all odds, proves that people, thanks to their free will, can act against a system that tries to convert [them] into the nameless mass of slaves,” he said.

His project is the early phases of development, and only a trailer has been released yet on the popular digital video game distribution platform Steam. Even so, it has already gained some negative responses. “[A]nti-communist non sense game,” went one review. “[I]t was mostly theives, rapists, and some traitors (very small percentage were political) that were sent to the gulags. Also, within a few years most of them were released. Why not make game then about the US prisons where the US has the most prison population in the whole world?”

It is hard to say who the negative reviewers are. Steam users have nicknames and private profiles that obscure identities. But it is safe to say that at least some of the negative response to Gulag comes from Russians and pro-Russian Poles. For his part, Ross said that he would like to avoid contemporary politics, but he added that “Russians still have not confronted and dealt with their past.”

A scene from Kursk.

A scene from Kursk.

Criticism of Russia is a strong theme among the wave of recent video games—whether they relate to the tragedies of the World War II era or to more recent history. Michal Stepien owns the Polish company that recently released a game dedicated to the Kursk submarine disaster. In August 2000, during naval exercises in the Barents Sea, the Russian nuclear-powered submarine Kursk sunk when its internal torpedo exploded. Of 118 sailors, only 23 survived the blast. They then died waiting for the rescuers.

At the time of the disaster, the Russian public was shocked by the level of incompetence shown during the rescue operation and by the behavior of state officials, including the President Vladimir Putin, who initially declined to cut his vacation at a seaside resort short in response to the explosion.

The adventure video game Kursk tells the fictional story of a spy aboard the submarine, but the rest of the game was built around historical source material. “We have even checked the weather in the Kursk’s home port Vidyayevo on the day when the ship set off into the sea,” Stepien said. We “consulted with a former officer serving on the Soviet submarines to learn as much as we can about living conditions, behaviors, and habits of the crew.” The game also depicts the life of people in Russia at that time.

When looking for a story for their game, Stepien and his team did not initially focus on Russia. Rather, they were looking for any real story that could suit the video game format. “Our primary goal was to create a game for a mature player who is looking not only for entertainment but also valuable knowledge. A game from which you can learn something and which also forces you to think about the world around us,” he said. “The Kursk disaster perfectly fits these preliminary assumptions.”

Their game caused a lot of controversy when it came out. Some argued that the authors trivialized the tragedy. Mainstream Russian media accused them of publishing anti-Russian propaganda. But there were also positive reviews, too. “I think this is a great idea for a game, to provide awareness for the original event … While it may not be the most exciting game, I think just for the opportunity to see what things might have been like, and certainly an experience much different from my own, is really cool,” wrote one of the gamers on the Steam platform.

In short, Kursk was a proof of concept that it is possible to raise awareness of important political and social topics using a medium that is popular among younger audiences. “It’s not only about Kursk itself,” Stepien said. “Imagine what would happen if its nuclear reactor would blow up. The environmental consequences are hardly imaginable. The time has come for games developers to tell the true stories and be responsible for the social impact of our productions.”

Irena Paduch holds up an old photo of herself at her apartment in Lodz in September.

Irena Paduch holds up an old photo of herself at her apartment in Lodz, Poland, on Sept. 10. Tomasz Grzywaczewski for Foreign Policy

Jozwiak-Rodan placed the VR goggles on his grandma, and she was instantly transported back 80 years. Supported by her grandson, she explored virtual Siberian landscapes. “Sweetheart, this cattle carriage is too clean and comfortable. It actually looked much more horrible,” she said firmly. In the video game, a player may come across a letter from Irena Paduch—one that, in real life, was never really written: “Dear Mommy! I could have run, but I felt sorry for my grandpa, so I stayed. … We’ve been going through Russia for a week, I hope I can send this letter so that you do not worry. … Maybe we’ll be back soon.”

Developing documentary video games devoted to controversial issues is like walking through a minefield. The gaming industry is still heavily associated with pure entertainment, which makes all the more plausible claims that games that take on heavier material are trivializing tragedy. But it is also true that the good games make the tragedy more present—immediately understandable for people who weren’t there.

They may also be a uniquely accessible way of tackling current controversies. For all the reviewers who are angry about the apparent anti-Russian bent on some of the recent Polish VR games are other users who may never have heard the stories the games relay in an increasingly closed news ecosystem. From that perspective, games might be as good a means of artistic or documentary expression as film, TV, or literature. And it won’t be critics or journalists who decide, but gamers themselves.

Paduch was released from exile in the fall of 1941, but was afterwards forced to work on a Soviet collective farm and was imprisoned for nine months in a quarry. When the war ended, she came back to her home village only to find out that this part of Poland had been incorporated into the Soviet Union and that all Polish people had been forced to leave.

She searched for her lost family for the next three years. She got married and settled in a small town in western Poland. “I was waiting eight long years to see my mom again and tell her that I am alive,” Paduch said, tears appearing in her bright and usually cheerful eyes.

Jozwiak-Rodan touched her arm softly. “She suffered so much,” he said. “I create this game not only to tell the story of cruelties committed by Soviets but also to give my grandma a second chance. A chance to write [her] letter”—and, presumably, her history.

Tomasz Grzywaczewski is a journalist in Poland.