Note: Aside from this post, this is a Swedish blog with Swedish articles. But I felt that this particular Swedish game deserves to be known to a wider audience, so I decided to write an English post about it. To all our Swedish readers, don’t worry, we will be returning to Swedish after this!
Update: If you want to read more about Swedish games in English, be sure to visit my new blog, The Swedish Games.
The game Kosmopolska, which was released on PC CD-ROM in 1997, begins with the unnamed main character finding himself locked in a prison cell, with amnesia. He has no idea who he is or why he’s imprisoned, and the only other person he can talk to is a prison guard who refuses to give him any information, other than vague hints that something terrible has happened. However, the main character (referred to as “The Self” in the game’s credits) soon begins to discover that when he looks or interacts with certain ordinary objects in the cell, he is mysteriously transported to a strange world of imagination for short periods of time. This world is a sort of alternate history in which Poland (implied to be under Soviet rule) is engaged in a space race with other nations, with the main characters in these sections being three enthusiastic Polish cosmonauts. The overarching goal of the game is to help Poland win the space race, while trying to figure out how the imaginary world is connected to the real world, and ultimately to find out who the prisoner is and why he is imprisoned.
Kosmopolska is one of those weird and fascinating “multimedia” games from the 90s, with both live action and computer animated video sequences, pre-rendered graphics, and a plethora of different gameplay elements and strange, often obscure puzzles. In the prison cell, it works as an adventure game, where you can turn around and examine objects by clicking on them, which leads to solving puzzles or playing minigames in order to access the world of imagination. The first few visits there are done through non-interactive FMV sequences, but after a while you have to go through cosmonaut training at the Polish space center (the titular Kosmopolska), which is done through a series of minigames (such as a version of Lunar Lander, or one where you have to learn and use an alien language).
After this, you have to play through several levels of a rather interesting variation of real time strategy, obviously inspired by contemporaries such as Warcraft, but with a completely non-violent theme. Instead of building soldiers and attacking the enemy, you have to use your resources to recruit scientists and workers from a common pool, research blueprints for spaceship parts, and then constructing those parts, with the final goal of course being constructing a complete spacecraft before your opponents. The resource management feels somewhat different from most contemporary RTS games, since a lot of it is about making sure that your hired workers are kept busy with different tasks, and aren’t just standing around draining your money.
The game’s visuals are, as previously mentioned, mainly pre-rendered 3D graphics, along with some live action FMV with human actors for some flashback sequences and, most importantly, during the (non-interactive) conversations with the prison guard. Unlike many FMV games from the era, most of the acting is fairly competent and often entertaining, especially with regards to the guard, who is played by the well-known (in Sweden, at least) stage and film actor Leif Andrée. He gives a compelling performance of a character who changes and grows as the story goes on, developing an interesting relationship with the main character. These videos were also directed by Henrik Georgsson, who has gone on to direct several Swedish films and TV series.
The visual design of the imaginary world (created by Swedish artist Mattias Adolfsson, in fact the whole idea for the game originated in some images he did as an art student) is also very interesting, a kind of childish, cartoonish universe with a Soviet theme, using the limitations of the 3D technology of the 90s to its advantage. The CG characters all look like simple dolls and move like marionettes or puppets, which fits well with the theme of childish imagination. Equally memorable is the music, which is everything from humorous, cheerful and bombastic to moody and strange, depending on the scene. It was the first videogame composition work by Joel Eriksson, who would later go on to make music for the Battlefield series, among other things.
Kosmopolska was developed by the Swedish game studio Vision Park, which had previously had great commercial success with the game Backpacker (a game that did in fact get released in English, though I’m not sure how much of an impact it made outside of Sweden). According to interviews I’ve read (including this lengthy article, unfortunately only available in Swedish), the game was something of a passion project, an attempt to make a more artistic and weird game compared to the mainstream commercial success the developers had previously. Unfortunately, this led to the game not selling nearly as well, in part because the marketing arm of the company had a hard time figuring out how to market it. The development also had some technical difficulties, due to different parts of the game being made with different tools (specifically, the adventure sections were made in Macromedia Director, while the RTS segments were made by a different team working with C++). This was most likely the source of the many bugs that plagues the final product, with sound cutting out occasionally and, worst of all, the game often crashing at inopportune moments, usually when you’re about to finally win a difficult RTS segment. While I do think the game is fascinating, it is often frustrating to play for these reasons. Reviews were extremely mixed, with scores ranging all over the place. This was probably both due to the game being so strange and different, and due to it only working properly on very specific computer setups.
My personal history with the game is that I played partway through it back in the 90s, but never reached the end, and it was only much later that I realized what a strange and fascinating game it was. But by that time, I was out of luck. Like many multimedia games from the era, it’s very difficult to get Kosmopolska running on a modern computer, and I made many unsuccessful attempts over the years, frustrated that I seemed doomed to never see the game’s ending and find out the truth about the protagonist’s identity. But finally, about two years ago now, I got the game running again, thanks to the excellent emulator PCem, and this guide for running old Windows games in it. I powered through the many frustrating bugs and crashes, and finally reached the end, an ending that I’m still not quite sure what to make of. In any case, it didn’t diminish my fascination with the game, and it made me wish that more people would become aware of it, as an obscure but interesting part of Swedish gaming history, beloved by some, but with very little information available online (most likely in part due to the difficulty getting it running).
This included wanting to give it attention beyond Sweden as well. The major problem then is the fact that the game was only ever released in Swedish, and making an English translation of it is most likely close to impossible for several reasons. Hacking it to put in English text (not to mention English subtitles for the many video segments) would probably be extremely difficult considering that the game is barely holding together as it is. And even if it was possible, some of the puzzles dealing with typing in words and sentences (including using the Swedish letters Å, Ä and Ö), or speaking in an alien language, would present some tricky translation problems. With that in mind, I decided to do the next best thing. I found a video playthrough of the game (done by the excellent House of Lost Games), and spent a good amount of time creating English subtitles for it. This translation of Kosmopolska is now available on both Internet Archive and YouTube (together with some explanatory translation notes), and it is my hope that in this way, non-Swedish-speaking people can experience this strange and imaginative game. I do feel that I should warn you if you decide to watch the playthrough: While most of the game is fairly innocent, the final revelation about what’s going on with the protagonist is quite horrifying. If anyone reading this has any questions about the game, feel free to leave a comment, and I’ll try to answer to the best of my abilities.
Published by Fredde