11 bit Studios’ This War of Mine was one of this year’s most unique releases, one that I couldn’t help but love. Turning the war game genre on its ear, TWoM puts you in control of individuals hoping to exist inside an occupied, war-torn city as they scrounge for food and tools for survival. Despite the distance between Warsaw, Poland and the United States, I was lucky enough to get some of my questions about the game and its back-story answered by Pawel Miechowski, Senior Writer for 11 bit Studios.
Has gaming truly ‘grown up’ and, if so, are we on the verge on something unexpected? Let’s find out.
Thanks for taking my questions. First off, how did you come up with the idea for This War of Mine, and how has the final product changed from the original idea?
The idea came from my brother, Grzegorz Miechowski (CEO at 11 bit studios), who was reading about different conflicts and horrible situation of people in warzones. He brought up the topic of the incredibly heavy emotional toll people need to carry when surrounded by war, and that this is absolutely a topic for a game but only if we approach it with necessary respect, as a serious experience, as a tool to picture a dramatic story. So we’ve done the research on Sarajevo, Kosovo, Aleppo, Warsaw (after the Uprising in 1944) and other conflicts where civilians suffer because of the horribleness of war.
What This War of Mine is now is a natural evolution of the idea, so I guess it’s hard to say it changed because this is what it was planned to be. Of course we had different design issues: added this, removed that, but these are natural elements of development.
Parts of the game feel grounded in the past, while others make it seem like it could be the result of a war that happened tomorrow. It’s eerie, but somehow makes playing the game feel more thought-provoking because there’s always that thought of “This could happen to me” in the back of my head. How did you decide on the atmosphere and setting of the game?
This War of Mine happens in a fictional city, because we didn’t want to point at a particular conflict or particular city, although you may have the Central-Eastern European feel of the setting, becuase it was easier for us to make it coherent visually. But indeed, the idea behind it about the message “It could happen to anyone. And when it happens, it doesn’t matter what your nationality is. What matters is what you do to save yourself, your family and your friends”. The process of creation is all the time (as we’re working on expanding the experience all the time) faithful to the thought, like you exactly put, “this could happen to me”.
A large part of the audience for the game (particularly Americans) haven’t experienced the effects of outright war on home soil, even if they’ve suffered attacks. When it comes to video games, gamers are much more used to being in the war itself rather than on the sidelines; how do you hope a game like This War of Mine will affect players knowing that some will have a stronger connection to the material than others?
I hope that This War of Mine could be considered as one of those games perceived as “more than entertainment”. More and more, games are dealing with serious topics and are capable of covering the message brilliantly through its fine gameplay. And I hope we can spread the message wider that war is hell, not a shooting fun.
This War of Mine carries dark themes about war and conflict, but the achievements are light-hearted and comical. Sometimes I felt like this undercut the themes I saw in-game at times; was that the intention?
Not at all, and honestly we didn’t get that feedback from Steam users or else. That was not intentional. To underline how we treat the subject seriously, we’ve partnered with War Child, an international charity helping children suffering in warzones, and we’re helping to raise money for War Child. There are some extra initiatives we plan to launch, but I can’t unveil details yet.
One of the hardest parts for me while playing TWoM is dealing with the conflicting moral and survival choices. For instance, food is necessary for survival: I can try to take it from the dangerous supermarket where I could get shot and killed, or steal it from the neighborhood where other civilians are trying to carry on with peaceful lives. How do you feel gaming experiences do at making people ask questions about themselves and their morality?
At the beginning we had a very important discussion about the development of TWoM. Back then we already knew that TWoM couldn’t sell you a moral thesis. It must give you a possibility to choose, a possibility to make your own decisions, then later show the consequences of your decisions. This way you see the outcome of your choices, you see how your deeds impact people. So if you decide this is the goal of your design, and you do it properly, a game can be a perfect tool to question morality, tolerance and any important topic. Games have grown up.
At one point I sneaked through an old school building, trying to find food and supplies. Though I’d successfully crept around without alerting someone for a while, I accidentally made some noise and alerted a homeless person who lived there. I expected to be attacked, but instead the person just greeted me and left me alone. It changed my entire feeling about raiding that location, and I felt a sort of guilt and responsibility I hadn’t feel before. I’d been thinking about the situation “like a game,” but then the game didn’t respond like I was used to games responding. In what ways do you feel the game plays on “gamer programming” to take players out of their comfort zones?
Excellent example. Players indeed have many “programmed” reflexes and behavior patterns. For example – seeing anyone as an enemy, belief in the presence of a perfect solution or an assumption that each location has a riddle to be solved. This is what games “teach” us. In This War of Mine the in-game world is different… By breaking the patterns of construction of “typical” game worlds, we create an environment in which players approach problems differently and start to think more emotionally. This is indeed based on leaving the patterns behind, because only then we start to think “hey… what’s going on here? How am I supposed to react? Am I doing good?” This is exactly the afterthought (or perhaps reflection is a better word) we wanted to raise.
I’m guessing 11 Bit’s next project won’t be Call of Duty expansion content; what are the plans for 11 Bit’s future? Is it hard to develop games with underlying social messages, and will you continue to do so going forward?
Now we’re working on expanding This War of Mine; for example, the recently released update 1.2 added a new building to begin in and the possibility to pick your starting group of civilians. Aside from that, our programmers are currently working on a tablet version for iOS and Android. At the same time we have another project on the table – a small team has been working on it for a while and it’s completely different to This War of Mine, so I believe it is a game that is going to be worth checking out. Also, I’m not sure if we’re supposed to make each game about serious topics. I don’t want us to be marked as “the serious game developers,” but I wish we would be perceived as those who make brilliant games – both serious and funny ones.
Though I’ll admit that I love the idea of 11 bit deciding to take up the cause of “serious games,” I also have to agree that there’s no reason for them to box themselves in. It should be fine to play games just for fun just like it should be fine to play games to find a message and depth, and if 11 bit can match the quality of previous titles like their Anomaly tower defense series, they’ll have players far into the future. But what makes This War of Mine particularly great is that it offers both substance and gameplay, carrying a unique story and perspective that feels depressing to go through, but revitalizing from a gaming perspective as well. I’m certainly hoping to see similar titles from Pawel and 11 bit, as well as other companies, in the future.