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The video game industry in Poland is fast becoming one of the most respected and prolific in Europe. GamesBeat spent a week visiting some of the game development and film studios making a worldwide name for themselves. You can read the stories that came out of our visit here, including our in-depth look at the growth of the gaming industry. The Polish government paid for Daniel Crawley’s trip. Our coverage remains objective.
This War of Mine is the total antithesis of Call of Duty and its glossy, ultraviolent spectacle. In this game, war is not fun, it is hell. And survival is the best you can hope for.
While developer 11 Bit Studios insists that This War of Mine is set in an entirely fictional city, the ghosts of Warsaw inevitably linger in the shelled, gray landscape of the game, released on PC, Mac, and Linux last Friday (and reviewed here).
The city of Warsaw was reduced to rubble in the Nazi ‘liquidation’ that followed the failed uprising of 1944. The resistance movement had tried to fight back against the occupying force but was defeated after 63 days of bloody street battles, public executions, and atrocities beyond belief. After the uprising, the German army razed the city to the ground, and where once had lived over a million citizens, there was nothing left but dust and destruction. Around 1,000 people remained in the ruins of their once-great capital, trying to survive.
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This desperate struggle for survival is what drives the gameplay in This War of Mine. Scavenging for food each night and trying to stay warm feels dark and real. And that is how it should feel, as this is a game about the forgotten many. The civilians trapped unwittingly in the middle of a warzone.
This War of Mine’s insistence on remaining true to its realistic vision is a credit to 11 Bit, the blossoming Warsaw-based studio that isn’t afraid to show the darker side of war.
Welcome to 11 Bit
11 Bit’s development studio is in an office block in Warsaw’s bohemian Praga District. It’s on the side of the river that best survived the levelling of the city, but if you head just a few blocks away, you can still see the signs of conflict from 70 years ago, such as telltale bullet holes staring out from crumbling walls.
On the main door are the names of the many other companies that share 11 Bit’s building, including a haulage operator and a security firm called Colt Security. I hopped in the lift with two 11 Bit workers back from their break and met up with Karol Zajaczkowski, the studio’s head of marketing, to talk about This War of Mine.
“When you play most war games, it looks like fun,” said Zajaczkowski. “It looks like kids playing in the back yard. We have plastic guns and we shoot and we are the heroes and you are the bad guys. The war doesn’t look like that. It doesn’t look like that for soldiers and, even more, it doesn’t look like that for civilians.”
So 11 Bit set out to make a game that did actually represent war, and it did that by researching exactly what it’s like for civilians caught up in conflicts and speaking to survivors.
“We reached [out] for people from Sarejevo [the city under siege for 1,425 days during the Bosnian War of the 1990s] because it’s one of the closest conflicts, so we were sure that we would find some people that were really there. We contacted some museums and some foundations that helped those people and we told them what kind of game we were doing.
“But it’s hard to get people to speak because they want to forget. They lost their relatives, they lost their homes. And they moved on, and they want to forget that they were there.” They did managed to find some people willing to share their experiences, however, and flew them out to Poland to talk to the team.
This constant reference to real-life conflicts is ongoing, and a Sarajevo survivor had been in the studio just a week before I was there. 11 Bit has also used the input of a former U.S. Marine on the project, offering a different perspective on the grim realities of war. He’d been involved in the bloody, controversial battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004 and left the army on his return to the States, suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Playing This War of Mine was tough for him, and he took a number of days to do so, confronting difficult memories along the way. But “he’s glad that someone’s done this hard topic because he’s seen people there, and he’s been shooting people, and he knows that the war is not like in the movies,” said Zajaczkowski. “He’s forever reviewing all our changes to the game. We’re in constant contact with him.”
Struggling to survive
This War of Mine doesn’t lead you by the hand. It makes you figure things out for yourself. “Failure is a part of the game because you have to learn all the mechanics,” said Zajaczkowski.
“From the very first day, you have to take care of the most basic things. You don’t make long-term plans, you have to survive day by day.”
This fits with the experiences of conflict survivors, who initially expect everything to return to normal after a few days. “You think that the Americans will come or something will happen,” said Zajaczkowski. “But as more days pass, you never know when it will end. So you stop thinking about surviving the month, you start thinking about tomorrow. You wake up, do your stuff, and hopefully survive another night.”
Likewise, in the game, you never know how long you have to survive. And your survival may depend on making tough choices.
“There’s a balance in the game,” said Zajaczkowski. “You don’t have to be hostile. You can be friendly, but other people can be either friendly or hostile. Sometimes you’ll be a good guy and someone will use you. You’ll give them medicine and in the night they will come and kill you.
Taking food from others is as good as killing them, too, but what choice do you have? “You know by stealing their food, you are killing them,” said Zajaczkowski. “You’re not putting a pistol to their heads but you know that old people won’t be able to survive. So you are trying to be the good guy but you know inside you that you killed those guys.“
Just as the game forces you to make difficult decisions, 11 Bit also had tough choices to make during development. Just how realistic should they make a game about such a dark topic?
“From the beginning we knew that we would like to publish the game on our own because big publishers influence the development process,” said Zajaczkowski. “For example. I’m not sure all publishers would allow us to show some scenes that are part of the game.”
“There’s a rape,” he explained. “You’re not the person that’s doing it, but you hear that someone’s been raped. That happens during a war. I can imagine some publishers would say remove it because when people hear rape they already think, ‘Oh that’s a bad game.’”
And does the game feature women and children dying, as a real-life conflict would? “There are children in the game at the moment,” said Zajaczkowski. “There are children that are looking for medicine for their mother. There are still borders that we have to decide if we want to cross.”
“You could put a scene where soldiers kill a whole bus of school kids, but you have to ask yourself, ‘Whats the point of that?’” In the end, the studio decided not to show any children being shot, as I clarified with Zajaczkowski just a few days ago.
11 Bit’s choices became more relevant as the reality of war appeared in Eastern Europe once again, in Poland’s neighbor, Ukraine. “When we started working on the game one and half years ago, no one even imagined the things that have happened to Ukraine,” said Zajaczkowski. “Everyone believed that war was a thing of the past.”
“Here we are one year later and there’s conflict on the Russia/Ukraine border and there’s some people in ISIS fighting in Syria. War is not a thing of the past.”
And that, really, is the point of This War of Mine. “It’s not about war in Europe, or the States, or Asia because we want to give people the idea that nowadays war can happen anywhere,” said Zajaczkowski.
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