Tackling the Horrors of War from a Civilian Perspective in This War of Mine

For civilians, war never changes.

Pawel Miechowski of 11 Bit Studios wants his upcoming game, This War of Mine, to challenge the way that games typically portray war by presenting it from the perspective of civilians who must survive from day to day in a war-torn city. When I met with him at the Game Developers Conference, he said to me, "You've seen the trailer, we have this Call of Duty feeling, and then bang, no, it's not about this, it's about the other side. We are breaking this scheme in the game itself as well."

Miechowski took me through a brief demonstration of some of the game's mechanics, emphasizing that the struggles your group of civilians will have to deal with in the game are the real struggles civilians face in times of war. "Whatever gameplay mechanics are in the game," he said, "it's not our idea but our translation of the facts that we know about war as seen from the perspective of civilians. So for example, I think I saw it on GameSpot actually, in the comments section, that people were writing, 'This is pretty stupid. Why can a sniper hunt me in the night?' That's what we found out in the research. For example, in the siege of Sarajevo in the early '90s--the city was under siege for four years--people couldn't have left their buildings because snipers were hunting for people to keep the city under control. In the night, they were not able to do so as effectively, but still, they were doing it, and it was risky. Same situation when it comes to water, soap, such items. We perceive them as natural because we have them, like tap water, and we have stores. When there is war breaking out, you have nothing. You are left with only what you got and your knowledge and skills. So whatever you find in the game is a translation into game mechanics of the facts of how civilians [experience] war."

I asked him if the siege of Sarajevo was a particular inspiration for This War of Mine, or if the game is set during any specific real-world conflict. He responded, "No, actually not. We've been looking at data of how it looks now in Syria, how it looked in Libya, how, yes, how it looked in Sarajevo, but the Yugoslavian wars are the best documented, but we want to deliver the message, and I hope the game does it well, that it could be any city; it could be your city. America is a great power--I hope it never happens--but if you are in such circumstances, you're going to behave similarly to all other civilians all around the world. You'd be doing the same things people do in Libya and Sarajevo. You're gonna be needing rainwater, you're gonna need a collector for the rainwater, you're gonna be trading water for food or for hygiene items because you will not have enough soap. You will probably need to stick to a group because on your own, you're not as effective as a group of people, because people support each other. This is the knowledge we found out, and the pattern is similar everywhere. So the same experience people have had in Syria, in Yugoslavia--moreover, because we're from Poland, which is a country that was struck by war many, many times, and I remember what my grandmother told me about her experiences during the war. She survived Nazi invasions and Soviet invasions, and her experiences were the same."

When Miechowski launched the game, I was presented with a side view of a damaged structure with holes blasted in the walls. The visuals are black and white, and have the look of an animated hand-drawn sketch. I noticed that each of the three civilians residing in the structure had a talent listed under his or her name--"handyman," "sneaks quietly," "bargaining skills." Miechowski asked me to imagine myself and people I care about in such a grim situation. "You surely have some useful skills. Other people have different skills. I know it may sound funny, but since I'm a father, I wouldn't, in a terrible situation, be sending my family to fight for anything, I would do it. We translate this into the game."

"The pattern, once again, is pretty much the same for any conflict, so this is why we don't want to say it's Sarajevo or Libya or Damascus; it could just be your city."

Miechowski used supplies that his survivors had scavenged from the area to make a few items. "I already have enough wood or a piece of metal, so I can make a shovel. I can make a bed which I know I will need since they don't have one; they just sleep on the floor." Miechowski said that he was deliberately avoiding using the common term "crafting" for the process of constructing items from acquired supplies. "It implies a gaming mindset, and I'm trying to say that this form of art is telling you about how things look when war breaks out. You don't craft; you create things. You take a hammer and nails, and from the wood, you create a table."

Civilians start the war in decent shape, but conditions grow increasingly dire as time passes.

He moused over an item some might question the importance of in times of war and explained its value. "A moonshine still. Why? Because we found out that the most tradable item when war breaks out is [alcohol]." But he said that making booze, like making just about anything in the game, would not be easy. "First you need to find a collector and collect rainwater. Then you need to find or trade for a filter to filter your water. You need to find wood, pipes, and glass to create a distillery machine. You need yeast to create alcohol. And if you spend time on creating moonshine, you lose time for creating food. So everything will be balanced in a way forced by the situation of war."

Night rolled around and he prepared to take one of his characters out on a scavenging run. The capacity of the character's backpack is limited, and he wanted to travel light, so he chose a lock pick and a shovel and ventured out into the night. As his scavenger arrived at another damaged building, Miechowski pointed out a clock on the screen and said that it's important to keep an eye on it and return home before sunrise. He also talked about the other people you might encounter while scavenging. "People may be aggressive toward you, so you can either run away, or you can decide to kill someone and rob him. How good morally it is, you will judge yourself." As he stepped into the building, a woman panicked and retreated to a back room. "If you meet someone who's not scared of you, maybe he or she will want to trade with you or join you. If you find a hungry man, you may decide, OK, I will feed you. If you feed a hungry man, it's more likely he's going to be your friend rather than your enemy. So he may want to join you, and then you decide, OK, join me, but then you will have to care for four people or five people or six people, so you need to balance."

When it comes to weighing the cost versus the benefits of taking on new members of your group, Miechowski said, "What we found out doing the research from especially one particular interview is that when you make a decision, you can't see the consequences, but after 10 days, you'll see them." I asked him if the team making the game is conducting the research interviews themselves. "We have found a few people, yes, including one American who is a veteran of the battle of Fallujah. He's very anti-war after that event, and it's not up to me to judge why, but he saw a lot of civilians suffer during the conflict. Plus, yes, after the siege of Sarajevo, many people moved to Poland. And the pattern, once again, is pretty much the same for any conflict, so this is why we don't want to say it's Sarajevo or Libya or Damascus; it could just be your city." He mentioned the possibility of putting your own name and photo into the game for a survivor to make the experience feel more personal, which reminded me of how the Facebook connectivity option in the multiplayer for The Last of Us, which populates your camp with people from your Facebook friends list, made some players feel more invested in that experience.

The game has a look reminiscent of an animated charcoal sketch.

After rummaging around for a bit, his scavenger attracted some hostile attention, so he fled the scene and returned to the shelter, where he had the exhausted scavenger go to sleep and instructed a hungry civilian to eat. Miechowski said that as time passes, the conditions change, and you can find new items that let you create new things. "But there's only one goal," he said, "and that's just to survive."

I asked him if he thought players would be receptive to an experience that is clearly not just about being fun but about being morally challenging. He replied, "If you play Papers, Please, on one hand, it's a very simple game. On the other, it's a very emotionally deep game. So I'm pretty convinced that we are not just talking about games but an art form." He mentioned how he saw people arguing in the comments sections of news stories about the game's announcement. "Some were going, 'Amazing concept.' And others were saying, 'No, I prefer just shooting people in the head.'" So he said that while perhaps not all gamers are receptive to games that are trying to confront meaningful issues in serious ways, there are those who are looking for games to do different things than they've traditionally done in the past. "I should try to think of what I do as a kind of art form, because why shouldn't I? In movies, in books, you're a spectator. This is the perfect media to talk about important things because they put you through the experience."

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Discussion

52 comments
zaxevil
zaxevil

I'd played this game twice, when I played for the 2nd times, I got that the setting like places and people are a bit changed. but most of the experience from the 1st time played follow up. it was challenging and astounding, but kinda boring though.

Afinati
Afinati

I wonder what effects completion of Valiant Hearts will have on my expectations concerning this game. I don't think I've played a emotionally heavy side scrolling war game before

Algearond
Algearond

Interesting idea but not sure on this one

Clovergirl227
Clovergirl227

It's an interesting idea, but I wonder what sort of game it will be.

burnettaj
burnettaj

This game looks interesting. Will follow this one

Iron65
Iron65

That last picture from the trailer perfectly describes what matters most into this game, they should use it for promoting it

WolfgarTheQuiet
WolfgarTheQuiet

Finally someone is doing something different with a war game. Fuck C0D and BF bahahahaha

barneystinson2
barneystinson2

Looking forward this game. 11 bit studios is making high quality game so I'm sure this game is worth to wait for

FULGOREY2K
FULGOREY2K

this is looking to be a great game; hope it delivers

himski
himski

No, I prefer just shooting people in the head.

youre_a_sheep
youre_a_sheep

Hopefully this ends up on consoles too, it sounds very interesting.

LordCrash88
LordCrash88

Can't wait to hear more about this game. I'm interested in every game that is more than the usual shooting or slashing...

ghost59
ghost59

as a pc gamer. i will enjoy this

TEFUKAM
TEFUKAM

To watch trailer i must first look 1 minute long comercial of titanfall?

repetitious
repetitious

I just wanna know what the game view is, sim style over the top or 3rd person?

Dharkanon
Dharkanon

This sounds pretty intriguing, but I hope they can convey a deep sense of disempowerment, which is difficult in games - you must give the player both a chance to win and an explanation of rules.

So being sniped without explanation, or the house collapsing in a blast, etc. might quickly shift from conveying utter disempowerment to being frustrating. And I think frustration misses the point of being in a war, shifting the focus from the topic/story towards the game-mechanics... and this is a particular problem of gaming, where the player must always be given an ounce of control and a chance to 'complete' the game - movies and TV can leave you feel distraught by the disempowerment of characters in the narrative (Game of Thrones is back soon, right?). 


I am excited though... it sounds like a well researched game, critical of fps war games in a smart constructive way.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

I am getting a vibe of that zombie diaries game. (I can't remember the title.)

gp3tron
gp3tron

Wow, very creepy, in a good and bad way as well...interesting...

gamingfriendly
gamingfriendly

How about showing the horrors of the Iraq war where you can be out to get food for your family and cluster bombs start to rain on the market or when your door can be kicked in at 3 in the morning where you and your whole family get tied and blind fooled and some times get shot in front of your family? or the horror in Afghanistan where weddings and funerals get drone bombed?


Interesting concept none the less.

uninspiredcup
uninspiredcup

You can play as a civ in arma. And even as an army officer the player interacts with them.

Of course, not a pretentious indie game, no one cares.

bunchanumbers
bunchanumbers

What a great idea for a game. I'd make people play this game after playing CoD. Its like when in japan they had a double feature featuring a war movie followed by the movie Grave of the Fireflies.

jer_1
jer_1

This is a great idea for a game. Take the flash and comedy out of the game and make it more true-to-life. I hope this game turns out very well, I'll play it for sure.


The description of this game reminds me of why I dislike games like CoD and BF so much, it's all so damn fake and detached from reality.

john_matrix_007
john_matrix_007

I'm intrigued, although I'm not a fan of crafting. Hopefully they can create and maintain drama.

hystavito
hystavito

I commend them for the setting and the contrast with the typical war game, and I think they might have good intentions, but I don't see it panning out in a way that really does the subject matter justice.  Well, maybe what I really should say is that they are exaggerating that element.  That "gaming mindset" that they claim they are trying to avoid seems to be very much present, and I thought this immediately after reading the other article due to things like crafting and building/base construction that were mentioned.  Sure you can avoid words like "crafting" but ultimately that's still what you are doing in the game, game-like crafting :).


In a real life situation, the vast majority of people will never be doing things like this, maybe just a small group and only in certain settings, like perhaps more rural.  Most people will not build or expand their "base", but rather just live in either their own home or some other housing.  Maybe they'll put up a blanket over a window or fix a door, but not much more than that.  They are going to scrounge for whatever food they can find, it won't be part of some crafting tree that will involve building a table or something, they'll just find some food and eat it.  I could go on and on but you get the idea, and again the urban setting makes these things even more unlikely.


I don't mean to bash this game, it actually appeals to me, I just feel like they are kind of overstating the importance of the setting in an attempt to make the game appear to have much deeper meaning than other survival games.  Some of that might come through in the story and plot, but I just don't believe it will in the gameplay.  The gameplay will probably end up being very similar to other survival/crafting/building games (which is fine with me), and consequently quite unlike the lives of real civilians surviving in war.  I believe that "gaming mindset" will be very present despite their efforts to insist otherwise.

Moonco
Moonco

"To survive a war, you gotta become war" - Rambo

spectralmerc
spectralmerc

A step in the right direction towards gaming becoming an art form. I'll be checking this one out.

R3FURBISHED
R3FURBISHED

The premise I find attractive and very interesting -- a sort of Minecraft, meets The Last of Us, meets State of Decay with a personal war narrative. I just wish I could tolerate side-scrollers.

rasterror
rasterror

This game looks amazing. I'm looking forward to this.

horosavinXX
horosavinXX

@himski  

hehe, cute... fun and joke aside arty story and visuals can't compensate the lack of gameplay, as far as i'm concerned. if i could get both that would be neat.

youre_a_sheep
youre_a_sheep

@gamingfriendly I was thinking that too.  It's all too common for civilians to be abused, violated and even murdered, and any game that aims to reflect their experience has to acknowledge that.  Bribing or hiding from soldiers (especially women) should be part of the game's strategy.

repetitious
repetitious

I think you should realize, it happened in all those places he mentioned.

Clovergirl227
Clovergirl227

@uninspiredcup You using the editor to make your character and his interactions? Because there is no instance of what you speak of outside of player-creation.

MonocleOwl
MonocleOwl

@uninspiredcup

ARMA wasn't marketed and promoted as a "war game" as seen from a civilian perspective.

As soon as someone wants to talk about something meaningful and something that affects (and has affected) a lot of people trough the medium of video games, its called out as pretentious.

lilflipp
lilflipp

@uninspiredcup Why exactly is this pretentious. It's the opposite actually. No one "cares" about indies, that's why they are indies and not AAA.

Is it pretentious because it tries to have a deeper more serious meaning? I bet you're the kind of dude that doesn't get art? It's all nonsense.

stealthyninja81
stealthyninja81

@jer_1 To be fair COD and BF4 aren't supposed to reflect reality any more than an action movie. Those games are about fun, not understanding how terrible war is for everyone involved.

jecomans
jecomans

@hystavito   I think you'll find you're completely wrong in your assumptions about how little the average civilian gets up too when trapped for years in an urban conflict situation. 

Also, when you say 'people will not build or expand their "base", just live in their own home; what you call a 'base' is just their home or some other housing, and what you call 'base-expansion' is rebuilding what you can from the wreckage after your city has been bombed and occupied.

lilflipp
lilflipp

@spectralmercIt already is an art form. It is protected as form of free speech. Miyamoto was induced in the french Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Basically he's a knight of "arts and letters". I think video games are at their infancy, much due to our still limited technology, we're just a few decades into this and it is expanding and growing like very few things. It's a bit like cave paintings at this point. It's going to become huge.

hystavito
hystavito

@jecomans @hystavitoOk so you take my assumptions about how little the average civilian gets up to, and multiply them by 10 (or whatever amount you like) and get reality.  You're saying I'm underestimating, ok.  Now take that level, your realistic level, and multiply it by 50 and you'll get the game's representation :).  Know what I mean?

spectralmerc
spectralmerc

@lilflipp @spectralmerc  Oh, I agree. Games like Dear Esther, The Path and The Stanley Parable have done their part, but we're a long way away. Still, most art forms are recognized through social acknowledgement, and games like these bridge the empathy gap.

jecomans
jecomans

@hystavito I agree with your general sentiment that it will be hard to develop the concept in a way that is not 'gamey'. 

If they can find the right algorithm to allow NPC's to have complex reactions to your decisions in lieu of a black and white morality system it could make the simulation more engaging than 'State of Decay without zombies'.