This War of Mine earned critical acclaim back in fall 2014 for its harrowing, realistic portrayal of a city under siege. Scraggling survivors made camp in dilapidated houses, scrounging for supplies and sometimes stealing from those weaker than them at night and crafting tools and gear during the day. This War of Mine gamified the struggle for survival, asking players to tend to a group of refugees and then prioritize each individual's survival as they became hungry, weak, and sick.
This War of Mine showed that games don't have to be fun or funny in order to get a point across. Sometimes something deeper, darker, and more true to life can help shed light on what others are going through.
Later this month, developer 11 Bit Studios will launch for consoles This War of Mine: The Little Ones, an updated version of the game that now includes young children among the survivors. We sat down with senior writer Pawel Miechowski to talk about this new expansion and the inspiration behind it.
GameSpot: Can you speak a little about the inspirations behind This War of Mine and why you decided to add children as a new element?
Miechowski: The idea came from my older brother [Grzegorz Miechowski]. Just one man brought the big concept and from there, we instantly agreed to make such a game. But we knew it was going to require research to know what people are going through. I don't mean political research to know how conflicts are raised or how they burst out or what are the physical needs, because they can be described easily. But people are maybe hungry. They may be wounded. They may be sick. They may be starving. What we were searching for were actual memoirs and stories from people who suffered in real conflicts, and to know the things that got stuck in their minds as examples or their inner feelings when they were describing what they went through. Quite often, it was about hard choices people had to make, about moments that are similar to ancient Greek tragedy. When you have two ways out but whatever you pick, the outcome is going to end up badly, it's going to be a tragic choice.
We read Logavina Street, a book by Barbara Demick. But that was not the best example, probably. The story that got stuck in my mind was a story by a girl from Sarajevo, the city that was under siege for four years with some breaks in the early and mid-nineties. This girl did an interview with Amnesty International Australia. She was wounded, delivered to a hospital, and it was the first day of the siege so there was many wounded people. The hospital ran out of antibiotics and necessities to save people. The doctor had to make a choice whether to save this girl or an older lady that was just delivered after the younger one. He decided to pick the younger one because she still had a lot of life before her and the same night, the older lady died.
This doctor was some kind of hero that saved someone, but he had to make a horrible choice and sacrifice another person. Whatever you choose, there's going to be bad consequences and after such an example, we knew this was it. What people are going through has a deep impact on inner morals because each choice may hurt another person, another human being. If you are starving and your family is starving, you either have to steal food or fight for it, or give up and die because of starvation. Such choices, people are coming to. Then we gathered together war stories from our families because in Poland, literally everyone has war stories in the family because each family has been touched by war. I really don't recall a friend who does not know a grandfather or grandmother either fighting the invaders or suffering during war.
I remember my grandmother telling me that when Germans came in [to Poland], they took all the food they had in the village, literally everything. [The Germans] took their tools so they were put in a situation that sooner or later, they may be starving. What they did, they started to eat.. pigweed is an English name for it. Anyway, they ate pigweed for a long time. That was horrible. It's not tasty but it's more or less healthy to eat and still you can survive this way. In our families, we have lots of such stories. Then we did a search on the internet because many conflicts are well-documented. I think the best documented one is the Siege of Sarajevo.
But we did not look at Sarajevo alone. We were, like I said, searching for stories from Poland as well. In 1944, Warsaw was almost burnt to the ground. People were living in the ruins like rats. They were called Robinsons of Warsaw. You don't need to look for a way to find stories. We looked at what's happening in Syria and sadly and not surprisingly, the pattern is often the same. People die because of wounds, because of starvation and still some survive.
We put all those memoirs into our game. We translated it into the game because it's pretty important to remember that games speak via their language. This language is gameplay. If the gameplay is good, you can clearly spread the message. That means for example, the day in this sort of mind doesn't last 24 hours but just a few minutes to represent the real day, because it needs to be a game. It needs to speak via gameplay.
"This War of Mine proves that games can actually cover any topic if it's covered properly."
Adding children substantially changes gameplay. Was it always your intention to include children? Was there a particular reason in the beginning that you decided you wouldn't launch with them right away?
We were thinking about kids from the beginning. It still took two years to finalize This War of Mine, but we we were thinking about kids. Then it took more than another year to properly implement all the mechanics to put children into this world and we made it for consoles. We knew the initial version was already risky because [people]--for some probably bad reason--sometimes think that war games can be funny and so on. Suddenly, we've made a depressing game about sadness and anger and helplessness. Luckily, we got enormous support from the press and the community but we also got some backlash from people saying that games are supposed to be about escaping and fun and enjoyment.
Well, This War of Mine proves the opposite, that games can actually cover any topic if it's covered properly. We did that. Despite the backlash, we decided to think how to properly implement children and we did that in The Little Ones. However, you need to know, you saw it in the game that kids don't die. That's a line we didn't want to cross on purpose because if you get attached to characters that you play a lot, and I believe This War of Mine is made in this way... You get attached and you care about those people. If you lose a child and that may happen, the loss is painful enough without showing the brutality of war. You know, kids being shot or dying in front of your eyes. We wanted to treat the painful message in a subtle way without unnecessary atrocities. This is the reason you may lose a child. The loss is going to be painful but we didn't want to show it.
There are different events in the scenario that end up losing a child, like the Red Cross coming for the child. Those situations have been when the child is in a very bad situation, are really wounded or very, very sick. Still maybe someday, someone will cross the line further but I don't think it's necessary to show things explicitly and directly. It's the symbols you operate with and symbols can be subtle enough to cover the message. This is what we're doing in the little ones.
What was the biggest challenge for the team in adding children as an element?
I think the biggest challenge was keeping the balance, and then also keeping the realism, because when the child would be just another civilian that couldn't be helpful, such child would become a burden. That would be horrible because, as a parent and as a normal person, you know the child is innocent. You would take care about him or her no matter what. But still as a parent, I know that the child can be the most valuable part of your life and can cheer you up, even if you are deeply sad. Hugging a child, that means more than anything else. We wanted to put this innocence and joy in and yet make the children as a real human person rather than just a resource. We had to balance it heavily and it took a lot of time. The other thing was the realism, because you may know that for the basic This War of Mine, we scanned images of ourselves, our friends and family members, to have realistic-looking civilians. Not models, not actors, but realistic people.
The same situation applied to kids, so we 3D scanned in our own children. My daughter is in the game. There's Olaf [Pozoga, character artist]’s daughter... Then when we were doing the mock-up session... I would not say it was difficult, but different, because kids don't focus and run and play. It was a different experience to make the mock up session. Anyway, doing it was really interesting, but then seeing child in the game made me feel a value beyond the game. Because it's an engaging experience. You engage your emotions and so on. But still, you describe it as a game or a digital experience or digital story. We all know it and we all define it that way. Then when you see your own child being wounded in a game or sieged, you start to think about it as something bigger than a digital experience, as something related to reality.
"You don't need to look for a way to find stories. We looked at what's happening in Syria and sadly and not surprisingly, the pattern is often the same."
That's a sad feeling. That's something that makes you think about war more than you would just do normally. That was our goal and ironically, we reached the goal even on ourselves because we wanted to spread the message that war can happen any time anywhere. When it happens, you're just a human on your own.
How do your children feel about that? Do they know the context of the game?
My daughter was five back then. She knew she was going to be in the game, but since this game is for adults, I'm not going to show it to her.
I think I don't compare myself to a great artist like Steven Spielberg because I'm surely not that skilled. I'm just some small game developer from Poland and he's one of the biggest directors of our time. Maybe this is an urban legend but he told it to the girl who plays in Schindler's List that she shouldn't watch it before she's 18. Maybe this is a real story. I don't know. But the story says that she watched Schindler's List when she was 13 and that was really shocking for her. Then she watched it again when she was already 18. Then she understood the message.
I think it's a pretty similar situation. I'm not sure that a six-year-old would get the point behind the game and I don't want to show it to her. I want to protect her from what's bad in the world until she's ready to understand it, to be ready to defend herself from it.
In the game, children can't pick locks, they can't cook, they can't open certain doors or break down barricades. There's a lot that they need to ask adults to do for them, like give them medicine or a bandage. What else can't they do and why did you decide to restrict what children can do?
Children can be taught the simplest things. That would be coloring, collecting water, making water filters, cooking, collecting snow in winter, growing herbs... The more complicated the activity, so to speak, it needs to be done by adults only. Child can be helpful, still it's the child, so you need to take care about it. However, the most important thing in the background is that there is a relationship between the child and the protector. If you start with the child and the grandmother, there is a relationship between them. If the grandmother feels badly for whatever reason, the child may cheer up the grandmother much more efficiently than any other civilian in the shelter. When the grandmother dies or the father or grandfather, whoever is the protector, you can pick any other civilian to become a protector and develop a relationship with the child, but it's based just on the number of things they do together.
During a playthrough, some other civilian may become a protector as well if he or she takes care of the child more and more often. The child can be the most valuable one to boost spirits. But as a gamer, you may also create a swing for the child and other toys. A child can make some things for themselves, but just the simple things.
In my first playthrough, I didn't really know that I had to talk to my child very frequently and my child went catatonic and stayed in one spot on the floor for a very long time. I didn't pay attention to him and I spent the rest of my game trying to make him better. On that note, the child was only taking up resources and it was very frustrating. Why did you choose to really stress players make time for emotional connection and physical attention with this child throughout the game?
Well because that's how it works. It's really easy for me to understand. I'm already a father of two. My daughter is such, if I really don't talk to her often, she gets angry at me. She really needs it. If I don't do that, I miss it. It's a sort of natural relationship. And I'm a big, tall, strong guy, I'm really not afraid of anything in this world. I'm just afraid of things that could happen to my family. If anything bad would happen, I would totally do everything for my kids while I wouldn't be worried about myself because I can take care of myself. We wanted to represent these strong relationships between adults and children. However, I totally can imagine that when a child loses family, it's not easy to develop a new relationship between a child and some other adult.
In terms of difficulty or challenge, would you consider This War of Mine a little bit tougher from a gaming perspective with the addition of the children?
No. I don't think so. I think if you know the experience, it's broader, but not easier and not tougher. Broader because of the emotions. Kids can be angry, too. An adult could be broken, angry, feel helplessness while kids become catatonic if you don't care about them. But when the kids are in a good mood, they can run around the shelter and play. Children bring innocence and joy to this world because despite war, kids are still kids.
As the writer, what was the most difficult or challenging part of The Little Ones to write?
Understanding how children talk and behave. That's even not necessarily just for writing. If you think about how a small girl runs, she moves differently. She's not waving her arms left and right, but just keeps them down low, and that's just how small children run. The bigger they are, the more their moves are similar to how an adult moves. Then when comparing this to writing, we kind of recalled our own children and what they do. When they are idle, they get bored and they talk to themselves.
That may happen in The Little Ones. That's something totally unrelated to the events outside, the war and bombings. And adult civilians, they react in a different way. They either comment on reality or they may talk one to another about the situation, while children can live in their own world of imagination and childish innocence. We tried to reflect that and that was surely different writing than imagining what could adult civilians say.
What are you hoping that players take away from The Little Ones? What are you hoping they get from it?
This is a very personal game because people experience it on very different levels, but we want to spread the message that war can happen any time, anywhere. When it happens, remember you're on your own and you're going to face horrible, horrible choices. As such, this is an anti-war game. This is the message.