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‘An Act of Resistance’: Frogwares on Making Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened in the Midst of War

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened interview Frogwares Sergey Oganesyan head of publishing video game development amid Russia Ukraine war

“This feels like an act of resistance.” Those words come from Sergey Oganesyan, head of publishing at Ukrainian game development studio Frogwares. They described a part of the reason why the team has carried on with making Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened as their world has been torn apart by war.

“The reality is that Russia decided they want to interrupt our lives and futures,” Oganesyan wrote in an email exchange with The Escapist. “The ability to have some sort of routine and ‘normalcy’ not only acts as a useful distraction to what is going on[;] it gives us a feeling that we’re still going on with our lives and not just cowering in shelter waiting for this to be over.”

We all know the story. Near the end of February 2022, Russia launched a “special military operation” that saw its armed forces begin an assault against Ukraine. What was supposed to take days has now stretched out for more than a year. The war has spread its tendrils across the world, affecting international inflation and reigniting fierce debates about national sovereignty and foreign aid. It’s easy to get lost in the rhetoric, but the thing we have to remember is it’s not just images and news reports, costs and numbers; it’s people and their lives.

Frogwares has more than 90 staff members, meaning hundreds of people rely on the studio for their livelihoods. “Something I think a lot of us don’t register when thinking about a real war (and [to be honest] I am guilty of this myself) is the stark fact that, even though there are now bombs falling around you, you still need to somehow keep paying for things and so, you need to go to work,” wrote Oganesyan. “And it’s not just about your own individual needs or survival. The country’s entire economy needs to keep going as much as it can because an economic collapse can be more effective than bullets or missiles.”

While that realization didn’t take long to set in, it, of course, wasn’t front of mind for most team members in February last year. Reports of Russian posturing had been emerging for weeks prior to the invasion. Almost immediately after Russian forces began moving in, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy imposed martial law and issued a general mobilization order for all males aged between 18 and 60.

Oganesyan said those early days were “chaos”: “People trying to figure out what to do, where to go, trying to sync up with family or friends in other parts of the country. I mean we literally had tanks rolling into Kyiv at that time.” However, Zelenskyy’s order was met with widespread support. The response meant that, even though some members of Frogwares joined active combat, each did it on their own terms.

“Our Livelihoods Are Tied Directly to the Studio Functioning”

Meanwhile, those left behind had to once again adjust to an impossible new normal. As for the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic made remote work familiar for Frogwares, but the war brought its own issues and tensions. The most significant has been communication. Between the targeting of civilian infrastructure and general supply and demand issues resulting from the war, emergency blackouts have become common. Sometimes, there are evacuations due to air raid sirens. People can go offline for hours or sometimes days at a time, and that means that “in the back of your head there is always that fear that this time the radio silence from your colleague is for something worse,” wrote Oganesyan.

Frogwares did what it could to help some team members get to the relative safety of other parts of Ukraine or the EU, though many have since returned. “Mainly it’s about being ‘home,’” explained Oganesyan, “where being surrounded by friends and family in times like these outweighs any feeling of safety when you are in a foreign country or city.”

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened interview Frogwares Sergey Oganesyan head of publishing video game development amid Russia Ukraine war

All of that comes on top of the imperative to keep the studio operating. Frogwares self-publishes its games, meaning it doesn’t have external financial backing to keep it afloat. To support it, the team has re-released several of its older games on new platforms, but the crowning achievement is the imminent release of Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened.

Their previous game, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, became available in November 2021, just months before the invasion began. They developed DLC for that game and began work on something new.

“We never had any plans or intentions to follow [Chapter One] up (despite our, in hindsight, questionable name choice which confused a lot of people),” wrote Oganesyan. However, fate intervened, and whatever plans the team had were reevaluated. In May, the team began teasing Project Palianytsia. Two months later, they pulled back the veil, revealing it to be a remake and “substantial rewrite” of 2007’s Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened.

“A Lot of Extra Hurdles and a Lot of Unknowns”

This reimagined version of the game sees Sherlock and Watson teaming up for their first major case together — and it takes them down the unexpected path of investigating a Lovecraftian cult. In that, it’s a perfect follow-up to Chapter One. With that game, Frogwares was playing with a Sherlock younger than we ever saw in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, exploring “what happened to Sherlock in his early years that would later lead him to being such a broken and damaged genius.” According to Oganesyan, following that meant asking “What is something even worse that could break and mess with Sherlock’s mind. And the idea of Eldritch gods, cults and questioning his very being and sanity felt like the perfect narrative tool.”

But that’s not the only consideration. The war was, and remains, a space of uncertainty. Against that backdrop, even a pretense of stability helps. “Whenever you work on something new there is always this stress that what you are making might not be good, or interesting, etc. We simply didn’t need that additional mental baggage at a time like this,” wrote Oganesyan. A remake made sense, and The Awakened is widely regarded as one of the team’s best: “It helped us psychologically knowing we’d be working on something that already had a proven foundation.”

While that helped, it wasn’t the only avenue the team took to secure its future. Across the past 20 years, the team has survived by budgeting each new title from the sales of their previous one, but the war added massive question marks into that formula.

“A bleak example is as simple as a missile could fall on the building where our servers are and erase much of our work. We could lose key members of our team for weeks or the worst case possible, even forever. You are then forced to figure out how to carry on without them. All of these problems and more would take time and realistically, money to fix.”

The solution was reached only a few months into production. Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened would use crowdfunding as a “safety net.”

Launched on August 4, 2022, the Kickstarter campaign took just over six hours to reach its target of €70,000 and ultimately raised more than three times that. In the midst of the uncertainty, that response was a beacon of hope, a source of “joy and belief,” according to Oganesyan. “Our Kickstarter was maybe the first real and undeniable moment in all this that showed us people see us and want to support the team.”

But, of course, it wasn’t the end. The team still had to finish the game.

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened interview Frogwares Sergey Oganesyan head of publishing video game development amid Russia Ukraine war / concept art

“We All Had to Be Able to Keep Adapting”

We all had to get used to shifting demands thanks to COVID-19, but the war in Ukraine is a still more fickle beast. To manage the scheduled blackouts in different parts of Kyiv, some team members would move between the office and their homes “multiple times in the day.” Otherwise, it was a matter of making sure team members knew who would be offline and when or “something as simple as buying an adapter that lets you plug in your [Wi-Fi] router into a power bank meant you could at least still have a laptop and internet.”

Even beyond that, though, were changes to the fundamental workflows and interactions between colleagues. To get around potential bottlenecks, developers had to learn new skills that they might otherwise have relied on others to complete, and they also had to be more patient because of the inevitability that some tasks might take longer than usual due to external factors.

In the early months, “the emotional drain was constant,” explained Oganesyan, but it was a matter of adapting to the changing situations. That meant using candles instead of electrical lighting, wearing extra layers if it was cold, or being aware of the likelihood of blackouts. Throughout the summer, things weren’t so unremittingly bleak in Kyiv. The city felt like a stronghold, according to Oganesyan, with the fighting happening mostly in the east of Ukraine. “The people and city officials worked tirelessly to help return this feeling of normalcy as best as possible. […] There were, of course, still clear reminders the country is at war, but you could at least live some sort of life in a way.”

Then came the winter of 2022. In October, Russia redoubled its assault on critical civilian infrastructure. It’s estimated that half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure was destroyed during this wave of attacks, which in turn ramped up the blackouts across the country.

“That was probably the worst part of it,” wrote Oganesyan. “Those Russian psychopaths intentionally started targeting our power, water, and heating in the hope to break us. And it was beyond clear they intentionally waited for the winter to do this so that it would be worse.” After an intense period through mid-winter, the attacks began to subside in January, but they never went away. In the week we received the response from Oganesyan, reports came of more strikes on civilian targets and residential buildings in Kyiv and Zaporizhzhia.

Since then, still more attacks have occurred, in Kostyantynivka and Sloviansk among other areas, and there’s not really any sign of them ceasing. That’s a sentiment that’s felt keenly within Ukraine — or at the very least by Oganesyan: “I simply wouldn’t put it past those monsters to keep at this tactic, especially since [now] every time the Russians suffer some very public defeat or embarrassment, they respond by launching missiles or drones at civilian targets.”

Through it all, Frogwares has used its global platform to share some of the stories of Ukrainian resistance. Its Twitter feed, alongside promoting Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, is a chronicle of the war. Scrolling through, scenes and recounts of disaster and tragedy press up against images of beauty and resistance, narratives of hope. As a snapshot, it makes for hard reading, but against a global news cycle that has largely shifted its focus from the on-the-ground realities of Ukraine to the closer concerns around cost of living, an increasingly precarious global banking sector, and politicians behaving badly, these reminders serve a purpose.

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened interview Frogwares Sergey Oganesyan head of publishing video game development amid Russia Ukraine war

“We are under no illusion that one of the reasons Ukraine has been able to defend itself so well is because of international support,” Oganesyan explained. “But it has been more than a year now and things are starting to get dicey. […] We’re starting to see a lot of comments saying absolutely absurd stuff like the war is fake or a scam to just funnel money to Ukraine. Essentially if we were to keep quiet, the wrong voices will gladly step in to take over our story and we can’t have that.”

It may be just one tiny piece in a much larger struggle, but Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is a part of that story. It’s a story of cultural resistance. It’s a story of survival. And it’s a story of success against impossible odds.

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened launches on PC, Nintendo Switch, and all current PlayStation and Xbox consoles today, April 11.

About the author

Damien Lawardorn
Editor and Contributor of The Escapist: Damien Lawardorn has been writing about video games since 2010, including a 1.5 year period as Editor-in-Chief of Only Single Player. He’s also an emerging fiction writer, with a Bachelor of Arts with Media & Writing and English majors. His coverage ranges from news to feature interviews to analysis of video games, literature, and sometimes wider industry trends and other media. His particular interest lies in narrative, so it should come as little surprise that his favorite genres include adventures and RPGs, though he’ll readily dabble in anything that sounds interesting.