War games deal with soldiers. If civilians appear at all, they’re obstacles – a modern version of the “lose a life” targets in arcade light gun games. They’re the bombs in Point Blank. The does in Big Buck Hunter. They’re not characters in the story, but barriers to the player’s progress.
11 Bit Studios hopes to change that with This War of Mine, a game put the player in charge of civilians trying to survive the meat grinder of urban warfare. But the game aims to do more than tell a new war story – by shifting perspective away from the combatants, it hopes to change how we see war itself. In This War of Mine, war isn’t a contest to be won or lost, it’s a force people must endure.
This War of Mine began when 11 Bit CEO Grzegorz Miechowski read a blog post called “One Year In Hell.” The post – which circulated widely on survivalist blogs and forums – was a cleaned-up and collated version of a Q&A with a Bosnian man named “Selco,” who claimed that he’d survived for a full year in a besieged city during the war. Selco told his ordeal in stark detail, describing how he defended his family, traded goods under the threat of sniper fire and hacked down doors for firewood. The post, while factually unverified, provides a window into human psychology during a societal breakdown. When Miechowski brought the post into an 11 Bit’s creative meeting, This War of Mine was born.
“It was incredibly thrilling and moving experience, to know what this man had been through,” says Pawel Miechowski, the game’s senior writer. “We were ignited instantly. Let’s make a game about it!”
The game, the team decided, would be a serious, mature experience. It was a fresh endeavor for the studio, whose most high-profile release at that point was the award-winning tower offense game Anomaly: Warzone Earth. And the team knew changing gears from strategy games to drama would take research.
The 11 Bit team dove into the topic, collecting as much information as they could from video interviews, archives and books on civilians in wartime. Being a Polish studio, they collected stories from family and friends who’d lived through Poland’s harrowing World War II experience and the nearby Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.
“One of our guy’s grandfather survived a siege of Leningrad during the Second World War,” says Miechowski, adding that another member of the team has a friend who survived the Bosnian War. “We all remember plenty of stories from elder family members who survived German and Russian invasion not so long ago, so there is a lot of personal input from the team as well.”
Their pool of experience has only grown larger. After the game’s announcement, people started coming out of the woodwork to tell their stories. Survivors from Iraq, Lebanon and Sarajevo contacted 11 Bit to talk about their experiences. John Keyser, a Naval Corpsman (medic) who served with the Marines during the Second Battle of Fallujah, gave his input and helps them spread word about the game.
In all those experiences, they extracted a common thread: civilians that live through conflict aren’t in an ideological struggle or tactical contest. Civilians fight during war, but instead of fighting for objectives or a cause, they fight to continue living.
“When war surrounds you,” says Miechowski, “you have just one need, one goal and this is saving your life.” This is the guiding principle the team used to fashion This War of Mine: War isn’t something to be won, but outlasted. It’s a game where the most deadly opponents aren’t always the snipers and armed gangs that roam the city, but hunger, disease and the cold. War, like a storm, is a force in and of itself.
Every time the player starts a new game, This War of Mine randomly generates how long the war will last – it could be weeks, months, or even a year, and the player won’t know until the shooting stops. Given the uncertain timeframe, survival is about meeting basic needs day to day. Players will collect and allocate supplies, deciding whether to trade goods or use them themselves. The randomness can make asset management tricky and make for hard decisions. If you’ve used all your wood to build a moonshine still, and then winter strikes, you’ll start weighing whether to cannibalize it for firewood. It’s a choice between a tradable commodity and a basic need – money or heat?
“Here we are talking about mechanics,” says Miechowski. “The real focus is on facing really heavy emotional decisions.”
That’s where the real-life survivors’ stories come into play – while many games contain resource management in a shattered world, This War of Mine is about managing people and what – or who – you’re willing to sacrifice for survival. And based on what Miechowski says, it goes beyond the “who gets the food,” problem from The Walking Dead. Everything is a cost-benefit analysis. You might find a lone survivor who’s seeking shelter, but decide that taking them in is too risky. A larger group can defend itself better than a small one, but will require more supplies and make itself a higher-profile target for gangs or the army. There will also be people in your shelter that consume, but give nothing in return, making you question whether they’re worth feeding. And when the supplies run out, will you steal from your neighbor, making their children starve so yours can eat? If it comes to it, would you kill them? Miechowski promises that these are the problems players will face in This War of Mine, and each decision will have consequences.
It’s an interesting prospect. Up until now, games about war have been about conquest, achieving objectives and winning. This War of Mine points out that victims of conflict fight as well, but to endure. It’s war as a marathon, where the struggle is to keep going even though every step brings more pain and fatigue.
And a game like that can’t have the traditional notions of winning and losing we associate with videogames. While death still retains its place as the ultimate failure state, players may outlive the war only to find themselves looking back on what it cost them.
“The feelings of the ‘winner’ may be bitter,” says Miechowski. “Do you win if you lost your friends? Do you win if you had to sacrifice others just so you could [live]?” While survival is the goal, he stresses, “winning” may actually mean being able to stomach the choices you made. It’s a lofty aim, and Miechowski admits that it’ll take effort to attain. “We’re aware that it’s very difficult to create this emotional level.”
If the game achieves what 11 Bit has set out to do, it will be something to see. Though I’ve personally yet to play the game, even discussing its mechanics raises questions about modern war and how games portray it. For example, in This War of Mine civilian survivors carry guns for self-defense. That inherently means the game will deal with one of the questions that’s tortured militaries in the age of counterinsurgency – the blurring line between civilians and combatants. In modern warzones, an armed individual in civilian clothing could variously be an insurgent blending with the population, an ally from the local militia, a spy or an ordinary civilian trying to safeguard his home, and troops often don’t know until they’re fired on. There are also legal and ethical questions involved: if a civilian returns fire while being unlawfully targeted by soldiers, is he a combatant, or simply exercising his right of self-defense? Though there are laws that govern these situations, the morality of a given incident can include large grey areas, and This War of Mine seems poised to explore them.
That’s a crucial message, especially in a time when urban warfare seems increasingly the norm in world conflict. Multiple U.S. Army think tanks recently started investigating how it will deal with conflicts of the future, focusing on fighting in densely populated megacities littered with drones, cyber-threats and civilians that are tweeting their every location.
And of course, world events keep making a game like this more and more relevant. The 11 Bit team has been monitoring reports about civilian conditions in Syria. And across the border from Poland, Ukraine’s fate still hangs on the question of whether the country will descend into further internal conflict, escalated by the Russian intervention. Even as this article goes to press, Ukrainian troops are battling pro-Russian separatists at the Donetsk airport. 11 Bit Studios is watching with white knuckles, well aware of how civilians will suffer if the crisis develops into a full-scale civil war.
“I just wish it doesn’t happen,” says Miechowski. “Not because Poland is Ukraine’s neighbor, but because war is the worst demon that people could see.”
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.