This War of Mine is not a game.
At least, not in the way one might expect it to be. In fact, it’s lead writer Pawel Miechowski’s hesitancy to call it a game that I find particularly striking as I speak with him.
“Most people are expecting difficult gameplay and survival, like in zombie games,” he says in a somber tone. He then adds that it’s sometimes difficult to explain to people that this is not a survival game as much as it is an experience about war aiming to deliver a strong and emotional message.
Taking place in a 2D plane, This War of Mine tasks players with protecting the lives of a group of survivors as they forage for supplies and evade death during the heat of war. It’s a heavy subject, and the team at 11 Bit Studios is taking great care to make sure every aspect of the game conveys what happens to humanity during war time. Although it’s heavily influenced by the events that took place in places such as Sarajevo and Fallujah, the game itself intentionally does not have a specific setting. Pawel wants people to see it as their city, to know it could happen anywhere.
The game is dark, both thematically and aesthetically. Deep shades of black outline the buildings and characters within. Hues of grey, blue, and brown all color the game’s bleak world. Buildings are crumbling. People are sick. Society has collapsed.
On one dark wall in the background, the words “Fuck the War” are written in white paint.
Pawel explains that this little visual flair was inspired by an iconic image from Mostar, Bosnia. It’s one of several anti-war images the team plans to use in the final build of This War of Mine, and is but one of the many elements of the game heavily influenced by the accounts of actual war survivors.
He and his team have been hard at work researching these stories and using people’s experiences to build everything from mechanics to encounters with other characters in the game, all in an effort to craft the most true-to-life survival experience possible.
The idea for This War of Mine was initially inspired by an article that began circulating around the web a little over a year ago. Titled “One Year in Hell,” the piece is a personal account written by a man named Selco who lived in a war-torn Bosnia during the 90’s.
“That [article] was the initial source of inspiration [for the game],” Pawel tells me. “We read it immediately, and everybody was like, ‘Let’s make a game about it.’”
Already, they’ve compiled an impressive number of stories. One of the members of the team had a grandfather who survived the siege of Leningrad during World War II. Another account they read detailed the difficult times of a man living in Serbia.
He tells me one particular story about a young woman who survived the horrors that took place in Sarajevo. “She was wounded during the first day,” he recalls. “Already, medical support was short in hospitals. They did not have a lot of antibiotics and bandages. That night, the doctors decided to save her instead of the other lady lying next to her. The same night, the other lady died.” His voice low, he explains why this story was particularly striking. “It showed us the terrible decisions people had to and still have to make.”
They recently came in contact with a man named John Keyser who served as a medic in Fallujah. After experiencing firsthand the atrocities of combat, John quickly became anti-war. “I had seen blood and guts, and that made me respect life and resent the idea that our government felt it necessary to take it from people,” he writes on the game’s official blog.
Since then, Keyser has been brought on by the 11 Bit team to contribute his experiences to the project and work as a blog commentator and tester. A designer himself, he’s currently working on his own board game with an anti-war message, and hopes that This War of Mine shows people the side of war that needs to be seen. “The conversation doesn’t always have to be ‘Call of Duty sucks’ or ‘Battlefield is unrealistic,’” he says. “With This War of Mine, the conversation can be ‘War isn’t really fun; it’s harsh.’”
As danger in the Ukraine continues to grow near his homeland of Poland, Pawel confesses that working on the game has made him a bit of a “prepper,” or someone who begins—often mentally and physically—preparing themselves for an inevitable doomsday event. He thinks often about what he’d do if war were ever to break out. “Two years ago, it was rather quiet in this part of Europe,” he says. “Now in the Ukraine, they are on the verge of war, and it sounds horrible. I can pray it won’t happen, and that’s all I can do.”
Despite the dangers lurking near their home, he tells me that all the research they’ve done into the accounts of these survivors and learning about the horrible realities of war has actually motivated his team to create a powerful experience. According to him, the team feels they’re working on something “special,” and seeing how positively the community has responded to it has been immensely inspirational.
In an era where war is often glorified for the sake of providing entertainment, This War of Mine’s approach is both a breath of fresh air and an uncomfortable prospect. It certainly isn’t intended to be a joyful experience, and it may not even be one many are comfortable with playing. Powerful use of real experiences and the team’s determination to unearth the brutal realities of war, however, make their mission very clear: they aren’t trying to entertain. Rather, like other empathy games such as Papers, Please or Actual Sunlight, they’re trying to make people think; to expose them to a world they’ve likely never known.
“Having someone say ‘Okay, this thing made me stop and think for a moment that there’s something wrong with this world’ is what we want,” Pawel says. “If we can make it with one man, we could be brilliant.”