How a group of Polish devs turned war into a deeply personal and groundbreaking game A look at what went into the making of This War Of Mine.

As mood boards go, Dire Straits, A-ha, Banksy and the siege of Sarajevo might seem like unlikely bedfellows. But all played their part in influencing the development of 11 Bit Studios’ tale of a group of civilians caught in a war zone, This War Of Mine.

The striking black-and-white survival game is drawn in smudged, thick pencil strokes and uses a muted palette to reflect its equally downbeat tone as you attempt to protect a group of survivors from starvation, freezing temperatures, marauding bandits and festering, untreated wounds. But this startling project began life as something more traditional.

“We had some mechanics and ideas for something designed for gamers,” art director Przemysław Marszał, who previously worked as a designer on the studio’s contribution to the tower defense genre, Anomaly: Warzone Earth, explains. “Some of those early ideas were transferred to This War Of Mine, but we wanted to make something much more meaningful. That’s the word that suits our game.”

During a brainstorming meeting in 2013, company CEO Grzegorz Miechowski suggested they make a game about the challenges, both physical and emotional, which civilians face during times of conflict. It was an idea that instantly struck a chord with everyone in the meeting room, and quickly gained traction across the rest of the studio, too.

“During development, we had many people from different parts of the studio wanting to add something to the game,” design director Michał Drozdowski recalls. “We had people working on other projects writing short stories in their own time just because they wanted to be involved with something they felt was important.”

The team placed themselves into the game, with whatever clothes they were wearing on the day of the shoot and with no preparation, in order to create the survivors.

Later, as the project gathered momentum, a designer joined the team who had always wanted to work on a project like this one. This was a topic close to many of the team’s hearts – most had relatives who could recount survival stories from the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

“I remember my grandfather told me that during the war they first had the Russian invasion and then the Nazi invasion and then a second Russian occupation,” senior writer Pawel Miechowski tells us. “Each army took their food, so they had to eat pigweed. That was a very important lesson [for the game] – it’s edible and it grows everywhere. That’s why you can grow and eat herbs in This War Of Mine.

“And a man who was in Sarajevo told us that when there’s a siege, you see a lot of injured people. We didn’t know that, and we added it to the game. We aren’t perfect, and it’s not possible to capture everything perfectly – we’re definitely missing a lot of nuance and things that are there during a war – but overall I think we approached it from the right angle.”

This combination of anecdotal accounts and meticulous research provided the foundation for the game, but the team wasn’t interested in focusing on historical accuracy and details,
and instead wanted to capture and distill what it feels like to be in that kind of situation.

On release, many players contacted 11 Bit to say how much This War Of Mine tallied with their own experiences of living through a siege situation or being trapped in a war zone – responses that both moved the development team and vindicated its decision. But that success was hard won: researching the topic took an inevitable toll on the studio.

While heavily inspired by the Yugoslavian conflicts, 11 Bit also looked at other events such as the aforementioned Warsaw Uprising, its aftermath, the Battle of Grozny, and the conflicts that are taking place today in Syria, Algeria and other African and Middle-Eastern countries. “In the course of our research we saw a lot of photos from wartime,” Marszał says. “You can find so many awful things from war on Google, and when we saw some photos we just closed them immediately. We knew we didn’t want to show that kind of violence in our game – it’s too much.”

“A lot of the situations we heard about were very drastic, and many of them very personal,” Drozdowski says. “The one thing that we didn’t do is use the tricks that movies use where you show a lot of blood or gore, or sadistic behavior. I don’t think that was needed to feel the emotions that you experience – the game is more about the decisions you make, who you are, and who you become. Sometimes you can talk silently and still be heard.”

The personal experiences related to the developers were reflected in their decision to cast themselves and their friends in the game as both the playable characters and those you encounter along the way. In order to lend the game greater authenticity it was decided that there would be no makeup artist or costume designer, and staff were simply plucked from their desks as and when, then whisked off, with no preparation, to be snapped and scanned.

“We didn’t want to have any elements that would be artificial or ‘game-like’,” Marszał explains. “That was important to us. I was scanned for the game, but I didn’t want to be a playable character because the game is so believable that I didn’t like the idea that I could die. So I said, ‘OK, guys, I’ll be the trader who knocks on the door, and that’s it. This positive person who comes from time to time and helps you. But I don’t want to be one of the people suffering inside the building.’ It was that serious to me I didn’t want to cross that line.”

As a player, the attachment you feel to the characters in your charge is certainly potent. When they manage to survive another night you feel relief, and when someone dies it triggers a feeling of despondency that, for a few in-game days at least, is all but unbearable. The decision to depict events using a side-on perspective was a result of wanting to more effectively engender empathy in the player after unsuccessful experiments with both top-down and first-person views. The former proved to be too removed – there is, after all, only so much that can be read from the top of a head and a pair of shoulders – while the team found that the latter shifted focus away from the group and onto the player.

Another hurdle, and one also related to how much you believe in the people on the screen, involved designing AI. “We had a big problem with that because it evolved exponentially,” says Drozdowski. “When we started it was very simple; then we kept wanting it to do more and more. The big challenge was to create a link between the player and the person you’re playing – to forget about stats and resource management and try to give them life. We were struggling with that the whole time: these people are human and have their own code of morality and react accordingly. We tried to simulate real life.”

As the AI took shape, the team set about creating the backstories and personalities of the characters now bearing their images. Drozdowski explains that the first part of that process was looking at themselves: if 11 Bit’s employees had the misfortune to suddenly find themselves in a conflict zone, who would they be? The answer, of course, is a group of programmers, graphic designers, accountants and other specialists ill-equipped for war. Each character was given a skill and a negative trait – a good cook uses fewer ingredients in the game, for example, while a heavy smoker is either bad-tempered or a drain on valuable trading resources – and from this starting point the game’s naturalistic cast gradually emerged.

11 Bit Studios went through a number of visual styles for the game, eventually settling on a sombre monochrome aesthetic.

“Someone asked on Steam or in an email why there’s a useless mathematician in the game,” Marszał says. “What’s the use of a mathematician in a war? Obviously there isn’t one – Anton’s just a regular guy who doesn’t have any war skills. People were looking for some hidden reason as to why he was there, but it’s like asking what the use of children is in war. They’re still there.”

The intention, as with so many aspects of This War Of Mine’s design, was to break from tradition. Not every character has a function or even makes an obvious contribution to either gameplay or the household. And in the context of a game about the realities of war, why should they? Similarly, not every location you visit will yield loot, and the circumstances you find yourself in are often well beyond your control.

“If you knock on your neighbors’ door, what can you do?” Drozdowski asks. “You can rob them, attack them, or maybe just say hello. Sometimes there isn’t a specific encounter to
‘win’ – you’re just an intruder. We want to make players stop and think about what’s happening. What’s my goal if there’s no treasure? How should I behave? We want to put people into situations other games haven’t prepared them for.”

One memorable sequence occurs when you go to the home of an elderly couple. When you enter, the man gets up and asks who you are and what you want, pleading that you don’t hurt his unwell wife. If you choose to raid their fridge, he begs you to leave a little food for them. If you then go on to take his wife’s medicine – there are likely people who need it in your group – he asks you where your conscience is. If you kill the woman, you can take her jewelry.

“When we were working on that level, I never, ever stole anything from them,” Marszał says. “Even when they were grey boxes, I refused to steal from them. I was like, ‘Guys, you test it. I’m not doing this!’ There’s no obvious gameplay reward in these situations, but there’s a huge emotional reward. You can make it through the war without harming anyone – that will have its own consequences, but there’s a path for that. On the other hand, you can be… less peaceful.”

Despite the stark choices that must be made, the game never offers a position on good or bad, on right or wrong. Certain characters might react badly to unkindness exercised in their name, and you might have to find a way to raise their spirits over the following days as a result, but any lack of productivity from one individual could be offset by the acquisition of enough food to keep the household in broth for a while, allowing them to focus on other things while scavenging.

Levels often feature several floors, and sometimes multiple buildings. Ensuring the game’s AI could cope with complex spaces proved particularly challenging.

“One of the design pillars was to never make moral judgments,” Drozdowski explains. “Because if you do, you’re telling the player how to play the game. We don’t want that – instead of telling them what to do, it’s about leaving the decision in their hands, and all the moral consequences that go with it. If I do something bad, the people you live with will comment on your behavior, but never the game or a narrator.”

With every choice designed to be valid, the task of wrangling the branching pathways that emerge as each player’s story plays out proved especially challenging for the team. And in a game that favors harsh conditions, there was also the danger of discouraging players not used to being vulnerable. “We’ve got used to games being power fantasies,” Miechowski says. “As much as we love those kind of games, that’s not the only thing you can narrate in games.”

“That’s true,” Drozdowski adds. “Games have explored all the traditional genres a great deal, and there’s room now for games that comment on reality and can make you think. This War Of Mine isn’t an RPG or FPS, it’s a game that talks about war. Games don’t have to be about the genre or an activity, they can be about a subject.

“As a game, it had to be challenging, and it needed all the elements for good gameplay, but on the other hand we could trigger different kinds of emotions and engage the player. We wanted to achieve an effect where even if you lose, you were rewarded by the story of your [characters’ ordeal]. Sometimes novels have a really unhappy ending, but you still feel good about reading them. They still give you something.”

This feature originally appeared in Edge. To try a free two-issue Edge subscription, click here for iOS.

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