The Making Of…
How 11 Bit Studios turned the horrors of war into the deeply personal This War Of Mine
“I DIDN’T WANT TO BE A PLAYABLE CHARACTER BECAUSE IT’S SO BELIEVABLE I DIDN’T LIKE THE IDEA THAT I COULD DIE”
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 defence 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.”
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 distil 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 behaviour. 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 firstperson 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.
FROM LEFT Creative director Michał Drozdowski and senior writer Pawel Miechowski, who plays chef Bruno in the game