The Mak­ing Of…

How 11 Bit Stu­dios turned the hor­rors of war into the deeply per­sonal This War Of Mine

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN MAXWELL

“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

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