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A war game that actually feels like being in a war

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

"You always hear that war is never coming," says Michal Drozdowski, the design director for This War of Mine. "You always live in that feeling."

"Until it comes," says Przemyslaw Marszal, the game's art director.I'm here in Warsaw, Poland, to preview the game, a daring attempt to tell the story of civilians trapped in a war zone. Things were going well until I brought up the topic of Poland's neighbor to the east. Russia.

The room grows quiet. No one is making eye contact. We shuffle around our business cards on the conference room table.

It's April 1. Ten days ago, after weeks of fighting, Russia formally annexed part of Ukraine. For weeks Ukrainian citizens in Crimea had been enduring a protracted guerrilla war fought between their army and Russian separatists, a war that has only gotten wider and more violent since that day.

You hear that war is never coming. Until it comes for you.

The crisis in Ukraine could easily serve as the unnamed conflict in the background of This War of Mine, a game that began development long before the trouble in the region was fully understood. Players take the role of civilians, hiding out in the battered remnants of a nameless city. The only goal is to stay alive — to find shelter, food and perhaps a way to protect your small group.

Instead of taking up arms and fighting, the fragile civilians in This War of Mine can only hunker down and wait it out. It is a game about suffering, about scavenging and about making hard decisions between life and death.

Drozdowski breaks the silence.

"You don't believe that your world is going to change," he says. "When you read about the Second World War, they had exactly that same feeling: War is not going to happen.

"It came anyway."

An anomaly

11 Bit Studios is best known for the Anomaly series, an engaging game that inverts the classic tower-defense genre. You're not fighting off the invaders; you are the invaders, trying to infiltrate areas under alien control. It's been published on many platforms, including Windows PC and iOS. The franchise has made the small studio successful.

How successful? They're now starting to publish other Polish games.

But Anomaly was bright. Anomaly was colorful. It was, in a way, a very traditional game as far as art direction goes. It had unique ideas in design, but it looked and often played very much like a traditional game.

This War of Mine is the opposite. When the trailer for the game broke in March, just before I left for Poland, the entire Polygon staff stopped to admire it. It looks like nothing else.

The CG movie takes a vignette that is so common to military shooters — an urban firefight with heavily armed Western soldiers dying among their comrades — and it shifts the camera just a bit to the right, behind the storefronts on that same stereotypical street. There, huddling in the shadows, is a family holding one another. The lines are heavy and their faces seem equally ready to weep or cry out in terror.

This is the side of war that most people who play games never consider, but a side of war that is all too real. This is the core of the game. These are the people hiding in the corners of every modern war game, the ones the camera never stops to look for as you pretend to be a hero. This is the other side of the coin.

"We will try something extremely different. Go as far as we can in the other direction."

"It's the first game where the guys allowed me to do it my way," says Marszal, the art director. "I'm joking, but it's the first game where we decided, 'OK. We will try something really different, something extremely different. Go as far as we can in the other direction.'"

This War of Mine is dark, in the literal sense. The lines are thick and the shadows are heavy. There is very little color, and when there is it is mostly red — the color of blood.

"It was a hard decision. We were working on style — for about a month, just on style. So each artist on our team was working to free their minds [from what we had done in the past]. Let's each of us find some way to present this game. I was looking for a visual style that allowed me to transfer emotions to the player."

The game looks like a platformer at first glance, but it is much more nuanced than that. Marszal says that the profile allows him to convey the most emotion from the characters and their animation. The style also allows his team to keep the resource requirements low. This allows them to release the game on Linux, Mac, PC and even mobile devices.

"You don't need to gawk at the graphics in this game," he says. "It's a very serious game. We just needed to draw players in, and to do that we have this black-and-white style with all these inky drawings and very heavy lines. It was very purposefully done."

To give the game flair they drew on modern artists like Banksy, the anonymous graffiti artist and political agitator. "He has such a striking style," Marszal says, "Very hard. This is more like our style. On the other hand, he tries to say something. Each of his murals say something. His work has a message."

"Our game has a message," says 11 Bit's senior writer, Pawel Miechowski.

That message is simple — war isn't fun. It's not heroic. War is hell.

A farewell to arms

"We are not trying to make a political statement with our game," Miechowski says. "Even when we think about the current situation [in Eastern Europe], I think I can speak for the entire company that we're thinking about ourselves and our families here. I just want our country to be kept safe."

It's said that war is just diplomacy carried out through other means and, as diplomatic as Miechowski wants to be, it's hard to escape the darkness hanging over his project: the shadow of a large and seemingly enraged Russia.

The team begins to explain for me all the research that they have put into their game, the months they spent poring over civilian accounts during wartime — stories that spanned hundreds of years. From these accounts they drew real events and put them directly into the game: how the sick had to be kicked out of shelters because they ate too much food only to vomit it back up, how after months of conflict moonshine was the only currency that could be traded for arms or medicine. The reality they found was much darker than what their imaginations could work up.

This War of Mine is not about Ukraine. It's not about any single conflict. It is about every conflict, and every innocent person imprisoned inside them.

This War of Mine is about Ypres in 1914. It's about Warsaw in 1944 and Sarajevo in '92. It's about Mogadishu in '93, Kabul in '03 and Fallujah in '04. It's about Syria in 2013. It's about Gaza right now.

This War of Mine is not a happy thing.

The art of war

The team at 11 Bit used a unique technology developed by a company called ReconstructMe, a real-time scanning system developed for the Microsoft Kinect to make the game quickly and for a limited budget. They invited people to get scanned into the game.

One by one they each put on a backpack, sometimes a hat, and stood before the camera. Each one was slowly rotated before the camera, using an improvised spinning platform, their likeness captured as a series of colored dots in three-dimensional space. By scanning the legs first and then torsos, with and without backpacks and other accessories, they were able to create hundreds of potential character combinations in just a few days. The grainy resolution of the Kinect actually enhanced their art style.

They didn't have any costumes. The team just asked people to show up, dressed as they were that day. These were regular men and women, mostly members of the 11 Bit team, pulled from the streets of Poland.

The unexpected side effect was that the game took on a new, more surreal aspect in the office. They were pushing some of their peers around a hostile digital space. Some found it unsettling.

"All the people in our prototype are us. Guys sitting next to you, their families."

"All the people you have in our prototype are us," says Drozdowski. "Guys sitting next to you, their wives. And so we don't have this sterile feeling as a player of the game. Because we know these people on the screen.

"Some people on the team will say, 'Adam does not belong here. He doesn't fit with this game.' And I say to them, 'No. He is a normal person. He fits here perfectly. It doesn't matter that he sits next to you at work. He belongs in this game.'"

But it's not just adults that are trapped in war zones. Children suffer as well. This War of Mine intends to pull no punches when it comes to showing that aspect of war in the game.

For Marszał, the game's art director, that was something that hit just a little too close to home.

"I thought about bringing in my two sons to be scanned for the game," he said. He's been working on it for over a year now. "I don't want them in it. One is 7 and the second is 2 years old. And I don't want them to be photographed and put in this game, because I know that in our game characters can die. And I do not want my sons to be there." His voice becomes tight.

"Because I really think it could happen."


I ask the team about the potential for a sequel to This War of Mine and they are quick to answer. There will be none. This is their only shot, their only chance to get this message and their game right.

"It is like a novella," says Drozdowski. "Or like an étude in music. The biggest weight that we feel on our shoulders is actually to try to tell the truth. To try to be truthful to the feelings of people or situations at war.

"Sometimes we came across situations that are so hard to imagine that we are even afraid to put it in the game, afraid we might be told by our players that this never happened.

"Life writes strange scenarios, and we try to find them out and show them to others in our game."

This War of Mine will be available in late 2014. Our first few hours with the game was captured for our Overview series.

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