I was doing fine until Pavle died. He was the first, his death the one I remember most vividly.
We'd been okay, a group of three survivors, hunkering down in a shot-to-shit house, our makeshift shelter from the hostile outside, doing what we could to see out a siege inspired by the one that shook Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996. One night, while Marko was out scavenging for supplies – some carrots and raw meat, some wood to fashion a chair from, a few electrical components to ultimately make a radio – and Pavle was sleeping, raiders came. Bruno was on guard duty, but he was pretty tired at the beginning of his shift, and carrying a light wound. By the time Marko returned, Bruno was in a bad way. He needed bandages, quickly, one thing we didn't have. The next night, Pavle went out alone, with a backpack of gear to trade. Pills and tobacco we didn't need, but could have used, and clean some water too – a definite wartime commodity. He tried to trade what he had for bandages, at another occupied property, but it wasn't enough. A fight broke out. Underprepared for combat, Pavle lost. He never made it back.
Any player of This War of Mine, by Poland's 11 bit studios, will have stories just like this, and many more. They only grow in number, and they rarely get any happier. And that's the point: originally released in late 2014, and enjoying a commercial reception enough to cover its production costs in two days, This War of Mine is about as real as survival horror, that gaming genre so long associated with spooks and zombies, can get. You control the residents of a dilapidated old building, commanding them to do all they can to get by as the city around them burns. Daytime movement isn't an option – there are snipers around who'll happily spend a round on putting you down, permanently. Come nightfall, though, opportunity knocks: sometimes on your own front door, with an offer to trade, or desperate request for help or shelter. More often, it's a case of sending someone out to see what they can gather for the cause. Which is a simple one: stay alive long enough to see a ceasefire.
Having previously been unavailable on consoles, This War of Mine is now imminent for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, repackaged with a subtitle: The Little Ones. These titular extras are an entirely literal addition to the gameplay: children. So where before you might have to find a book to keep a friend happy, or some half-decent smokes, now there are toys to consider, ways to distract the young from the devastation outside the shattered windows. And, of course, the same injuries that can befall the adults in the game can happen to the children, albeit without quite the same results if you don't take care of the problem. Which can prove a little fiddly, an Xbox control pad not quite as immediately compatible with this game of many clicks on miniscule icons as a mouse is; and the writing, of which there's a lot, appears small on even a decent-sized TV. My advice: bring your chair closer, and be sure to use the D-pad alongside the analogue stick to be more precise with your (inter)actions.
Ultimately, This War of Mine is a strategy game – you have to carefully balance your assets, shuffle your hand and make decisions based on the greater good. People will die. But it's what they die for that can matter even more than keeping every single person you come into contact and company with alive. It's not a fun, after-work escape; it's a game that turns your stomach and gives you many reasons to pause and really think about the consequences of seemingly everyday decisions. Do I eat this tin of food now, or leave it for later? You never know what the next supply run will bring – maybe nothing, but maybe the means to craft a weapon, so you can pull off a raid of your own on that supermarket over the way. Maybe tomorrow night there'll be a feast. But for now, there's just the one tin. Maybe we'll leave it. You can last the night. Probably.
I got 11 bit studios' Pawel Miechowski, the senior writer on This War of Mine, and the game's art director Przemek Marszał, on the other end of a Skype call to learn a little more about this horrific world they created, and what the inclusion of children means for players' memories of the experience.
'This War of Mine: The Little Ones', gameplay trailer
VICE: A lot of people think of video games as fun distractions, playthings, escapes from the depressing reality of their everyday existence. This War of Mine really isn't about that, is it? It's built to make the player think about the very real horrors that can affect people in certain parts of the world.
Pawel Miechowski: Yeah, absolutely. At some point recently, we realised that "fun" and "entertainment" are not the right words to describe games in general, because we've now been surrounded by games for more than three decades, and they're a natural way of story telling. They're capable of talking about any subject, if handled properly. You can see this paralleled by movies – sometimes you want to watch a comedy, to run away from sadness, or you can do that with an action movie; but there is also something in us that pushes us to watch movies like The Shawshank Redemption, or The Pianist, or Schindler's List, films that actually make you feel a relief, sadness or catharsis because they're capable of touching a different set of emotions within you, as a spectator. And games have grown up to be able to do the same thing. The Little Ones is just one example – you can also look at Papers, Please, Gods Will Be Watching and That Dragon, Cancer.
We knew as game creators that gameplay is the language of games – so if the gameplay is good, then no matter the topic, you can spread any message. We had this idea, which came from my older brother, to make a game about the civilian perspective of war, with engaging and compelling gameplay. And looking at how the PC version of the game performed, I believe we succeeded and did it the right way.
The game's UI is pretty clear and simple, assuming you're close enough to read some of the smaller text, which helps players get into the grit of it all straight away.
PM: It was made in a way that allows you to go straight into the game. There's no tutorial, and that's on purpose – we're trying to stay as close to reality as possible, and nobody would know what to do at the start of the siege of a city, so the game's no going to either. The game puts you into the deep end, and you have to survive on your own. Yet, you know how to behave, because it's intuitive – any person in that situation would know they needed food, and medicine, and bandages.
As your last game, Anomaly 2, was a sci-fi sort of affair, was there a lot of internal discussion prior to agreeing on doing a game like This War of Mine?
PM: With each idea, we're looking for something new. Now, there's nothing new about doing a war game; but changing the perspective was the thing for us, the innovation, and the serious approach. There was never a big discussion about whether we liked the idea for This War of Mine or not – from the beginning, it was just so inspiring, and shocking, to think about it, and we all immediately agreed to do it. Then we discussed the details, the mechanics, the visual style. That was Przemek's role. He was the one that brought this sort of photographic quality to the visuals, in this dark, depressing palette, to match the tone of the game. The characters you play are actually us, scanned into the game. The same rule applies to kids, too, for The Little Ones – we scanned our children. My daughter is in the game, and when I saw her hungry and wounded, it made me think about how this game is bigger than a digital world – it's a comment on reality, because you see a part of reality in it.
It's provocative, but that's okay, because it doesn't need to be funny, merely engaging. And when it's engaging, you can really cover a lot of different aspects about politics, or human collision in general. I think we're on the verge of, maybe not a revolution, but of seeing a lot of serious games that produce empathy in the player, in the next year. Games have grown up, and so too have gamers. In Poland, the average gamer is 35 years old – guys who have families, houses, cars, daily duties. These aren't kids playing Mario. That means that today's gamer expects more than just entertainment, and different, serious approaches to making games.
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It is a deliberately grim game to look at, incredibly bleak. But there must have been a balance to respect, between creating this evocative game world and maintaining clear communication of what each item is, where the player characters can move to around the shelter and elsewhere, right?
Przemek Marsał (PMar): At the beginning of the design process, we decided that we didn't want to make the game fully photo realistic. We could have done, but the game's like a novel, and we wanted to treat it that way, rather than a photo. So when you read a novel, you see in your mind how it looks, and we don't want to give you the maximum detail, visually, so a lot of what happens in the game is in your mind.
You know that we're all in the game, scanned, as are our colleagues and a lot of friends. That's as realistic as we needed to make things. There weren't any photo sessions with make-up artists or anything, everything was done very much on the low. We just asked a few guys, and photographed them as they looked there and then – because that's the way to make them look the most realistic in the game.
There was a drive inside the character team to model things in better quality, but we really wanted these low-poly models, very natural, with all this dirt in the back. We knew the graphics wouldn't be top-notch, AAA-category, but they'd have more soul this way. We didn't want to be pixel perfect.
Children were on the cards for inclusion in the original game, when it came out for PC, but you ultimately decided to hold them from that release. Why do that, when you're adding them to the game now?
PM: We knew the project was already very risky, and we received some backlash early on from people saying that games should be about escapism and fun, not the opposite. And we were thinking that kids should be brought into the world somehow, but the game took almost two years to bring to market, and we couldn't implement children properly earlier than this. We needed the proper language to have kids in this depressing world of war. But still, we're not crossing certain lines.
In the game, the kids cannot die. We figured that the game is constructed in a way that makes the player attached to the characters, so losing a child would be painful however we do it, and we don't need to throw blood at the screen. We show it in a more subtle way. If the child is, for example, heavily wounded and sick, the Red Cross can come and take them away, or there are other scenarios. You get that same feeling of loss, but we didn't want to turn it into an atrocity simulator. There are other, explicit elements of war that we've not included from the beginning, because this is a game about emotions, and the challenges people face – the sacrifices and the cooperation, violence or avoiding it. It's not about showing every horrible thing that can happen in a war. You don't need to show that to spread the message that war can happen to anyone, and it's a devastating thing.
Now that the game's on consoles, do you think it'll help move that audience, perhaps one that's seen to be more preoccupied with blockbuster games of little emotional resonance, towards engaging more frequently with this new breed of serious title?
PM: From my perspective, the console gaming community is quite similar to the PC one. They're just used to using a different device. But games can suit any platform.
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And with This War of Mine doing so well for the studio financially, how tempting is it to do a sequel? Personally, I feel the game says enough, that this is a one-shot deal.
PM: We are definitely done. We'll support the game with patches and updates, but like you say, this is a one-shot game. It was an emotionally exhausting process for us, dealing with this topic of war and suffering for almost four years maybe, certainly three. Plus, we don't feel like there's a sequel to be made.
PMar: On the other hand, of course, financially it would make sense. But to be really true to this game, we shouldn't do that. We wanted this game to say something important. And we've said it, and that's it. This War of Mine 2 would be, like, taking money from gamers and nothing more.
PM: But we've gained a lot of experience in how to develop mature games, and we want to explore this further. That doesn't mean we'll make another war game – our next project is nothing like that. But we want to deliver serious experiences, with proper depth. There's still a lot to be done, ahead of us.
This War of Mine: The Little Ones is released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on January 29th. More information at 11 bit's website.
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Topics: Siege of Sarajevo, This War of Mine, The Little Ones, 11 bit studios, VICE Gaming, Indie Gaming, Indie games, Deep Silver, Mike Diver, Interview, VICE vs Video Games, War Games, Pawel Miechowski, Przemek Marszał, Poland