"The pattern is always the same," video game designer Pawel Miechowski told me recently. "People struggle for food, soap and medicine. They trade liquor or any alcohol for bullets or any weapons. That's what happened in Sarajevo." That's what happens in cities wracked by war. That's what will happen in Pawel Miechowski's most unusual war video game.
A few weeks ago, Miechowski's small indie game company from Warsaw, Poland, 11 Bit Studios, grabbed my attention. They had announced they were working on a different kind of video game about war. They call it This War Of Mine and are using the tagline: "In war, not everyone is a soldier."
Their idea is to make a war game in which players don't control soldiers or generals or anyone charged with fighting for their country. We control the people usually left out of war games: civilians. The war happens around our characters. The war happens to them.
"It's going to be a really difficult game," Miechowski told me when I met him in San Francisco for a demonstration of the game a few weeks ago, "because surviving war is a difficult experience."
This War Of Mine has been in development for about a year with an intended late 2014 release on PC, Mac and Linux. The team at 11 Bit has been working on it ever since Miechowski's brother, the company's CEO, came upon an article called "One Year in Hell" by a guy who supposedly survived a siege in Bosnia, possibly in Sarajevo.
"I'm not even sure if the article is real or not," Miechowski said. "I cannot find the author. It doesn't even matter. It was so devastating to read about those horrible conditions and we were like, 'We are making a game about it.' We felt we are mature enough already to make this decision."
Players don't control soldiers or generals or anyone charged with fighting for their country. We control the people usually left out of war games: civilians.
Miechowski doesn't want to show the public what his game looks like in action yet, but he did show it to me in San Francisco.
Picture war-torn buildings rendered mostly in black and white and cut away, so you can see a cross-section of the people living within. Picture something bleak and cold, with multiple characters milling about, sleeping, eating, guarding. Miechowski would click commands at different characters prompting them to craft something, to grab their gear or prepare to venture out at night.
"The reason you can't leave your shelter during the day is because snipers can hunt you like it's been in Kosovo," he said.
Players won't be able to win the war. They won't even fight in it. They'll simply be challenged to stay alive while managing the necessities of life as tanks rumble outside and bullets ricochet off the front door. The game is essentially a simulator of the human desire to live.
In a sea of squalor, players will keep their characters afloat with the scrap around them. A character can find wood, for example and use it to make a bed. On a cold night, though, they might need to burn the bed to keep warm.
"There are hundreds of possibilities you can do to make your life a little bit better in this horrible situation of war," Miechowski said. " You can find a collector and get rainwater. You can filter rainwater to make it clear water. If you trade something for yeast and sugar, you will be able to create alcohol, but you will need wood and glass and metal to create a moonshine still. And if you are able create moonshine, you will be able to distill it to make better alcohol." The alcohol might be good for trading.
Several times, as he controlled the game in front of me, Miechowski stopped playing to emphasise one point to me: he and his colleagues don't think they are fabricating anything. They've read about war. They're talking to survivors of war. "We are not making up mechanics or trying to give a false impressions," he said, "I really want to underline it. We are trying to translate the knowledge we have about war. People actually were creating liquor and trading it. They use it to disinfect wounds."
"It's going to be a really difficult game," Miechowski told me, "because surviving war is a difficult experience."
He showed me how he could automate some characters, how he could set them to different tasks. He gestured to an indicator that showed how cold it was outside and he dispatched one of his survivors into the night. "I could take food or water or a weapon," he said. "If I meet someone, I could trade water for bandage. But if you meet an aggressive person you cannot do much: just fight or run. If you meet a neutral person, you can give food or water, gain a friend. Maybe they will join you in the shelter."
Characters might encounter the military, but they'll mostly see and hear them from afar. They'll come into more direct conflict with other survivors, with bandits. They won't be forming militias or joining an insurgency, though they'll be able to set traps to fortify their shelter.
The going sounds rough. People can get sick in the game. They can get wounded. They can get tired, and, if they do, they'll run slowly. Time may drag on, emulating real lengthy wars like the siege of Sarajevo that lasted for four years.
I wondered if Miechowski worried about whether the game is fun.
"No," he said. "Absolutely not. It doesn't really matter. It's an experience."
The game should engage players, he noted. The themes and the gameplay systems should make it rewarding for people to play, but... he picked on his own word choice. "Play," he said, "is not a good word," not for what you do in this game. He knows that whether we'd call it fun or not, that the game has to be worth playing. "If the message is important and the gameplay is shallow, it would be absolutely devastating," he said.
Early in our meeting, when Miechowski turned on the game, the words "Central Europe" had flashed across the screen. "Don't get the wrong impression," he told me, pointing to those words. "I will remove them." He doesn't want people thinking of the game in a certain city.
In our time talking about the game, we would talk about the siege of Sarajevo in the 90s. We would talk about Warsaw Uprising in World War II. We would talk about Aleppo now. As hard as it might be to imagine, Miechowski said, we should even imagine Boston or New York or any other city, safe as they may seem.
"I want you to feel it could happen to your country, your city, anywhere," he said.
When I published an article on this site about the announcement of This War of Mine, one of our readers wrote a comment recounting experiences he said he had fighting for the American military in Iraq. Miechowski reached out to that reader and is talking to him about that account to better inform This War of Mine.
Miechowski is also reaching out to a neighbour in Poland who, as a civilian, survived Sarajevo and who has agreed to vet the experiences in the game. "I am taking a really serious approach to the game because it's important."
I wondered if Miechowski worried about whether the game is fun. "No," he said. "Absolutely not. It doesn't really matter. It's an experience."
As realistic as Miechowski says his team wants This War of Mine to be, they have found a line they don't want to cross. In the version of the game I saw, there were only adult male characters. There will also be women, and there will be children. "There will be kids because there are in war," the developer said.
"There is one topic that is very tough," he added, and "we need to have a creative discussion, because, in war, often there are rapes. And this is something I cannot imagine in this game, because it is simply too brutal. This is something we probably should make a compromise." Initially Miechowski told me that off the record, but I pressed him to reconsider. I imagined that gamers would prefer to know that the development team was thinking hard about something like this. He agreed to let me publish his comments about it.
The next day, he emailed me. He told me he'd had a conversation with his team about atrocities like rape and whether to include it in the game. They had determined that they would indeed exclude it from the game. "This War Of Mine paints the picture of war but it uses language of games to do so," he wrote to me. "The game does not need to include every single atrocity of war invented by men to deliver its message."
This War of Mine isn't what you'd expect from 11 Bit Studios if you played their other games. Their claim to fame is a series of soldiers-vs.-aliens games called Anomaly Warzone Earth and Anomaly Korea. They're fun but hokey. The games are about steering military convoys through cities, fighting off alien attackers along the way. They have as much to do about the realities of war as Super Mario Bros. has to do with the realities of plumbing.
They're making another Anomaly, but Miechowski felt they had to make this game, too.
Not only did the developers think that they were ready to create This War of Mine, they believed gamers were ready, too. Miechowski was further emboldened by the success of the immigration game Papers, Please, a bleak game in its own right that still managed to engage players. Miechowski said he considered it "a masterpiece." That game was focused on the brutality of bureaucracy and the street level life and death ethical dilemmas of a government functionary. This War of Mine would be about victims and survivors, non-combatants grinding against the gears of war.
"I am really against people on the idea level saying games are not allowed to speak about such important things in this way," Miechowski said. "I'm quite opposite. Yes, they are because they are perfect for it. Because they are interactive."