INTERVIEW: PAWEL MIECHOWSKI OF THIS WAR OF MINE & 11 BIT STUDIOS
This War of Mine is not a fun game, but that’s hardly a criticism. The haunting war simulator puts you in charge of a small group of civilian survivors caught up in war. There are no epic battles to be fought here, just those for basic nutrition, medical supplies and heating. It’s a dark, realistic account of the side of war that gaming frequently ignores: that of those caught in the crossfire. In our review, Myles Starr worried about whether a game was the best medium for such a weighty topic, but Pawel Miechowski, Senior Writer at 11bit Studios, is having none of it. In this interview he makes a compelling argument that gaming has finally come of age. Then he goes and tells me about a browser-based fart game.
The Existential Gamer: Where did the idea for This War of Mine come from?
Pawel Miechowski: It was actually one guy. My older brother Grzegorz (CEO at 11 bit; we’ve been working on games together for ages) came up with this idea. He’s interested in history and at that time he was reading articles on what regular people do in war in order to survive. We were brainstorming and he told us some shocking stories about civilians in war and that it could be a thrilling topic for a game. And we all instantly agreed – let’s do that! A serious idea for a mature game. That’s how it began.
TEG: The game is set in a non-specific European war. How did you come to this design decision, and did you model the game after any specific conflicts?
PM: We did not want to point at any specific conflict to stay away from political connotations. The message was intended to be universal. And it worked. For Israeli people – it was about them, for Palestinians – about them, and so on. Not surprisingly, if you’re a person caught in a war, it doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Polish, Italian or Swedish – you just want to survive and protect the ones you love. The origins of conflict are irrelevant, what matters is your suffering. However, we did the research – we were looking for memoirs and stories from people who survived different wars, and within these memoirs and interviews we searched for particular events that stuck in the person’s mind, using these to understand how civilians perceived war. So for example, the siege of Sarajevo has been very well documented and one can find plenty of stories. We know a lot of family stories ourselves, because we’re from Warsaw – the city that was heavily destroyed and everybody has a grandma or grandpa who survived war and knew it personally. My grandmother survived German Nazi invasion and then Russian Soviet invasion. She ate pigweed when she and her whole family were starving. Anyway, we were looking for stories from Kosovo, Aleppo in Syria, Libya, the siege of Monrovia in Liberia in the early 2000s. But I think Sarajevo and Warsaw were the most important inspirations.
TEG: What was your process in determining incentives and penalties related to specific “moral” and “immoral” actions in the game? Did you have any internal debates on the team about morality?
PM: One of the design pillars was to create an environment in which the game is not giving you moral answers, instead inviting you as the player to do what feels right, and then be presented with the result of your deed. That way you judge for yourself whether you’ve done the right or wrong thing. Any choice can be punishing because that’s how it looks during war. You are going to sacrifice yourself or others. So there are no incentives and penalties “by design” but rather a moral compass that shows you consequences of the deeds without a moral thesis given to you directly.
TEG: The game tackles depression and mental illness, still a rarity in games. Do you think people tend to undervalue mental health in these sorts of desperate situations (in comparison to basic physical needs)?
PM: It’s a really tough question. I believe people know war is a nightmare but those of us who haven’t (luckily) experienced war, we can only attempt to imagine what the experience is like, and we’d be very naive to assume that we’d be tough survivors or even war heroes. For a human being, war is the hardest of tests, and it’s devastating for one’s mental health. Yet, people somehow survive wars and they’re capable of beautiful things, one example being how strangers risked their lives to help each other in Sarajevo.
TEG: I imagine creating This War of Mine was a difficult endeavour. What were the psychological effects of the development cycles, and how did you take “time off” from the work?
PM: Working on a title that speaks about depression, starvation and death is, in general, a somewhat emotionally exhausting experience. On the other hand, we’ve received thousands of supportive e-mails and kind words about TWoM from different people all around the world. That’s very inspiring and it motivates us to continue working on further projects. Generally, we got incredibly positive feedback and acknowledgement for creating an eye-opening experience. That’s very rewarding!
TEG: This War of Mine depicts war from a specifically civilian perspective. Do you enjoy playing games that glorify war and wartime heroics?
PM: Yes, I do – I liked the old Medal of Honor series where you played as a super-soldier against hordes of Nazis. However, I’m against the statement that games should remain power fantasies. When I’m in a certain mood I watch action shoot-outs, like in Rambo or Schwarzenegger films, but from time to time, something inside me pushes me to watch war dramas like The Pianist or Schindler’s List, and I cry like a baby when the film ends. That’s catharsis for me. And I firmly believe games can do the same – games can be adrenaline-pumped action and they can deliver that for you when you feel like playing such action, but games can also tackle serious topics or comment on reality and the human condition via properly structured gameplay.
TEG: Who is your favorite writer when it comes to depicting war, and why?
PM: Not sure if it’s my favorite one, but this book struck me hard lately: Ota Pavel’s Smierc Pieknych Saren. I couldn’t find an English translation, but literally it means ‘Death of Beautiful Deers’. He was a Czech writer describing his experiences during World War II when he lived with his parents in a small village in the Czech Republic under German Nazi rule. They tried to live normally but in that cruel world it was not possible. I hope it’s available in English. Also Uprising 44 by Norman Davies is painfully, brutally true when depicting war, but it’s a historical book so as you might guess there are plenty of real stories and photos from the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. It shows the horror as it was.
TEG: Have you, or any of the development team, experienced war or its effects first hand? If so, how did those experiences shape the game?
PM: Luckily, none of us experienced war and I hope we never will. But we know people who did like Emir, our friend from Bosnia, now living in France, and all our grandmothers and grandfathers who survived German invasion and Soviet invasion later. I know stories from my grandma, and for her the most memorable moments were the non-rational ones, the most emotional ones – that’s how people remember war and that’s what we tried to depict in TWoM.
TEG: How did you go about doing research for the game?
PM: Well, we began with war stories from family members. We read interviews with people on Amnesty International and watched hundreds of interviews on famacollection.org where you can access the incredibly well-documented story of the siege of Sarajevo. Keep in mind we were not looking for the history of conflicts (as political background is completely irrelevant in this case) but for personal accounts of events that marked people – examples of challenges, feelings, sacrifices – which we used as the basis to create specific events in the game.
TEG: What is the funniest thing that happened during the development of This War of Mine?
PM: Games often behave weirdly during development. One day, in a prototype version of This War of Mine, rats got upscaled until they were as large as humans, and rainbow colored. It looked like an LSD-fueled trip rather than a depiction of war-torn city.
TEG: This War of Mine is often dark, bleak and depressing. Did you have any debates among the designers and developers about whether the game need to be ‘fun’?
PM: We knew from the very beginning it was not going to be fun. Typical ‘fun’ was out of the question. We knew we had to approach the topic with a proper respect and make it compelling, engaging experience rather than fun and enjoyable one.
TEG: Do you believe violence is a necessary component of the human psyche, and do you think the world will evolve out of warfare?
PM: Hmmmm… this is a very philosophical question. For those who believe in dual nature of things, evil is as necessary as good and so violence may be necessary component of the human psyche (or humankind in general) and overcoming one’s own nature and cutting off violence from one’s psyche is the key of being. I think the human race always needs a challenge, always needs a problem to be solved, but I’m certain war doesn’t need to be that challenge. We have cancer to heal and stars to reach.
TEG: What is the stupidest game you’ve ever enjoyed?
PM: Once there was a Flash game where you had a machine that simulated farts. It was called Fart-O-Mat 2000 or something. [Ed.: Fart-O-Mat perhaps?] For 10 minutes it was hilarious, but then I’d farted all the magic away.
TEG: What is the most important lesson you learned from creating This War of Mine?
PM: The lesson we took away from it is that games have grown up. From now on, we as the entire community (gamers, creators, YouTube video creators, journalists) are ready to accept games as a mature form of storytelling, capable of tackling all kind of topics like books or movies. The only limitation is the gameplay – if it’s good, you can pretty much talk about anything in games.
TEG: When do you think the world will end, and for what reason?
PM: We’re all part of the same consciousness. If it stops being conscious one day, everything will stop. On the other hand, theoretically, time is just a dimension – maybe the world will never end, because it never even started, and has always been. Seems like a good start for a beer conversation!
TEG: Any new projects on the horizon?
PM: Yes, we’re already developing a game, temporarily called Industrial. I wouldn’t pay attention to the title – we’ll change it. The important thing is that it’s going to be a much bigger project that TWoM. On the one hand, it’s not that serious a game (it’s got fantasy elements) but it does utilize what we’ve learnt from TWoM‘s development to offer emotional depth for mature gamers expecting complex creations. A lot of work is yet to be done, but I’m obsessed with this vision. We’ll deliver something amazing – that’s a promise!