11 Bit Studios’ This War of Mine examines the experience of war as seen by a group of civilians trying to survive in a besieged city.
In his talk at the Game Developers Conference 11 Bit’s senior writer Pawl Miechowski explained how the game uses various techniques to depict war from a new perspective.
The events of This War of Mine take place during in a fictional, but all too familiar, political conflict. The aim was to create a game that explored the effects of war and elicited a particular emotional response from the player, one not often felt in popular entertainment.
“Did you ever feel remorse when watching a movie?” asks Miechowski. “As a spectator in movies you can feel sadness, happiness, laughter and such. Remorse can only be raised from inside and that’s where games are superior to movies.”
During his talk Miechowski refers to This War of Mine as a game, but internally it was referred to as an ‘experience’. This was part of a philosophy designed to prevent development from falling back onto the tropes and mechanics of particular genres.
“The very first assumption we made was that we should forget about the type of game. Do not make a survival game, do not make a strategy game. Let’s make a game about civilians in the war and everything, literally everything, was created around this idea,“ Miechowski says.
This meant taking a considered approach to the subject matter. Rather than applying the usual mode of celebrating the art of combat This War of Mine is about the fallout of war and its victims. It’s not typical game material.
“If you can think about any war game it features soldiers fighting shooting real bullets, throwing millions of grenades. This War of Mine shows the horror and brutalness (sic) of war, and the suffering. It’s not entertaining, it’s depressing. Yet, I believe it can be engaging,” says Miechowski.
The events in the game do not flinch from depicting the horrors of conflict and although it takes place in a non-specific location its themes appear to be universal.
“When I presented the game to people from Palestine and from Israel, from both sides, it was a game about them,” says Miechowski.
Making a game that presents war in this manner was not without considerable challenges. There was a danger that the final product risked becoming a collection of familiar gameplay devices that worked against the design intentions.
“All of the survival mechanics in the game were part of the natural process of designing, because when war breaks out you need to survive. So survival is part of war but we were not completely thinking of survival as a genre,” says Miechowski.
Player testing was the key to how This War of Mine was designed. The development team went to great lengths to observe how players interacted with game, analysing their behaviours and choices.
“The first thing we noticed when we had an early prototype, we had a girl playing and at one location she found some necessary stuff for her, some food, some bandages, and she stole it,” recalls Miechowski.
“Halfway back to the shelter she decided to go back to the people whom she robbed and she put half of the stuff back. So she judged herself morally.”
Examples like this informed the development of a system that monitors how players behave, including how much they steal. However, Miechowski is quick to point out that the game never judges the player, rather it’s a system that helps the player to judge themselves.
“If people can do something evil, characters in the game may become depressed or broken. If they are selfish they may be happy because that’s what they need. Players should be judging himself or herself and then we can design systems that are an answer to this,” he explains.
Throughout development there was a constant struggle against typical player behaviours. In another example Miechowski explains how creating richer, better defined characters was one way of improving how testers played the game.
“In one of the playable prototypes we had characters, civilians, with simplified personalities, let’s say a fireman who used to be a good guy and is surrounded by war and trying to survive. And people started to treat those civilians as cannon-fodder. They didn’t attach to them so they started to play as bandits and treat people as a resource,” says Miechowski.
“We wanted people to play as people, not as soldiers or bandits. So we added extra depth to the personalities, with deeper biographies and added extra skills and extra character types; selfish guys, guys who kill for others, tough guys, a soldier.”
Player interaction was also improved by some subtle tweaks to common game systems, such as the inventory.
“We were creating a game, so we put an inventory into the game,” says Miechowski.
“The civilians had all their things together in their inventory; bullets and weapons etc. And then we added extra slots for scavenging missions.”
However, rather than using these extra slots for survival items, such as food, the testers once again reverted to type.
“People started to play soldiers. They didn’t play as people. They saw this extra slot for weapons so they focused on organising weapons, organising bullets and they started to fight others in the game,” says Miechowski.
“So what we did. We removed the extra slots for weapons, we limited backpacks a lot so people had to focus on the real priorities like bandages, food, medication, the most important things that people need when war breaks out.”
Something as simple as a name change also had a remarkable effect. As This War of Mine is a game about normal people small tweaks to the in-game terminology made a big difference.
“Another thing we did was removing ‘Inventory’ and simply calling it ‘Our things’. When you are in a war you have things, you need those things, those things are ours because we are a group. Our testers started to prioritise their actions in the way we wanted. (They) focused on medication, food and other necessities.”
The result was that the testers began to behave more like civilians, not soldiers. Their behaviour became less aggressive and more co-operative.
Choice and uncertainty
Care was also given to the decision making elements of the game. Miechowski explains that it was important that there were no obvious right choices on offer.
“A decision needs to made in an uncertain environment, because if you know what will bring you more benefits it’s not a real decision,” he says..
Choices within the game were overlaid with a morality system. A good deed and bad deed could have the same outcome, but the player would then exercise self judgement on how that outcome was achieved.
“First there is the dilemma; I need to do something, I need food,” explains Miechowski. “But what do I do? Do I trade bandages? Or do I rob the food and kill people because I need it? Uncertainty is necessary.“
Some of these moments lead the player to make tough choices with no happy outcome. This brings us full circle and back to the subject of emotional response and the feeling of remorse.
“This is something movies for example are incapable of doing,” says Miechowski. “Games can because they are interactive. In movies you are a spectator, in This War of Mine and many other games you can be the narrator. And you can be the perfect narrator. Only the perfect narrator can feel remorse, which is a very strong emotion because you feel bad about something you have done. Or feel good if you were a good guy.”
The common theme evident during the development of This War of Mine was the effort required to break players away from habitual gameplay tendencies.
“We are programmed,” says Miechowski. “Players assumed that everyone is an enemy, that each location has a solution, or a riddle that you can solve, or there is a puzzle with a perfect solution. Players are programmed this way, maybe after decades of playing or because we are programmed as humans. If you do something the player is not programmed for, they don’t know what to do and start to act more sub-consciously.“
This War of Mine challenged these mindsets from the very beginning with a powerful trailer that subverted genre conventions.
“People are programmed to see Call of Duty.” says Miechowski.
“War in games is only about shooting and fighting and bringing democracy, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then we broke the perspective, contrasted it with hidden civilians and people were shocked as they didn’t expect it.”
Miechowski concludes with an example of how symbology is used within the game, bridging the gap between what the player sees and the wider world the game implies.
“There is a trend in games that brings us to showing everything explicitly because we have enormously powerful GPUs. And because of that we tend to forget that the most powerful tool to picture something is imagination.”
Using an image from the game as an example Miechowski explains how symbols were used to communicate story and emotion succinctly and powerfully.
“If you don’t care about your civilians in a proper way they become broken and commit suicide. But we don’t need to show someone hanging, we just made a photograph. That was brutal enough. What happened before this action is left to the player’s imagination.”
The application of these techniques make This War of Mine a sometimes tough game to enjoy. They release the game from the confines of the screen where the scariest things are not what we see, but what we imagine and do.
“Players imaginations are unlimited. Your task is to ignite it with the proper idea,” concludes Miechowski.