The teaser video for This war of mine begins with soldiers running through an urban landscape. It is a deliberate deception. This is a game about war, but not about soldiers. It’s not about waging a war; it’s about surviving one – as a civilian.
Using soldiers as protagonists inherently limits the ways video games can discuss the horrors of war. Of course, games like Spec Ops: The Line contain morally questionable decisions, but those decisions are forced upon players through the story, sparing the player real guilt and reducing the moral questions to sheer horror. It’s harder to imagine a game where soldier players can consciously choose to commit war atrocities. Games like the canceled Six days in Fallujah, which attempted to base in-game events on real battles have already been labeled disrespectful by critics.
This war of mine bypasses these obstacles by dropping the soldier protagonists and instead puts the player in control of a group of civilians trying to survive an urban conflict in a fictional war based on real-life accounts. To capture what war is like from a civilian perspective, developer 11 Bit Studios, based in Warsaw, Poland, researches everything from YouTube videos and interviews on Amnesty International to books about the Kosovo war in the late 1990s.
“All you can see in the game is a translation of real facts into game mechanics,” says Pawel Miechowski, senior writer at This war of mine, told Ars Technica during a recent preview demo. “We are still researching real conflicts in Sarajevo, Kosovo, Libya, Syria, all modern conflicts.”
“My grandmother, she passed away a few years ago, long before I started thinking about this project, but I remember her talking about really similar experiences [to those we’re trying to capture in the game] during the Nazi occupation,” he continued. “That you should stay with your family, that you should support each other.”
The game mainly takes place from a black and white, 2D, sideways perspective. Players click around to navigate a three-story apartment building turned shelter, pockmarked with bullet holes and other battle scars. As an in-game clock in the corner of the screen ticked toward nightfall, Miechowski called up a map of the surrounding area with other buildings for us to look for resources on.
“One of the most marketable items during the siege of Sarajevo, and in other conflicts too… was alcohol,” Miechowski said, then showed me the parts you could collect or trade to build a still to to produce moonshine. “So in the game you can also make alcohol. In Sarajevo, under cover of night, people left the air raid shelter to trade alcohol for weapons from the army that surrounded the city.” Players can nominate survivors to make these kinds of trade runs, or they can gather resources and look for other survivors. They can also guard the hideout from bandits.
The unobtrusive art design is meant to suggest the game could be set in any modern city, Miechowski said. Players can upload photos of friends and family to represent the survivors, and Miechowski said he wants players to lose themselves in the illusion that everyone behind the lines of war.
How real is too real?
Trying to accurately capture civilian life in wartime raises questions about what storylines 11 Bit Studios can afford to cross. “What we now think is [adding] the ability to put children in the game, because if war breaks out, there will be children, right? Miechowski said. Still, a game where children regularly starve or die from disease will become a difficult reality to force upon players. “There will certainly be some compromises, but we try to stay as true to reality as possible,” Miechowski said.
That statement led me to ask about the potential threat of rape at play, a serious wartime reality if there ever was one. It is well documented that Serb forces used rape as a tactic to inspire ethnic Albanians to flee Kosovo, and sexual assault has been one of the worst weapons used against civilians during the war to millennia.
“There are some things we should cover, but again, the experience is terrible in itself, on an emotional level, so I’m not sure we should add something like that.” [topics] like rape,” Miechowski said.
I don’t really want to see rape of survivors This war of mine. But the question of whether it’s included is about whether the game can really depict war in a candid and serious way without sacrificing broad appeal. As it stands, the demo feels like a resource management survival game that could take place in any post-apocalyptic setting, removed from real stories specific to the atrocities of war.
This war of mine currently appears to be a serious game designed for the classroom, to spark discussion and inspire students to seek out accounts that really pull the gloves off and present the horrors of war in earnest. The game may be based on real-life accounts, but abstracting everything to game rules can take away the power of those stories.
The team at 11 Bit Studios faces a difficult balancing act of creating a game that truly captures the horrors of war for civilians without being too raw for a mass audience. Hopefully, the developer won’t be crippled by the same old restrictions on what parts of a war a video game can or can’t discuss and can really force players into a new perspective on armed conflict.
Dennis Scimeca is a Boston-based freelance writer and has been published by Salon, Polygon, and NPR. You can follow him on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.