Some games can get very emotional. Others put you in places you would never want to be in. That’s the case of This War of Mine. It’s a war game in which you don’t play as the typical, almost superhero-like soldier, but in the shoes of the survivors who get their life stolen by war.
As always, I feel privileged being able to interview indie developers, and this time we have 11bit, a studio I admire for bringing such a powerfully emotional game. Please read this interview, I’m sure it will be to your liking.
First of all, who is 11bit Studios?
In theory 11 bit studios is a bunch of guys that are working together on game development, but practically, I believe, it’s something deeper than that. Some are visionary people who love to create fictional worlds and bring fantasy to live, enclosed in a virtual reality. Surely art director Przemek is such a visionary man. Some are people deeply interested in creating complex rules that build up to a sort of artificial intelligence. Some are programmers crazy about complicated rendering techniques that allow to display miracles on a screen. Some are writers that love to tell stories. And I believe I can say we’re all a bunch of good friends. A bit crazy guys as this mindset is dominating one. We’re also businessmen who make a living out of selling games worldwide. The philosophy behind our work is based on mixing genres, flipping them upside down, looking for new gameplay ideas all the time. This is the founding stone of our work.
What were you trying to express with the art style and how did it evolve from the start of development?
The art style is corresponding with the tonality and setting of TWoM. Created by Przemek Marszal (art director at 11 bit), from the beginning it had dark gray palette, and was supposed to stay in the depressing set of colors. To stay as close to reality as possible, Przemek came up with an idea to use ourselves to create the 3D models of all the characters. And so with some cameras and some kinects in our office we scanned ourselves into 3D models. We didn’t want to have shiny anonymous models or beautiful actors - we needed regular people, some a bit fat, some a bit skinny, not so perfect-looking ordinary people. All the characters in the game are us, our friends or family members. And then, to achieve a feeling of something personal (for the viewer), Przemek made this characteristic shader that made an entire scene looked like hand-drown charcoal picture. It evolved technically a lot - the guys tried different re-fresh rates, different softening techniques that in the end became this TWoM shader.
I know by your website that there was a War Child Charity DLC aimed to help children that have experienced the horrors of war. In fact 350 children’s live have been changed thanks to this initiative. Could you tell us about some of these children and the impact this has caused in their lives?
Thanks to the artists we’ve worked with, we’ve managed to create a sort of in-game gallery with street art pieces commenting war and generally human condition these days. The gallery was available as a DLC from which all our proceeds were given to War Child. And in this case War Child is providing help to Syrian refugee kids in Iraq and neighbouring Jordania. This is a complex help - refugee shelters, education, medicine, psychological support - anything these kids need. By today we’ve managed to organize funds for more than 400 children and I hope it changed their situation. I can only guess that it’s better now than to stay in a warzone.
There is an old couple you can visit at night during scavenger hunts...was your plan to torture me everyday for a week with this ? I’m one of those players who took everything from them, and I feel so bad about it, even worse when my four characters gave their opinion on my actions.
Interestingly, this was one of the key moments during huge testing we’ve made sometime during the development: a tester girl stole all the stuff from old couple but then she got back and left half of the stolen things. That was a brilliant moment to figure out how players react and how they feel bad about what they have done. We knew this would be some kind of a “trap” - at the beginning of the game you desperately need necessities so if you’re desperate enough you can steal these things from the old couple. But then - how would you feel about that? Most people fall into this “trap” because for most of us stealing is bad, and stealing from old people is horribly bad but you think you need to do that otherwise your people may die. So yes, this was our plan because this brutally shows that even in the first days of war you may face horrible choices and whatever you choose may have tragic consequences. I know “trap” is not the best word, but this was planned and designed by us. However, keep in mind, you may face literally thousands such situations in TWoM.
Do you feel the mission to conscientize the players about the horrors of war was achieved? Have you received feedback from players who were touched by the game? In my case, it really placed me in situations that I probably would have acted in the same manner, and I got to say, I don’t like to think of what I would be capable of in a situation like this.
I hope so. We’ve got tons of e-mails and messages on social channels from people saying that TWoM was an emotional challenge for them and we’ve got enormous support from the community (via great reviews, and generally great buzz in the internet) saying this was an eye-opening experience. I think we broke the taboo that games couldn’t approach serious topics like other storytelling forms did (name films, books, theater). I certainly believe they can comment on anything. But let’s not forget this is a virtual experience. However, again, I believe a virtual story may simulate what man goes through in real situations and as such - could be eye-opening. War is horror and I wish naively someday we’ll get rid of it.
What was the development process like? Did you interview many people that had gone through war?
That was different to any games I worked on in my entire life (that’s almost 20 years in gamedev!). Quite emotionally challenging and a bit exhausting, because we were thinking about killing innocent people, researching stories about it. We had to have respectful approach to the topic, so we engaged deeply in that. We met survivors, we read books and articles, we watched vidoes with interviews. But the most important thing - at least for me - is that war has had huge impact on my country and my city. I’m from Warsaw - the city that has been burnt to the ground by Germans and its population has been almost completely killed. Everyone in Poland has family stories about war, concentration camps and other horrible things that German Nazis and Soviets did here. So we looked back into memoirs for different stories that got stuck in our minds. These stories were examples of war upon which we built the fictional war in the game, fictional characters, events etc.
The survivors, are there stories true? If not, are they based on real people?
The entire universe of TWoM is inspired by real conflicts and real people, but everything is fictional - the war, the city, people. We wanted to make the message universal, so people from all around the world can engage easier, without any unnecessary connotations - political or historical. And I hope we succeeded because for Israeli people it was about them, and for Palestinian people it was about them. It shows the suffering of civilians is the same in every conflict and it doesn’t matter what is the conflict. That’s horribly sad and horribly true at the same time.
I have read a lot about people requesting more DLC or new modes, like sandbox or endless. Any plans on that?
The last expansion brought the scenario editor and new playable characters and now we’re working on the next update. It may take some time though, because now we’re also supporting the tablet edition so we’re quite busy with constant support of the game - but the new content will be there!
What’s in store for the future for 11bit Studios? Are you working in anything in particular right now?
Yes. Part of the team works on This War of Mine, its new content and tech support for different editions, but the other part works on something completely different - Industrial. I wouldn’t pay attention to the title, because it’s a working title and we’ll change that, but I’m more and more involved in this project and I am more and more impressed. It’s going to be a big game and again we’re going to surprise gaming world. But there is a whole lot of work we need to make first!