True Stories Inspired the Best War Survival Game
‘This War of Mine’ developers learned from history… and their families
This War of Mine is one of the most engrossing and depressing video games of all time. It forces players to make hard moral choices in order to survive in a war zone.
One of the game’s great strengths is its authenticity—a sense of realism that Polish developer 11 Bit Studios took great pains to convey.
“The inspiration came from our CEO Grzesiek Miechowski,” Michael Drozdowski. This War of Mine’s creative director, told War is Boring.
Miechowski had stumbled upon a series of blog posts online from someone calling themselves Selco. The blogger claims to have survived the Bosnia war while living in a besieged city.
Selco is a prominent contributor to survivalist forums. He’s even the subject of a popular online survival training course called SHTF School.
That’s Shit Hit The Fan School.
The course includes eight hours of interviews with Selco. He’ll tell you his story and teach you to survive a war.
His blog is pretty compelling. It’s easy to see why 11 Bit Studios thought his life would make for an interesting video game. All the major elements of This War of Mine are present in Selco’s stories—the hunt for wood, the scarcity of food and water and the awful moral ambiguity.
“There were no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ men,” Selco writes. “Most were in the middle and ready for the worst.”
“These were dramatic stories, immediately evoking emotions and sparking interest at the same time,” Drozdowski said.
But one source wasn’t enough. “The developers wanted to know more,” Drozdowski said. They read books, scanned the Internet, watched first-hand accounts on YouTube and searched through old newspapers.
“We even [found] Websites that were virtual museums of besieged cities.”
The game designers began with the Balkan conflict, but soon expanded their research to include survivors’ stories from all over the world. They researched the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria, spoke to survivors from World War II and read books on the German siege of Stalingrad.
One fact became clear to Drozdowski. “Stories of war are shockingly similar regardless of who is telling them.”
Research aside, 11 Bit Studios’ staffers also have personal connections to the game’s subject matter. “Many of [the development team’s] parents and grandparents survived the Second World War,” Drozdowski said.
“Their stories are well-remembered in Poland. Every year we celebrate anniversaries of important events such as the Warsaw Uprising.”
The uprising took place in 1944. As the Soviet army smashed into Germany and pushed it out of Poland, the Polish resistance seized a chance to liberate the country’s capital. The Poles and Germans lost close to 20,000 soldiers in two months of fighting. Some 200,000 civilians died.
Looking beyond World War II, the developers sought more recent direct accounts of war to complement Selco’s.
“We wanted to get some firsthand information,” Drozdowski said. “In particular, we wanted to find out how people who had personal experiences of living in a war zone would react to our game.”
To help gather that testimony, 11 Bit Studios reached out to Emir Cerimovic and John Keyser. Cerimovic is from Sarajevo. When the Bosnia war began, he was only nine years old.
He and his family survived for a year in the war-torn country before fleeing to France. Today he produces documentaries about the war.
“We were very honored when he agreed to visit our studio,” Drozdowski said.
Cerimovic did more than just visit the studio. He’s the central figure in the game’s launch trailer. His monologue about the horrors of war give the game footage its credibility.
Keyser is as former U.S. Marine Corps medic and a veteran of Fallujah. Keyser is a gamer who frequents the Website Kotaku, where he saw footage of This War of Mine’s early development.
He shared his own story with Kotaku’s audience and 11 Bit Studios.
“I began to have nightmares involving the dead,” he told them. This was three years after Fallujah. “They were everywhere in my dreams like a well-realized horror film.”
“I grew up watching movies like Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July,” he continued. “I swore that every time I saw Ron Kovic’s disheveled face and violent tendencies that I would never ‘grow up’ to be someone like him. Here I am.”
All the research paid off. This War of Mine achieves the rare feat of being both historically authentic and emotionally universal. Its setting could be any major city. It’s easy for players to imagine themselves living out the game’s scenarios.
“One of the key design decisions was to give the players a chance to survive ‘their war,’” Drozdowski explained.
In pursuit of that universal experience, it was important that 11 Bit Studios avoid politics.
“This War of Mine is a game about civilians trying to survive the war, not an evaluation of any particular military actions or political decisions,” Drozdowski said. “It would be detrimental if defining the sides of the conflict dominated the view of the game. We did not want any of that.”
To the developers at 11 Bit Studios, survivors and their stories are a constant across all conflicts.
“The more we learned about other besieged cities, the more similarities we perceived,” Drozdowski said. “Artillery shelling, lack of the most vital resources and commodities, threat of snipers, overwhelming chaos … and ordinary people caught in the midst of all that, trying to survive.”
“Often [survivor’s stories] are full of helplessness, injustice and loss,” he continued. “Sometimes they bring back faith in human kindness and compassion, the willingness to offer aid to others, despite the dire circumstances.”
“This is what our game is about.”