Today, the exceptional Pawel Miechowski - Senior Writer at 11 Bit Studios - on This War of Mine.
Daniel Muriel: Could you tell me something about yourself, about your academic and professional background? And why did you end up working in the videogame industry?
Pawel: Because my older brother does so [Laughter]. We’ve been working on games since ages together. I’m doing it since high school. Pretty much all my work life has been involved in gaming, except I was a bartender once, just for a year. This is it. I studied journalism at the University of Wrocław like more than ten years ago. Since then, I've been working professionally in game development and I want to do it forever [Laughter]
DM: That’s a good thing. Why did you decide to do a game like This War of Mine?
P: The idea came straight from my brother, exactly, at one of the meetings. He told us we should do a game about war, but its real side, how people suffer during war. The idea was so inspiring that everybody got it instantly, and simply said, “Yeah, let’s do it, absolutely!” Of course, there had to be proper research to be done, we had to approach the topic with appropriate respect. However, we knew the gaming as a storytelling form grew up enough to accept talking about serious topics via proper game language, be it survival mechanics or non-linear dialogues, and start such stuff that games can offer and, at the same time, very specific to games as a form of storytelling. We also knew that we are making the game for the mature gamer, because we are the generation that grew up with gaming. We’re close to forty, but since we were kids, we had Commodores and Amigas and then PCs and then consoles and every machine you can play a game on. Games are a natural part of our culture for us, because we grew up with them and since we grew up with them, we treat it as natural form of storytelling, and as such, you can cover any topic. In this trend of maturation, This War of Mine was created. It’s not the only example, because more and more games are dealing with commenting war as politics or as the social condition of humans in general. Tolerance, acceptation, etcetera, etcetera. I guess this is one of the good examples of the fact that games grew up.
DM: What kind of impact do you think This War of Mine had on the people who played it or is having right now on the people who are playing it?
P: This is a very personal question, so it’s hard to generalise it somehow, because that would be asking you “what did you feel when you were watching Interstellar?” People have very subjective reception, but I believe This War of Mine could be an eye opener, because we got tons of feedback from the gaming community all around the world, telling that was a very emotional experience, playing the game, and as such it could work as an eye opening experience. One of our programmers, he went to Dev Gamm conference in Moscow, say three or four months ago, and surprisingly Russians were very excited about the game. Not in a way that they enjoyed playing it, but that someone dared to make such an antiwar game in the end, being a war game at the same time. For them it was eye opening indeed, because they told us they didn’t know war could be perceived that way. In Russian propaganda and mentality, whatever is driving them in their life, it is very common to present war, when you invade other countries, as something good because for them that is justice. They don’t think about, you know, everyday victims of war. I don’t know, this is tough, but for them this was eye opening. I’m really, really proud because of this fact, that you can do such thing via a game.
DM: Imagine that someone is playing This War of Mine today. What impact would you like to have on this person?
P: Well, I think each member of our team should speak for himself or herself. For me, that is the antiwar message. I’m a complete pacifist, I think war is the worst that might happen in the world, and constant trivialisation of war in pop culture was something that made us somehow resistant to suffering. You can blame not only games, but television, movies. War is sexy and effective only when you blow stuff up, explode and shoot around and everything that set your adrenaline pumped. We somehow forget we can show also the other side. I am not blaming the entire pop culture for showing that war is so exciting from one point, because when you are in the mood, you watch an action movie, or you read a criminal book, but we shouldn't be focusing only on this side, because the real war is, pardon my French, damn horrible suffering.
DM: There was someone on the internet who said “wow, what a cool game, it seems like this is this year’s Papers, Please in terms of empathy simulation”. Would you agree with this? Would you consider your game an empathy simulation?
P: Yes, in fact, Papers, Please was one of the inspirations because we had the opportunity to meet the creator, Lucas [Pope], in San Francisco and speak about his project at an early stage. We were thrilled that we also have these ideas for provoking somehow empathy in gaming. When we saw the great success of Papers, Please, we were sure that we’re in this process of maturation, and we can treat This War of Mine as such, as a serious mature game. Papers, Please was a great a game that inspired us to move on with our project, to make an empathy game.
DM: I also found this comment on the internet, this person said: “the game is tough; I wish some characters were sociopaths/psychopaths, because, you know, if you steal some food from an old couple causing them to starve to death or kill someone who is not a thug, they go into huge depression and just become worthless.” This is a very interesting and a strong reaction to the moral scenarios you propose in the game. “I wish some of my characters were sociopaths”, I think you have created a powerful to get emotional responses from gamers. What do you think when you hear or read something like this?
P: You know, it’s about perception. You don’t have any control over how people react to the stories you tell. I can imagine people being frightened by watching The Shining by Stanley Kubrick. I can imagine people being totally excited how Jack Nicholson smashes the door with his axe. The same thing we’re having in This War of Mine. I know people depressed because they saw suffering in a game. I saw people excited, because they survived. I saw people having a sort of catharsis feeling when they survived, and I saw people being embarrassed or even had feelings of remorse because of the evil deeds they have made in the virtual world. But yet, it is a virtual world. You can invest, and you should, I guess, invest your empathy in this world, but let’s not forget, this is just a virtual reality, and same situation applies to the other forms of storytelling as well. When you watch a film, you should remember, this is just a film, right? I’m fully aware of really different perceptions of the game, however, I am certain that most of the feedback is very positive, in a way that people invested their empathy in the game and acted as we wanted when we were creating the game. So, cooperate, work, and see how to survive, rather than kill, steal and run away.
DM: Once you were speaking about how players tend to think about each location as a solution that you can use or a riddle that you can solve, because players are programmed with this way of thinking after decades of playing. And then, you added, “If you do something the player isn’t programmed for, he or she doesn’t know what to do and starts to act more subconsciously. Emotions are raised there, in this subconscious”. Is This War of Mine a device to make emotions emerge from there?
P: That is a tricky question, because we wanted to create such a tool and we use this technique, however, this is a very complicated question, it is actually a philosophical question, right? Where are the emotions born? If you act consciously, you are definitely more able to control your emotions. If you don’t, then things are happening somewhere beyond your state of mind, at least the ones you can define at the moment. We used techniques that made players play very attentively, and while paying a lot of attention to the game consciously, other processes werw "pushed" to the subconscious, making it relatively easier to raise emotions. When you provoke subconscious acting, you keep the player engaged. You are more likely to evoke emotions. Games and stories all are about raising proper emotions.
DM: I know we are speaking about a video game, virtual worlds... but can this game tell you something about who you are or what would you able to do under some circumstances?
P: Yes. Because that’s how war looks like, and as such, the environment is the one that puts humans to a test. We can only imagine it, luckily, because we were never in a war. Our grandfathers and grandmothers were... because in Poland, every family suffered war. Luckily, we can only imagine, but our imagination made this picture to make it closer to people, so they can somehow put them to a moral test, because war is the ultimate test. This is a sentence we often met during different stories about war, because, you know, you may be starving, you may be wounded. There are extreme situations that war puts in front of people, and somehow people survive it. It’s all about decisions. Although the brutal reality of war doesn’t ask you about anything, and just kills you, of course. That happened quite often. But it’s a question of the decision makers, who raise war, not ours, right?
DM: In an article written by Simon Parkin at The New Yorker, he quoted you, that you wanted to create a different kind of dramatic experience, something closer to a tragedy. Why did you seek to create this kind of dramatic experience? Why a tragedy?
P: Partially because games might be mature for storytelling, and partially because we perceived games as something reserved only for, let’s say, those emotions related to enjoyment or excitement in storytelling. While, if you look at the history of the entire forms of art or storytelling or whatever you call it, you always had comedy in ancient theatre, and you had tragedy. One was for fun, the other was for catharsis, and then medieval theatre served the same purposes. When movies were born more than a century ago, they went the same way, of course a bit quicker than ancient theatre, but still, and now the games are going through it. First, they served as a comedy platform, and now they opened and will work as a tragedy as well, and you can even mix both in games, because you have a game like The Last of Us, which a lot is about action, but also about compassion and taking care of other people. So, yeah, this is it, games can and should be not only comedies. I mean, I love comedies and action movies, and such stuff, but I think this is not everything, and now, games can talk about everything and imagine what happens when virtual reality would be widely introduced. The Oculus technology, for example. We will be able to create complete digital worlds, like in Matrix, and it’s up to us what they would offer to you. Would it be a pleasure, an excitement, compassion, an entire set of things you can tell via such technology. I’m pretty certain we shouldn’t be looking to just one dimension, so to speak.
DM: Leigh Alexander on Gamasutra wrote that “where other war games are often entertaining, This War of Mine is often frankly depressing”. There were also comments like Reid McCarter on Kill Screen that said “11 bit studios greatest success with This War of Mine, it turns out, is in creating a videogame that is profoundly unpleasant to experience.” Have you designed a depressing game on purpose? Did you want to create a game that gives an unpleasant experience to the players?
P: Showing the war presented via a game required from us staying close to reality. If you want to show war without depression, death, sadness, hate and violence, you cannot do that because war is about it. So we had to stay close to reality and we did it on as many levels as possible. Of course, it’s not a full 3D recreation of the Second World War and the whole Holocaust and such. It’s a fictional war, but that’s enough to show the mechanisms of war, the basic ones, when you are, pardon me, fucked up and you need to survive and take care of your beloved ones.
DM: In this sense, there was as debate on the comments of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, about whether they would recommend the game or not. Not because they thought it was a bad game, on the contrary, they thought it was really interesting and it had an impact on them, but they weren’t sure if this kind of experience would be suitable for all people, because it’s not a video game just to have fun, and it can make you feel awful in a way. I know you’re an interested part is this, but would you recommend this game to everyone? Or depending on the type of person, would you reconsider its recommendation?
P: I don’t know. I would need to know such person. Some movies are not for delicate people, because they are brutal, so probably this game is not for everyone. If you invest a lot, you may feel too sad, I don’t know. That’s a really personal question. However, I know veterans who found this game a clearing experience, a cathartic one. I know stories from a girl who was a daughter of a war refugee and she wrote that the game helped them understand her mother, who was a war refugee and the horrors she went through during that war, Vietnamese, in this case. This is very personal. On the contrary, I cannot think of a good movie that shouldn’t be recommended to anyone; if their story is good and tells something important, that’s a story for everyone. This is the thing you may call beautiful, right? Suitable for anyone, and anyone can find it important, unless he or she is a sociopath [laughter].
DM: You said that in This War of Mine, there is no tutorial, because when war breaks out, there is no tutorial, you are just on your own. This is one of the things that actually struck me most deeply in my first gameplay. You are on your own.Why did you decide to put the player into this situation where you don’t know exactly what to do?
P: That’s simple, because that’s how war looks like. Putting away the game from reality and making some tutorial wouldn’t be close to the topic and probably would be very bad for the immersion and immersion is a very important part of playing games, right? You need to invest yourself in the game, whether it’s competition or building or mathematical issues to be solved.
DM: I found this comment on IGN. This person said that “the idea of not being able to take charge of your fate disturbs me, and I’d probably played it once… but if I’m going to feel like crap, then it’s something I’d rather avoid since I play videogames to feel empowered, not to feel even more depressed.” Do you seek to make people feel disempowered? To feel defenceless?
P: Well, I understand escapism in gaming, but escapism is not everything. If you want to run into power fantasy, to feel the powerful lord all the time, yeah, feel free to do so, but the world is not that way. This is the reason why we read books, this is the reason why we read newspapers, this is the reason why we talk to other people, to know what’s going on and what’s the truth. This is the reason I’m not sure each game should be about feeling powerful and if you want to say something important, and you are a game developer, and this is your tool, then yeah, do it. In the end, that might be depressing for a gamer, but I don’t think that’s wrong. When I played Papers, Please and my family died at the end because I screwed something up during the playthrough, I felt bad. But I somehow appreciated that the game put me in such situation because it plays on strings that were not within reach in games before. I really, really appreciate it as a gamer. It’s like watching Shawshank Redemption: it’s not about laughing and adrenaline, but you watch Shawshank Redemption over and over because it’s such a great story and gives you some feelings.
DM: Yeah, I mean that’s one of the most important things about video games, they make you feel things and put you into situations that otherwise you’d never experience and that is important in terms of empathy and any other things that you can develop or feel. Also, I find it interesting that you mentioned that you photographed yourselves to be put into the game. What is behind this idea or this decision you made?
P: That’s simple. We didn’t want to have anonymous models or shiny beautiful actors. We wanted regular people, looking like people you may meet on the street. Because we are not that beautiful: some guys have big bellies, some are skinny and some have not so beautiful faces, we wanted to scan ourselves and make models. We didn’t have enough models, so we asked our girlfriends, and our friends, and even our guard from the office, a very nice man, who plays Anton in the game. We invited him and he was really, really happy to do that with us. The models are based on real people.
DM: You did a lot of research and the stories and biographies in the game are based on what you learned during the research phase. Could you tell me something more about this research? What kind of research did you carry out and why was it important for the development of the game?
P: Well, that’s not too difficult if you think about it, because unfortunately war is a very thrilling topic, so people talk about it, make videos about it and there is a lot information about war, if you want to search. Each conflict is well researched when it comes to politics and such bullshit. They are not so well researched when it comes to people’s stories. We were looking for memoirs, interviews with people who simply survived a war. We were looking for things that got stuck in their mind as examples of how they perceived war and those are often very, very emotional stories. We are from Poland, so a lot of stories can be told by our grandmothers and grandfathers. I know a lot of stories from my grandma, she passed away a few years ago, but I still remember. It’s a living memory, happily this is only memory, so we’re the third generation of people in Poland born in a safe country and I hope it stays that way. But even in Warsaw you can find a lot of stories about war, because the city was devastated. There are even neighbourhoods in Warsaw that you can still see war, like bullet holes and stuff like that. So it’s present in the end, and it’s not that difficult. For example, the siege of Sarajevo is very, very well documented. If you go to FAMA Collection, it’s like a virtual museum, with video interviews with different people from Sarajevo and there are literally thousands of video interviews, thousands. So you may just, you know, go to that page and watch the videos and people have interesting things to say. A fireman was talking about fires during the city, but people who were working as accountants, they just had to stay home and watch through their windows what happened and they were the best witnesses of what happened, better than historical books.
DM: Just one more question. In an interview at GameSpot, you said, “whatever you find in the game is a translation into game mechanics of the facts of how civilians experience war”. How can you translate those real civilians’ war experiences into game mechanics?
P: Well, that’s of course sometimes a simplification or compromise that you need to do when designing a game. For example, obviously the day is just a few minutes in the game. It’s not twenty four hours. It's not a one to one picture, because otherwise it wouldn't be a game. Now, human mind is a very complicated thing and somehow we tried to picture different personalities and minds that react in different ways. Our AI designer, a very smart guy, he created few thousands of different states of each character in the game that can be triggered via different behavior, be it stealing, helping, starving, getting ill, etcetera, or even being drunk, and each personality may react in a different way (to give an example - selfish guy being less touched by theft). That’s just a simulation, yet he simulated a few thousands of states. But it’s mathematics, right? It’s just counting. We didn’t want to show the numbers, because people are not made of numbers, so we put the human in front of the story and behind it, there are all the rules. That’s how games work. You need to think about certain rules that are similar to what you believe as the simulation could be, and yet it needs to be engaging; so you need to make some simplifications and compromises to make it engaging.