Seeking Out Hope and Maintaining Mental Health in This War of Mine

As I mentioned in my interview with Dan Teasdale of No Goblin, I’ve been tending toward games that exude joy, even in the face of intensely difficult circumstances. This means that This War of Mine occupies an odd place in my videogame diet—intensely engaging, ethically serious, and emotionally nutritious, but frequently short on exuberance or hope.

I wasn’t sure how much of that was purposeful bleakness, and how much of it was simply a result of me playing the game badly or reading it incompletely. Luckily, Pawel Miechowski of 11 Bit Studios was willing to talk with me about the team’s intent, and what he hopes that players will take away from their rewarding-yet-taxing creation.

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Drew M-M: Some of the most intriguing mechanics in the game involve the emotional stability of the playable characters—from general depression, to smokers getting edgy when they can’t find cigarettes. Would it be fair to say that this focus on mental and emotional health is meant to offer a contrast to the hyper-stoic heroes that are customary in military shooters?

Pawel Miechowski: It does look that way on the surface. However, we haven’t been designing This War of Mine with a focus on a contrast to traditional war games, but as an entirety to be an experience. What I mean is that the creative director Michal Drozdowski made a very reasonable point at the beginning (once the idea has been ignited) that we shouldn’t think of it as a some kind of genre, let’s say survival or strategy, but as an experience picturing civilians trapped in a city under siege, everything should be built around this assumption.

Every piece of the mechanics from that point was done with that in mind—to picture reality of war from [a] civilian perspective in every possible layer. Emotions of the characters say about few things: that people are different and have different personalities; that they are heavily influenced by the horribleness of war but also they do have little moments of joy, and finally that the emotional toll may be even heavier than the physical one.

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DMM: On a related note, I’ve definitely had playthroughs where I haven’t felt much hope. Things have gone bad early and stayed bad. It’s entirely possible that I need to get better at surviving in order to see my characters at their most hopeful, but I wonder: was your goal with the game to increase players’ empathy for real people in desperate (possibly hopeless) situations, and maybe also to guide players toward eking out moments defiant optimism?

PM: I think a good comment to this would be quotes from feedback from veterans or survivors of war—feedback that we got after TWoM has been released. In short words, they sent us supportive words that we’ve made a game that is close to their experiences. (Big thanks here for all people who gave us the support and feedback!) For some, it worked as a catharsis, for some it was an experience that brought the topic of how real war may have looked like, and for some it was a tool to tell their own stories of civilians in war.

The message behind TWoM is: war can happen anywhere, anytime. And when it happens, we’re all the same people, no matter what is your nationality. I am moved when I hear TWoM can increase empathy, this is something really inspiring, and I believe I can say it on behalf on entire team.

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