With the reputation video games have for celebrating violence as glamorous and fun (understandable with the hype surrounding the latest Call of Duty or Battlefield release), one developer has shifted focus to the unfortunate truth behind warfare: civilians.
11 Bit Studio's This War of Mine eschews the blood and guts, macho run 'n' gun of the average FPS to focus on the hardscrabble existence of a conflict's bystanders. The game is based on stories of refugees and survivors from flashpoints like Bosnia, Syria, the former Yugoslavia and even from the accounts of an American soldier in Iraq. And the purpose is not to glorify the mayhem of battle, but rather reflect on the disastrous consequences of it.
11 Bit senior writer Pawel Miechowski has been making the rounds on gaming sites, talking up the very somber tone of the title, and how the 10-person development team has been striving to make a game that doesn't feel like a game.
The focus on inventory management and character interaction is window dressing for the game's moral choices, which are plentiful. Characters need food. They need water. They need medicine. They are killed by disease, by deathtraps and by interactions gone bad. They must scavenge by night, lest snipers take them down. There is rarely enough to go around.
The random characters in the group of survivors you control have their own unique skills, and it's up to the gamer to best utilize them. Not everyone in the party will fare well, and the dilemmas players will face force some hard decisions.
Making gamers feel good or bad about those choices is not the aim of the title, Miechowski said, although it sounds like players won't be able to help themselves when it comes to picking a way to live.
"You can just give the tools to experience the perspectives, just as you like," he told Gamasutra. "You can be a cruel guy, or a supportive person — that's your point of view. What we're making here is a game about these situations. We're fully aware of the fact that it's a huge challenge to deliver this, but I'm pretty sure we're going to make it."
The studio wanted to break the common themes of war used in video games in favor of more immediate conflicts. If you gather wood, do you use it to build a bed or build a fire? Depends how cold it is. Or whether another character will let you do either.
That's a far cry from racing for the rocket launcher at the center of a map in order to blast NPCs into next week. And it definitely sounds more engaging than the Oregon Trail-on-steroids pitch it appears to be on paper.
The game is early in development, but a teaser trailer sets the tone. If 11 Bit makes something half as engaging as its inspiration, the bare-bones indie Papers, Please, the gaming world may be changed for the better. If only we could say the same about reality.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games for tbt*. Challenge his opinions at email@example.com.