A couple months back, I wrote an article about 11 bit Studios' soul-crushing war sim This War of Mine for The Daily Beast. As I usually do, I reached out to the developer to get an interview. Scheduling conflicts (and radically different time zones) meant it didn't end up happening before the story went up, but lead writer Pawel Miechowski was kind enough to answer some of my questions afterwards even so. There's a little bit of a language barrier (11 bit Studios is based in Poland), and though I made some minor spelling fixes, I left his responses mostly untouched.
Why was the video game medium the best one to tell the story of This War of Mine?
Because of its interactivity. As brilliant as movies and books can be, they put you in a role of a spectator. If you consider games as a storytelling tool capable of picturing all kind of stories: fun, action, entertaining, drama and even tragedies, they may be perfect for it. Games put you in the middle of experience, make you the narrator, you can even be a spectator and actor in one.
How much of the game is randomized vs scripted?
It's a mixture - you may get a random group of civilians, how many days war may last, and what locations you visit, and yet all of these is partially dependent on how far you've managed to survive last time.
How different, generally, are multiple playthroughs from each other?
That relates a bit to a previous question, because the further you get, the more story becomes shaped by your choices.
I assume you track metrics. How many days do most playthroughs last?
19% percent of the players survived the war, however you never know when it ends. You need to survive at least few weeks.
The game isn't really "fun" in a traditional sense, and I assume that was by design. But how did you walk the fine line of keeping the occasionally tedious mechanics from overwhelming the impact of your actions?
Everything in TWoM has been done around idea that it should reflect reality of war as a game in its entirety. Sometimes war is boredom, and sometimes it brutally tests you, or your moral compass.
What do you want players to be thinking/feeling when they're playing the game?
That they took part in a drama story of civilians in a trapped city. That they feel it may be a story about them someday.
What do you want them to be thinking/feeling after they've turned it off?
That war can happen anytime, anywhere. When it happens, you're going to be put to a worst test in life. War is not super-fun shooting.
You mentioned Papers, Please in an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun. I got a little bit of a PP vibe while playing (even though they're very different games). Was that game an inspiration for you, and how do you feel about that comparison?
Yes, Papers, Please was on a level of "how games can tackle serious topics / raise empathy" a major inspiration. We've been already working on TWoM for almost a year when I saw PP. Michal Drozdowski - creative director at 11 bit - who's a main person behind TWoM, played PP a lot and forced us to check it, and yes - it's been great experience. It joins light and fast gameplay with heavy narrative about the family in perfect way.
What do you see as the future of "serious" games like This War of Mine?
There are already many very promising projects in pipeline. I believe that games now will cover more and more areas of storytelling. And if you use parallel to movies, I expect to see great comedies, action stories, but dramas as well. Why not?