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The emotional tuning of This War of Mine

January 22, 2015 | By Brandon Sheffield

January 22, 2015 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video

"Games are not only for fun," says Michal Drozdowski, design director of This War of Mine developer 11 Bit studio, speaking at the Central European Games Conference. "They're an immersive experience, and when we were making this game about civilians in times of war, we weren't making a survival game, or an RTS, we were actually making a game about civilians in a time of war."

"All the game mechanics came later," he added. "I think it's important to look at games as an experience - not as genre, not as mechanics, but something the player can feel, that will engage their emotions."

This War of Mine came about after the studio's success with Anomaly: Warzone Earth, when 11 Bit was looking around for what direction they wanted to move in. They tried making a few other games, but they felt they wanted something more. So they though about their own selves - why do humans look for something new, in general?

"When we try something new, we're looking for new experiences," he said. "We're emotional beings - we have a need to look for emotions in ourselves, and find our own emotions."

So, they asked themselves; "What kind of emotion am I giving to the player?" Drozdowski believes that games are already pretty emotional, for many players. "Of course we have sports games which are very emotional," he says by way of example. "I saw videos of a guy who crushed his screen because he lost in a sports game - it's a strong emotion, and that's probably why he's coming back to play it again."

"All the game mechanics came later. I think it's important to look at games as an experience - not as genre, not as mechanics, but something the player can feel, that will engage their emotions."

"But we wanted different ones - feelings of loss, or joy that something will be better," he said. "Games can be serious. This is something we experienced when creating This War of Mine - they can be serious, because they can be an addictive experience - not necessarily entertainment. Like with movies and dramas. We go to see dramas from time to time, and this is not 'fun.'"

So for them, This War of Mine is about emotion and living through catharsis. But they didn't have any experience with character animation, or characters in general really, so they had to figure out how to make do with what they have. They realized they didn't need to have everything all the other games have. "Again, you need to know the message of your game," he said. "If you'd doing a car racing game that competes with all other car games, you have to have it all."

But with a game like This War is Mine, the player's mind is your friend, says Drozdowski. "If the player sees half a face, they'll imagine the other half," he says. "'Symbolic' is good. This War of Mine is a game where there is not much talking. There's some dialog, but the animation is simple, and the challenges are also just deciding to do or not do something. With this symbolic approach, we find the players fill in the gap."

"At some point you should make the player stop and think," he said. "We've all been playing games for many years - we're used to certain mechanics in the way games are constructed - when I have a quest, for example, and two people want the same thing, probably if I'm going through all the dialog, I'll find a solution for both of them, and then there's no more dilemma."

"This doesn't happen in This War of Mine," he said, "because if someone knocks on your door and says 'please help me,' you can say yes or no - if you say no he will die, if you say yes, you risk your life." This kind of thing is important, moments where the player must pause - there's a lot of silence, not just action scenes, in most successful media.

"If there's a level, there's probably usually something to be gained," Drozdowski says of most games. But in This War of Mine," they found that "a player who went into the house with an old couple, she stole some food from the fridge because her friends were hungry, and she was hungry. But before she exited the level she stopped, went back and left half the food in the fridge. There was no reward for her."

It was difficult to get this sort of idea across, but they made something that was very true to them. Said Drozdowski, "We were searching for this message. It's not that it just came randomly, we were actively searching for it."

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