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“One thing that is important for us is that we are very emotional about making games and playing games[…] Those emotions that breed thoughts are the emotions that we want to have in our game.”
11 Bit Studios’ two most recent projects, This War of Mine and Frostpunk, all use the medium of video games to explore larger, social issues. In a talk at this year’s Game Developers Conference, co-founders Przemyslaw Marszal and Michal Drozdowski explained that they wouldn’t have it any other way.
But, for a split second, that almost wasn’t the case. They explain that after the development of This War of Mine, a strategic game that deals with the hardships faced by civilians during wartime, the team was mentally exhausted from working on a project that deals with such heavy themes.
“After This War of Mine, we were very mentally tired. We didn’t want to do this hard mentally tiring game […] so we thought hey maybe we’ll do some ‘gamer’s game’ with a cool idea and cool gameplay,” says Marszal. “But at the end it just sucked.”
“This was the moment that we realized ‘hey from now on we will do meaningful games.’ We can’t do another game without having this message inside. It just isn’t in our DNA.”
Finding mechanics through context
For This War of Mine, the 11 Bit team knew that they wanted to create a game to communicate the harsh realities of being a civilian in a country afflicted by war, but they weren’t certain how such a game would be received.
“We understood that before us there was a project that could change our lives and it was an instant revelation,” said Marszal.“Until the day of launch, we didn’t know how people would [react to the significance of the game], but we went for it. We knew the risk but we also knew the importance.”
Mood, they explain, is key to 11 Bit’s development process. It forms a bond between art and gameplay and is a key consideration from the very beginning of a project.
“You’ll better understand the reality of the game if you do some research. You’ll grab the mood, you’ll grab detail, you’ll grab nuances that you haven’t been exposed to before,” explains Drozdowski.
Discovering facts about the world they were building directly influenced decisions large and small about how This War of Mine would function. Knowing that snipers kept eyes on city streets during the day meant that civilians had to function at night, while a lack of wood, electricity, and clean water meant that collecting those key items for survival would be a core part of the game.
“These facts are not only facts that go into our narrative, but they pretty much go into our design,” says Drozdowski Looking at the world they’d envisioned, it became clear that This War of Mine would focus on the individual lives of people trying to survive in dire conditions. He describes it as a puzzle of many different stories put together in one world.
“War is not one constant narrative event that has a beginning and an end. It is made up of stories that affect different people, like a mother that lost her child or grandparents that don’t know what to do during wartime.”
Player decisions should lead to questions, not judgment
11 Bit frequently puts players in situations where they have to make decisions that have a tangible impact on the people or world around them. In This War of Mine, that could be making the decision to steal food and supplies from another group of struggling survivors or putting yourself at risk to save a stranger being attacked by bandits. While some of those situations seem morally black and white on the surface, Drozdowski says that they wanted to emphasize the murky nature of the complex situations faced by people fighting for survival.
“If you enter someone’s house you’re basically an intruder,” he explains. “It’s not someone fulfilling a quest.”
At this point in the talk, Drozdowski was speaking about This War of Mine, but many of these concepts apply to Frostpunk as well. 11 Bit tends to stay away from scenarios where players can find a perfect solution. It’s largely impossible to satisfy both sides of a conflict, or do things without suffering a cost of some sort.
“We wanted to not judge the behavior of the player, but we wanted to create a moral world that would teach him about his decision. […] We wanted to achieve some kind of interaction with the player where we’d ask him questions and he’d answer in his head.”
Part of this means that death is as valid of an ending as survival. Drozdowski notes that “a lot of this seems contradictory to some design rules” but in This War of Mine, the objective isn’t to win the game; it’s to experience war as a civilian.
That same end goal—to make players reflect on their own actions—carries through to Frostpunk as well. The city management game sees players issuing laws and ordinances, which Drozdowski says can take on their own life and start to shape society on their own. That meant sometimes hard subjects, like cannibalism, had to be addressed in-game and deciding how to do so was a delicate affair.
“Because Frostpunk is also a game that touched all those subjects […] we felt compelled to kind of make an end quote, to sum it up,” says Drozdowski. “If the player crossed the line, went too far in shaping the society, we wanted to say ‘Hey guy, you crossed the line. That’s a bit too far’”
But, that kind of self-reflection is where Frostpunk and This War of Mine really shine. Those moments where things seem to go too far too fast are when players ask themselves how they got here and really start to think about their actions, realizing 11 Bit's goal of creating games with impact.