There are many war games that enable players to slip into the roles of elite soldiers or criminals. "This War of Mine" is different: It takes the viewpoint of civilians who have to survive in a besieged city. Instead of adrenaline rushes from playing war and wielding weapons, players experience the horrors of being a non-combatant surrounded by violent conflict.
Although the game is located in a fictional city called Pogoren, its storyline is visually based on the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. That conflict gained sad prominence in part because of the shocking and rampant use of torture and ethnic cleansing. About 40 percent of those killed were civilians, who are usually only portrayed as bystanders in ordinary war games. Later in the development process, the writers and directors say they also started to incorporate details from contemporary conflicts, such as the ones in Syria or Ukraine.
The different perspective is emphasized in a trailer released by Warsaw-based game developer 11 bit studios. The camera moves from fighting soldiers toward a family hiding in a house. A sentence emerges on the screen: "In war not everyone is a soldier."
"Just consider the following scenario: In a deserted supermarket there's a soldier attempting to hurt a woman. Will you risk your life to help her or run away from the danger?" the game's senior writer, Pawel Miechowski, described in an interview one situation players will face.
"This is not about explaining historical facts, but rather about making players feel the pointlessness of war," Miechowski said. He hopes that players will feel a stronger connection to civilians who are currently trapped in conflict zones.
Whether a war game can generate empathy is an open question. But the developers took their attempt seriously: They talked to eyewitnesses of various conflicts, read articles and consulted experts. Consequently, "This War of Mine" features a variety of struggles -- from surviving diseases to post traumatic stress disorders to food shortages.
The game aims to look authentic -- for instance, with detailed reproductions of graffiti found in besieged cities after the end of the Bosnian war.
The building in this image bears strong resemblances to Sarajevo's principal government building, which was damaged by shelling in 1992.
This file photo of the burning government building, taken in 1992, shows how closely the game emulates the war it is visually based on.
However, the developers insist "This War of Mine" does not have to be a depressing experience for players.
"In wars, there is also solidarity between the people, mutual aid, exceptional and moving acts of compassion. We wanted our game to include all of those things: the evil and devastation, as well as the perseverance and kindness. Which path the player shall take is left up to them," design director Michal Drozdowski said.
The developers also asked two people who experienced real wars to test their game. One of them was John Keyser, a U.S. Marine who served in Iraq. The other, Emir Cerimovic, was a child when the Bosnian war broke out. Cerimovic was able to escape after a year to France, where he still lives today.
In a video that accompanies the release of the video game, Cerimovic relives the traumatic experience: "I saw soldiers on my balcony. You woke up, and you had nothing left", he says, while sitting in the backseat of a car driving through Sarajevo, today's capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Scenes from the video game are used to illustrate his experience. The trailer suggests: This is as close as a video game can come to the horrors of war.
All main characters in the game are based on 3D scans of the bodies and faces of the developers and their friends. But because of the traumatic nature of the subject, some candidates refused to participate or were rejected. "Although I have two young boys who would fit the project perfectly, I said: 'No, this is so serious that I don’t want my kids in our game'," art director Przemyslaw Marszal explained.
"We haven’t scanned any child," he said. "All children models are modeled from scratch."