The secrets behind This War of Mine's emotional impact

11 Bit Studios Pawel Miechowski talks about how disrupting players' expectations, studying their decision-making process and creating opportunities to imagine helped make This War of Mine acclaimed and impactful.

"Did you ever feel remorse when watching a movie? I don't mean because you chose a horrible movie to watch, but because it came from inside," poses Pawel Micechowski, senior writer at This War of Mine developer 11 Bit Studios. "As a spectator, you can feel sadness, happiness from watching, but remorse can be raised only from inside. In that way, games are superior to movies."

This War of Mine is about the experience of civilians in wartime, a departure from many war-themed games. Rather than desiring combat, civilians want only to survive. Where other war games are often entertaining, This War of Mine is often frankly depressing. 

"When war breaks out, what matters is what kind of human you are, and how you survive," Miechowski says. "I presented this game to people from both Palestine and Israel, and for both sides, it was a game about them. It depicts the suffering of civilians accurately." 

This week at the Game Developers Conference, Miechowski offered important lessons the Polish studio learned from the game when it comes to how to create unique emotional experiences for players. For one, forget about genres, Miechowski says. Don't make a survival game; don't make a strategy game, but rather make a game about your chosen idea. The mechanics and the player experience emerge from there, he advises. 

"When war breaks out you need to survive, but we were not uniquely thinking about 'survival,'" adds Miechowski. 

Observation is also important: Watch your testers. Some of the game's emotional heft came from the team studying their playtesters. "The first thing we noticed with our very early prototype... we had a girl playing This War of Mine, and at some locations she found necessary stuff like food and bandages, and she stole it. Halfway back to the shelter, she decided to go back to the people whom she robbed, and left half of the stuff there. She judged herself morally." 

This led to a system where the game knows how many items the player has stolen, and judges morality. "If people can do something evil, characters in the game may become depressed. If you do something selfish, others may be happy because you have what you need." Derive a system that actually responds to the player's own values -- the player judges him or herself, and then the systems answer. This is at odds with the common approach where the moral system is dictated and enforced only by the game itself. 

Observing players also led to the game's poignant character system. With oversimplified characters, players seemed to fail to attach, and would send unloved characters out as cannon fodder to be sacrificed in the quest for supplies. "They started to treat people as a resource," Miechowski says. "A big outburst of virtual violence happened, and that's not what we wanted, completely. We wanted people to play as people, not as soldiers or bandits, so we added extra depth to the characters, big biographies, character types and extra skills." 

Even small changes helped create an experience that discouraged players from their habitual militaristic roles toward complex emotional experiences. Simply changing the word "Inventory" to the more intimate "Our Things" changed the way the players treated the supplies they had. "Our testers started to prioritize their actions in a way we wanted. They focused on necessities, not necessarily weapons, and started to behave more like civilians: Cooperative working, rather than aggressive working." 

The team also iterated on the player's decision-making process. Generally when the outcomes of various choices are clear, the player universally chooses the  one that offers the greatest benefits or the most resources. Having decisions where outcomes are more ambiguous -- and where moral consequences also play a role -- creates more interesting dilemmas for players. Instead of consistently deciding on the path of greatest resources, players also balance feeling good and bad about themselves and the choices they make. 

"Most players are programmed," Miechowski says. "Playing a shooter game, players assume everyone is an enemy. People assume each location has a solution you can use or a riddle you can solve, or that there's a puzzle with a perfect solution. Players are programmed this way after decades of playing, or because we are human. If you do something the player isn't programmed for, he or she doesn't know what to do and starts to act more subconsciously. And emotions are raised in the subconscious." 

"We used this fact," he says. "War in games is only about shooting, fighting and bringing democracy and blah blah blah. And then we broke the perspective and presented hidden civilians, and people were shocked because they didn't expect it." 

In the game, civilians who aren't well cared-for can commit suicide. A photo of twin toes dangling just a bit above the wood floor can be more haunting and symbolic than showing death on screen. Similarly, an image of hands warmly clasping and sharing medication adds a sort of humanity and emotion to the act of sharing resources with other civilians. This War of Mine uses simple symbols that pique the imagination and let the player feel more invested in the story as they imagine what's unseen. 

It's all about challenging the player's sense of certainty, breaking their expectations and requiring them to be more attentive. "The player's imagination is unlimited. Your task is just to ignite it with a proper idea," Miechowski says. 

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