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Sharing the stories of Ukrainian citizens amid war in What's up in a Kharkiv bomb shelter

"In war, destinies are crumbling, decisions are made, and the existential core of life is exposed. I wanted to save those moments within my game."

Joel Couture, Contributor

June 28, 2022

16 Min Read

What's up in a Kharkiv bomb shelter is a snapshot of life within a bomb shelter during the bombing of Ukraine, letting players hear the sounds of music interspersed with explosions as they talk to the other people within the shelter, hearing stories inspired by real people and friends who shared in this experience.

Game Developer spoke with Dahuanna, developer of this emotional experience, about what it was like to create a game while inside a bomb shelter, the design ideas that went into capturing the stories of the people inside the shelter with them, and what drew them to this act of creation while enduring the bombing of Ukraine.

Game Developer: What's up in a Kharkiv bomb shelter aims to document life in a bomb shelter during the attack on Ukraine. What drew you to capture this experience with a game?

Dahuanna: In the beginning, there was a sad story. A few days after the war started, my boyfriend found an anti-war game jam. It was hosted by some Siberian game developers. The very idea of such a game jam by the Russians aroused my respect, so I decided to support their initiative and I joined with my game. Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to show their political position publicly, and those guys removed our games, but that didn't matter anymore.

I chose the idea of the game, and I was fascinated by it, and nothing could stop me. There is a mess all around. Wild situations are happening, and people are going through terrible things and behaving very unusually. The people I saw were only being represented in the media as victims, suffering and oppressed by [somebody], or as heroes bravely running after humanitarian aid under [somebody's] bullets. This or that -- or both -- is only a small part of reality. Maybe a good one, but still just a part. In reality, everything is more complicated. In war, destinies are crumbling, decisions are made, and the existential core of life is exposed. I wanted to save those moments within my game.

This is not the only way to talk about the war (for example, my boyfriend also made a game about Kharkiv, but he chose the form of an anti-war manifesto), but in my opinion, this was the easiest and the most fun. After all, the news will not tell about how my friend from Lugansk wanted to poop during the bombing, and how he expressed his frustration, when he did not have access to the toilet and suffered. Honestly, this is an essential situation, partly comical, partly tragic. The news also doesn’t talk about how animal behavior has changed after the shelling has started. I thought: a dog is also a person, and his story is important too.

I got used to writing down the events that took place around me at the age of 8, when I first fell in love and my first boyfriend gave me beautiful pebbles and shells. I think everyone who keeps a diary has a kind of "diary thinking" – a habit to write down events when they are significant, and the words of people when they are unique. This is the main tool for making games about real life.

You call the game an eyewitness account of these events. Why was it important to you to have this kind of unfiltered, direct look into the experience as a witness? Why did you want to capture it all and put it out for others to experience?

This may sound like an intent to disclaim authorship, but this is not entirely accurate. Any artist's or storyteller's job is not just to reflect reality, but to re-create it. Truthfulness is not in literalness, but in ideological honesty. The developer has a huge palette of tools: color, composition, movement, character replica, etc. The game world is created from all these things, but each one speaks of what the game designer has in mind.

So, why evidence? I usually write short stories and make games based on my own experience. Creatively reworking my own experiences and making other stories out of it is my passion. I am constantly looking around for creative ideas and I want to develop in this direction further. But not when I'm talking about the war.

For me, the war began back in 2014. Our family left Anthracite, the mining town in Luhansk region (now the so-called LDR), leaving my grandma there because she didn't want to run from her native city. I understood that I'll never return there and then I started to write poetry, trying to turn language inside out so that I could fit tragedy into it. The world shattered like a crystal vase, and I tried to convey the decadent beauty of the fragments in an impressive and dramatic way. This is one of art's ways of understanding a large-scale tragedy. I wrote a book of poems in which I tried to isolate the experiences of the war and its consequences according to the seasons and make everything very beautiful and veiled.

But in 2022, the war was not such a surprise and loss for me as it was then. Kharkiv isn't the city I grew up in. This year, the Russian-Ukrainian war just got bigger. Trying to understand and express something so horrible in beautiful forms for the second time turned out to be difficult. Or maybe it's just too much war for poetry to be trustworthy. So, my method of understanding what was happening was an inventory of fragments: triangular, sharp, transparent, with a crack... A woman, a man, a child, an old woman… Maybe the player draws his or her own conclusions better than me. I know this idea isn't new. Probably, in literature and painting, all art methods haven’t been new for a long time. But game designers still have a lot to create.

What moments and conversations did you want to have in the game? How did you pick what the characters in the game talked about? How did you choose the stories that they would tell?

To be honest, I did it rather intuitively. I made the decision to focus on the types of Ukrainian citizens. Because, since the war started, we all stopped being us and turned into someone else. And the last two "criterions"... I chose stories that surprised me the most and that were the most comprehensive (fewer words, more meaning). Of course, some stories could not be shortened — they simply could not be stated concisely and without ambiguity.

A screenshot of several characters in a bomb shelter.

The transfer of old and understandable things into other contexts -- this is what any artist does in their work. But in this case, the war did that work for me. The deconstruction of reality. Banal stories in the context of war turned out to be extreme and strange. That's why I mentioned the problems of my friend from Lugansk. War did things herself. And all I had to do was write down what was dictated. Just by giving other people something to say, I'm already creating something new in co-creating with people and with war (although it sounds terrible, but I think you understand the metaphor).

The game's audio is made up of soft music, stray guitar tunes, and the howling and booming of shells. Why did you choose the music and sounds that you did?

It's just the part of a real story. I happened to spend time in two bomb shelters, and I saw two different worlds there. Two sides of one coin.

It was the first night after the start of the war. Residents of our district swept the buckwheat and toilet paper from the supermarket shelves away in a panic and filled that basement to capacity. Adults, children, old people. Me, my boyfriend, and three of our cats went down, too. People made blankets, brought chairs and put them in the aisles because there was nowhere else to put them. It was crowded, noisy, damp, and dusty inside. Like many, I didn't sleep that night. Everything was too fresh. I had to go out to get some fresh air and stretch. Someone smoked or drank beer. We heard explosions from time to time.

One of them thundered especially close. We panicked and ran to the basement. It was a symbolic moment for me -- the first time death was so close to our district. In short, the siren that the player hears inside the shelter and the sounds of mines are more phantom sounds than real ones. After hearing a real explosion, you shudder from any sounds similar to its roar. After the war started in Donbas in 2014, fireworks were banned for some time. It would be nice if many other sounds were banned — loud conversations, hitting a cup on the table, or the sound of a cat jumping from the refrigerator to the floor.

The second bomb shelter I was in was jokingly called a "5-star hotel" in the local chat. It was the Kharkiv art gallery Ermilov Center, where Kharkiv artists and their families gathered. I was lucky that my sister-in-law is a painter. It was spacious and well lit, with various amenities, a shared kitchen, well-organized duties, and lectures from artists. And more music. Some dude played the guitar and sang something almost all the time. I think the guitar is the perfect instrument for a bomb shelter. It should be in an alarm case for everyone who knows at least three chords.

You created this game while you yourself were stuck in a bomb shelter. What challenges did you face in creating a game in that situation? What made you want to make a game while in this situation?

This is a good question, because I find it hard to imagine a Ukrainian asking it. Many of my friends came to the same conclusion as me. It's hard to explain in words. We want to do something so that we are something other than victims of war. You know, terrible news filled the entire information space and all our conversations. It's like the world had become narrow, or I'd become narrow-minded and stupid... And the game was one of my attempts to save my individuality from emptiness.

Doing anything that is more than survival is very hard in wartime, but it is much more significant. Because, by this people, prove that they are not a hunted animal, but a man. A year ago, I read a book by the psychologist Viktor Frankl, who has gone through two concentration camps. He expressed a thought that those who had a meaning in life remained unbroken.

The most difficult thing in the bomb shelter is to open the laptop and start working. Everything is harder there, as if you’re wrapped in a thick blanket, or the air has thickened to jelly and you can't inhale. "Open the laptop… Connect to Wi-Fi… Open itch.io… No, Daria, stop crying now. And stop trying to open the news. Go back and make a game". To read something, except for instant messengers, you need a normal Internet, and therefore the research did not work out very well. Pages downloaded slowly, so I had worked in one-click-per-minute mode. But I was very anxious and my thoughts moved like hulking flies, so it was kinda fitting.

The second time I sat down to work (more precisely, lay down) was in the evacuation train, on the top shelf of the compartment, where I was traveling with 10 other people, although the compartment is designed only for 4. It was cramped and stuffy, my cats suffered from heat and were constantly thirsty (I gave them water with a syringe every 15-20 minutes, a task that required some acrobatics). With my feet on the cat cages and my head on the backpack, I was able to detach myself from my surroundings, put my laptop on my sweat-soaked belly, and draw some characters.

At that moment, I immersed myself in being able to get involved in the work process as much as possible. Because I had to run away to work, to hide in it from the reality. By the way, the characters I drew there came out to be the most vivid and metaphorical.

The third time I was able to work on the game, the work was a whim. We arrived at one of the western Ukrainian cities, Lviv. There were too many really important things to do beside the game. I just came from a volunteer shift where I sorted humanitarian aid for the other refugees who come to Lviv, and I had to finish the game in an hour in order to go to the station where my friend was just arriving in a very emotionally difficult state and she had no one else in this city but me. Truly, this was a superhero's everyday life.

I look at all this with humor, because, frankly, I am very lucky. In the Ermilov Center art gallery, I lived in warmth among well-organized people. Electricity, food, water, internet, security and friends nearby -- all this is a rarity for the first days of the war. On the train, a whole sleeping place was at my and my cats' disposal (rare luck). In Lviv, although it was uncomfortable, I was in normal conditions. I did not have to urgently organize the survival of me and my loved ones. Being able to think in wartime is a luxury! And the physical ability to make a game in the wartime is an untold wealth.

What made you choose to work with Bitsy to create the game?

Bitsy is available to everyone, and therefore it offers a place to dive into complex, strange, macabre worlds. Some years ago I read the book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy. I was taken with the idea that anybody has something to tell, and the world of video games can benefit from the skills, resourcefulness, and stories of a wide variety of people. Why not? I love weird story-based games that make this huge world feel a little more understandable. So, everything matched and I found the best source for small stories.

Bitsy is minimalistic. Each object is a tiny squiggle, yet each pixel creates an image, and each piece of dialogue tells a fragment of a story. There is strength in this simplicity. Therefore, Bitsy is also a good puzzle to think about how to fit the maximum meaning into the minimum objects.

Bitsy gives space for small stories. Life is made up of them and great stories begin with them. And sometimes, as a writer, I need a quick breath of fresh air to get distracted and inspired. Bitsy is perfect for this. You go through one or two Bitsy games, and you come up to the surface revitalized.

And the main thing: Bitsy is the most convenient format to say something through the game when there is no time for long development.

Do you feel that this kind of interactive experience has a greater effect on the player/receiver than just hearing about it?

I fully agree with Terrence Lee who says that art acquired dimensions with each new medium. The text is located in time (reading or listening) and in space (sheet of paper, sound wave), but it is static. Movies are a little more involved because we see the world in motion and we associate ourselves with the hero within it. But we don't read games, we don't listen and we don't look -- we play them, that is, we live some experience, interact with objects, non-player characters, and study the situation around.

When a player in my game walks around an unoccupied chair, they do not just read the phrase: "I passed by an unoccupied chair," they interact spatially with the chair, live the experience of this object. Or, for example, they see a cat whose mind has been damaged and therefore flickers very strangely, like a broken image. They are on the same plane with this character, on the same level, just a character among other characters. And if the player were a viewer of YouTube, they would completely stay in their room, press Play, see a flat person on the screen. A completely different level of interaction.

Did creating the game have any effect on your own emotions or feelings about your situation? On your own reactions to what is happening?

My friends, who played the first prototype of the game, made me feel that I have people who support me and help me. I realized -- "Hey, you have some good friends! They gave you a good idea!" -- and my sadness became smaller. There were no good endings in the first version of the game, and somebody suggested adding one. This is how the good ending of the game came to be -- the result of my friendship is a good ending. Other players also liked this moment. I saw it in their comments. They warm my heart.

Speaking of hearts. The player's avatar has a hole instead of a heart. Like other characters, I drew them trusting my intuition. The war ruined my plans, pushed all the important things through a meat grinder and mixed them with nonsense, and lowered my requirements for living. When grief is everywhere, all that's left of the old you is a problem solver. It’s not surprising, then, that in the place of the heart, you have a hole.

But when I finished the game, I realized that the hole in my heart is not a black hole with a cosmic void inside. The game worked -- the whole game! It means that I go on and the world goes on. The hole inside is just a scorched wasteland. Beneath its surface, as beneath any wasteland, carefully and very slowly, the seeds are preparing for an awakening: my new attitude towards the world. Of course, this is love -- what else can live in the heart?

The main thing is not to give up and not to run away from the authenticity that the war opened, but to stay true to yourself - to tell the truth. Even when it hurts and scares you. Even if the right thing is not to come up with something too creative, but just ask people how they are and breathe their words into the characters. Or make games and stories using other art methods, unusual and even peculiar. Of course, it takes a lot of courage. It's sometimes like if you open a door and face a hurricane. But it's so exciting.

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