New on the Market: Kinder, Gentler Computer War Games

Designers are starting to develop products where the player's goal is to understand the plight of people in war zones and to get them home safely.

11 bit studios

When people think about computer war games, what usually comes to mind is another series along the order of “Call of Duty” or “Medal of Honor” – games featuring a setting that is the dream of every general, in which the bad guys are doing what they usually do and there’s no need to worry about noncombatants running around complicating things. The major innovations in these games, which come out in new versions like clockwork every year, generally include higher resolution images, more explosions and bloodshed, and a greater degree of destruction on the screen. This is apparently just what gets aficionados to shell out $60 or more on the latest game and a few additional dollars on downloadable content.

Only a handful of these games offer any depth or added value, and these generally come from the political margins of this industry, such as products from the Molleindustria group or, on the other hand, from the “serious” sector that borders on the educational. These less popular games don’t sell in the billions of dollars, but even if they are somewhat different, products such as Ubisoft Montpellier’s “Valiant Hearts: The Great War” have also attracted a mainstream following.

“Valiant Hearts” was initially issued in a personal computer version, but iPad and iPhone versions have just come out. The game is set against the backdrop of World War I which shaped the 20th century, although that war is not exactly a major focus of the game world.

Simon Chocquet-Bottani, the game’s designer, told Haaretz that the choice of subject was not accidental. It was not selected for its potential entertainment value, but rather out of desire to portray the Great War in a way that does not glorify it. It shows that war is responsible for mass killing and destruction of families even though the combatants aren’t fully aware of what is going on around them. The designer says his company was looking to develop a game with its own particular story line, background, style and manner of play.

The art director of “Valiant Hearts,” Paul Tumelaire, had an interest in the historical period of the war, Chocquet-Bottani explains, and the team did a lot of research, using letters from soldiers as a source, as well as other historical documents, building an entire game around them. Reading the stories, one cannot remain apathetic, he adds. The soldiers had happy lives, families and jobs, but then suddenly they found themselves on the battlefield, sometimes very far away from home.

The game places major emphasis on the wartime story line and atmosphere, as well as on solving problems – "puzzles" in the nomenclature of “Valiant Hearts” – which allows the player to advance. In the course of the game, the player assumes the job of leading an eclectic collection of people through the war. They include a German citizen who was snatched from the arms of his French wife and sent to fight against his country. There’s also a Belgian nurse, and a dog that accompanies the group on its journey throughout the years of fighting. More than anything else, however, it is the design that stands out here: One gets the feeling it was inspired by old animated films, and there is a soundtrack that sweeps up the player from the first note.

Important art form

While in “Valiant Hearts” there is a focus on the man inside the uniform, for its part, 11 bit studios, a Warsaw-based firm, went several steps further in “This War of Mine.” Still in development, the game aims to portray war from the point of view of civilians trying to survive.

The chief writer-designer of the game, Pawel Miechowski, says he and his colleagues were looking for new ideas some time ago, when his brother showed him an article by someone who had survived the nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo during the civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Speaking to Haaretz by phone, Miechowski recounted how reading the story of the survivor’s physical and emotional struggles convinced the team immediately to use it as the basis for a game. It is a fascinating story, he notes, and in any case computer games are becoming increasingly mature in their content. They have become more of an art form dealing with important subjects, he explains, and that also provided the impetus for “This War of Mine.”

Miechowski, 35, says that from the time he was a child, he was surrounded by games. Back then they were sources of entertainment, but now the game scene is much more developed. Gamers themselves as well as the press that covers the industry now perceive it as sufficiently mature to deal with more important, deeper matters, he observes.

11 bit studios also did research on the stories of individuals who survived similar ordeals in Poland and even in the Middle East. The designers sought out stories about World War II from among their own relatives in Poland, for example, where Miechowski says nearly everyone has a relative who survived. The developers included stories about what people did when their food ran out, or how they managed to obtain medicine. These elements were also integrated into the game.

One game that had a major influence on the designers of “This War of Mine” was “Papers, Please,” which was released last year by indie developer Lucas Pope and became a rather surprising sensation. In “Papers, Please” the player is a cog in a totalitarian dictatorship – a passport-control inspector who on one hand attempts to survive and support his family but, on the other hand, knows that his every decision could shape the fate of other people whose situation is not so different from his own.

The perspective of the player of “This War of Mine” is entirely from the sidelines. The object is to protect a group of civilians who are trying to survive in a modern city under siege. The player must also face fateful decisions for the members of the group in the town. During the day, the group takes cover and must be cared for with whatever limited means are available. At night, the player must go out and find food and water and medicine.

Mainstream games such as “GTA,” short for “Grand Theft Auto,” have come in for some criticism from people who say that they encourage violent behavior, including murder, even though it doesn’t expressly serve the game’s ultimate goal. By contrast, “This War of Mine” emphasizes empathy. The game demands that the player deal with tough ethical questions, such as what means are appropriate to use to save the group, and whether that includes hurting others.

Miechowski describes, for example, the dilemma of people starving to death and the possibility of stealing food. At one stage in the game, he notes, a character will sink into depression due to the things that he is forced to do.