Putting the “Mean” in Meaningful Entertainment: The 11 Bit Studios Story
What would you do if your family was moments away from starving to death, and the only thing standing between you and the last available food source was an elderly couple begging you not to take it? What would you do if you had to sacrifice the lives of a few to protect the lives of an entire city? These are the kinds of tormenting, self-doubt invoking ethical dilemmas you can expect to face when you play games by 11 bit studios, the Polish minds behind thought-provoking indie favorites Frostpunk and This War of Mine.
11 bit doesn’t merely pepper in these dilemmas to spice up the gameplay. They do not exist as gimmicks to feign player agency, nor are they there to simply push the story forward. Those questions, the ones that have you completely reevaluating and analyzing your moral code at every turn, are at the very core of the games themselves. These questions are central to the narrative, and answering is the very essence of the experience.
The 11 Bit (R)Evolution
Though two of their most successful titles, Frostpunk and This War of Mine, focus on themes of morality, war and struggle, these grim motifs weren’t always at the heart of every game. 11 bit was originally formed in December 2009 by the former founding members of Metropolis Software, a Polish game development studio that has since been acquired by CD Projekt. Initially a team of five, they set out to make their first game, Anomaly: Warzone Earth, with the intention of mixing genres or turning established genres on their head. Sure enough, Anomaly did just that as the first major tower offense game — a well-received riff off the ever-popular tower defense genre that flooded app stores back in 2011. Since the modest success of the first game, the series has expanded with three more favorable installments.
Following the Anomaly series, 11 bit went an entirely different route with their artistic follow-up, This War of Mine. The recipient of numerous prestigious awards, the wartime survival game released in 2014 earned global recognition for its staggering tale of ordinary citizens struggling to survive in a city under siege. You play as a small group of civilians, each individual as unprepared for the atrocities of war as the next, and you must craft by day and scavenge by night for supplies to keep you going one more day. Each day presents a troubling new predicament with life-or-death consequences that you must confront.
The differences between the Anomaly series and This War of Mine are immediately obvious, and may even seem perplexing at first. Anomaly uses hectic, real-time action mixed with an engaging strategy to immerse the player in its inverted tower defense gameplay. It’s fun, light and packed with excitement. On the contrary, This War of Mine is dark and moody. While Anomaly has you commanding an armored military squad in the middle of an alien invasion, in This War of Mine, you simply play as people. Not specialists, not soldiers, not even survivalists, just random, unprepared people. Artistically, the differences are also apparent. Anomaly’s artwork is lively and clear to allow the player a precise view of the battlefield. This War of Mine is a 2D side-scroller with hand-drawn, monochromatic visuals and a foggy vignette that invites the player’s imagination, though the characters maintain an air of realism due to the harsh, 3D scans and photographs 11 bit took of themselves and people they knew to keep the artwork true to putting the player in the shoes of real citizens affected by war. The jump from Anomaly to This War of Mine shows a visible gap in maturity from the studio’s inception to its current goal as creators.
“That was the evolution, or maybe in this case, even a revolution, of our philosophy of creation,” says Pawel Miechowski, the partnerships manager of 11 bit studios, about the studio’s growth between the two games. “During the early development stage of This War of Mine, we were discussing internally how games are maturing and how we as players require a more mature approach from games … This is not only what we want to play, but more importantly, this is what we want to create: Games with thought-provoking potential, with serious topics, with more focus put on empathy rather than just plain fun.”
This philosophy is undeniably noticeable in This War of Mine. It’s not a game focused on minute-to-minute fun. It’s not really even supposed to be fun at all, but rather a profound and thought-provoking entertainment experience. If it sounds familiar to games such as The Last of Us or Papers, Please, that’s because they largely inspired the current motives of 11 bit studios.
“That’s how a new philosophy has been forged: a meaningful entertainment,” Miechowski continues. “Games that matter. Games that are based on an idea, rather than being made in a specific genre or for fans of a specific genre.”
Four years after the release of This War of Mine, 11 bit revealed the bleak survival city-builder Frostpunk, which broadened the scale for experimenting with human morals. While This War of Mine focused on single people and the hardships they encountered trying to survive war, Frostpunk examined what would happen if the player was confronted with the moral dilemmas of an entire society. In Frostpunk, you are in charge of ensuring the success of an entire colony’s last chance at survival in the midst of a volcanic winter. The world has been covered in an unforgiving blanket of ice and snow, and you must frequently decide between the society and its single units in a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure meets the classic trolley problem’ setup. The artwork is cold and teeming with blues, whites and greys in the color palette. The citizens who approach you have striking watercolor-like detail; their faces and bodies tired and their heavy winter clothing revealing the late Victorian era inspiration.
Frostpunk presents you with narrative choices every couple of minutes that ask you to make distressing decisions and sign laws that impact your society. You can concede to the woeful pleads of the individuals who call upon you even if it’s not for the best of the common good, or you can apply your own moral code at all costs to do what you think is right — or not. It’s impressive how often the game will have you choosing things against your own morality, against what you actually think is right or wrong, in order to keep your colony surviving.
Even more tangible examples of these dilemmas are presented in This War of Mine. Children will knock on your door, begging for your help to save their injured parent. Will you risk one of your few survivors to help them? Will you refuse, out of paranoia that it could all be the theatrical leadup to an ambush?
“This is what we want to create: Games with more focus put on empathy rather than just plain fun.”
Perhaps one of the most powerful (and comparatively minor) moral and ethical dilemmas you face is exemplified in one of the questions asked earlier. In This War of Mine, food, medicine, water and other supplies are extremely scarce, and each night you must send out one of your survivors to scavenge for these necessities. Sometimes you will set out to abandoned sites and buildings, but most of the time, looting materials means stealing them from someone else, be it directly or indirectly. One location you can scavenge is a quiet, well-preserved suburban home filled with food and useful provisions that are typically much more difficult to come across at other sites in the game. However, the home is occupied by an elderly couple that, if you don’t sneak around successfully, will approach you and emphatically beg you to leave their food in the fridge.
This conundrum you are confronted with is one that will stick with you. It’s one of those rare moments in gaming where you really pause and think, and you actually have the agency to make an effective choice. You could find yourself standing in front of this desperate couple on your group’s third consecutive day without food. If you return home empty-handed, some of your civilians might starve to death before your next mission. If you take the food, you will keep yourself going at the cost of two strangers — and two very old ones, at that. Do you empathize with the couple? Do you rationalize the needs of yourself and your own group first? Do you take it, or do you leave it? It’s the finesse in telling these gripping stories and centralizing these harrowing questions of self-reflection that makes 11 bit studios so special.
A Studio To Watch For
The success and reception for both This War of Mine and Frostpunk have put the studio on the map internationally as developers who deliver unique and well-polished game experiences, and they have also published a handful of exceptional games — notably Children of Morta and Moonlighter, which sold over one million copies and was the first big hit from 11 bit studios’ publishing branch. Their two most recent games have themes of war, struggle, and moral dilemmas, but at the heart of 11 bit’s creative goal is the desire to deliver gameplay that simply asks the player to question themselves and the world around them, and gives them the complete power to make their own decisions without any judgment.
“What we do is not necessarily centered around moral dilemmas,” Miechowski explains. “We have a ton of ideas for future games that … don’t have to be that grim or confront the player with moral dilemmas, but they surely should have the ability to provoke thinking.” Miechowski also hinted that we may see some projects down the line that are lighter in theme.
From a team of five to a company of 140, 11 bit studios have seen tremendous growth in more ways than one. In just over ten years, they have matured immensely from a small group of veteran game developers with the goal of making fun, experimental games to visionary creators with a tenacious drive to produce entertainment that matters. With each title they release, whether it’s published or original, they are truly using games as a medium to turn the mirror towards the player and inspire thought, conversation and self-reflection. If they’ve never caught your attention before, now is the time to keep a vigilant eye out — you may just end up learning something about yourself along the way.