Meet the Ukrainians who make video games about the invasion of Russia | Spell

sDariia Selishcheva, sitting on a mattress in an art gallery turned bunker in Kharkiv, with Russian ammunition hanging “crying and thumping” over her head, started making a video game. Cheerfully titled What’s Up in a Kharkiv Bomb Shelter, it was an attempt at self-distraction that evolved into a journalistic work of ‘autofiction’. It offers a short, vivid portrait of life under bombing in the early months of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, based closely on conversations with Selishcheva’s neighbors at the shelter and correspondence with friends in hiding elsewhere.

“My goal was to make the voices of ordinary people heard, to capture a snippet of life in a shelter,” says Selishcheva. “I wanted everyone to know about their lives and thoughts.” Created using lo-fi Bitsy Color software, the game simply consists of walking around and talking with fellow survivors, to a soundtrack of explosions, listless guitar and muffled voices.

Someone is concerned about their missing grandson. Another praises their dog, who ran to the shelter as soon as the bombs started falling (Selishcheva notes that evacuated Ukrainian cities are full of abandoned animals, many of them trapped in apartments). There are gloomy jokes and tentative attempts to make sense of the chaos. “When the war is too close, it’s hard to believe,” someone tells you, adding, “The brain sees and analyzes everything that happens, but it turns off the response.”

What's going on in an air raid shelter in Kharkiv?
A vivid portrait of life under bombardment… What’s Up in a Kharkiv Bomb Shelter? Photo: Dahuanna

Some characters flicker different colors, “like light bulbs about to burn out,” as Selishcheva describes them — a depiction of trauma inspired not only by the war, but by another woman’s account of harassment . “I put myself in her place,” says Selishcheva. “There, in there, I felt that I was there and not there at the same time. Later I asked her if she had experienced anything similar, and she agreed. I spoke to a psychologist who helps people with PTSD, and she confirmed that until they heal from trauma, victims of violence are in a quantum state, between existence and non-existence. They have been treated as objects, causing them to lose their self-image, lose the confidence that they are free.”

Selishcheva is far from the only Ukrainian developer making a game in response to Russia’s struggling onslaught, entering its eighth month. Other projects include Zero Losses, by horror game studio Marevo Collective, in which you play a Russian soldier who destroys the bodies of comrades to support the Kremlin’s official victims.

Some of these games are more “light-hearted,” as Stepan Prokhorenko, one of the organizers of this year’s Ukrainian Games festival on Steam, explains. In Ukrainian Farmy you take on the role of a tractor driver who steals tanks, while Slaputin is about Putin who hits a sunflower. But even these “therapeutic” plays are “weaponized” works of art, he says, created by people who now divide their days between their calling and volunteering or active military service. “I believe that games tell stories, and storytelling is how you make ideas survive,” says Prokhorenko. “The idea of ​​a free and independent Ukraine is something that Russia [sic] despised and want to erase. So, in a sense, games become another battlefield.”

This battlefield extends to language. Prokhorenko always writes “Russia” in lowercase (and requested The Guardian to do so when quoting him), and many Ukrainian developers are changing Russian words in their games for Ukrainian equivalents – Chernobyl, for example, has become Chornobyl in the GSC Game World’s Stalker 2. “You must remember that the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in 2014 [with the attack on Crimea], days after the Revolution of Dignity,” continues Prokhorenko. “In the eight years since, we have fought so hard in Ukraine to maintain that dignity. This is why I think it is crucial for Ukrainian artists, including game developers, to keep doing what they are good at and making art. Even in wartime, in the midst of all the bloodshed and tragedy, we choose not to lose our humanity.”

One of the most bizarre Ukrainian games about the war in Russia is Putinist Slayer, a side-scrolling shoot-’em-up featuring the grotesque free-floating heads of Russian state figures and celebrities, with unearthly cameos by Elon Musk and Boris Johnson. Created by Bunker 22, an ‘avant-garde’ collective from across the country, it’s a viciously comedic piece of counterpropaganda, expressing the idea that ‘ordinary humor has become inaccessible’ to Ukrainians, in the words of the lead developer anonymously. from the group.

A damn farce... Putinist Slayer screenshot
A damn farce…Putinist Slayer Photo: Bunker 22

“It’s like closing your eyes and thinking about something good when you have a maniac with a knife behind your back,” the developer continues. “But the mind needs relaxation, needs positive impulses. In the current situation, the only thing we can laugh about is our enemy, at his absurdities and failures. This smile is life-affirming and goes hand in hand with our belief in victory; it is part of the core that enables us to withstand the terror of Russia and strengthens the strength of our spirit.”

Putinist Slayer opens with a Star Wars-esque rolling preamble in which a drug-addicted Putin has forged an alliance with evil aliens, forcing the player to travel to astral space to blow up his minions, some of whom appear as flying orcs in reference to the Ukrainian war language. It’s an absolute farce: one in-game message instructs you to hunt Putin’s teddy bear.

These aren’t just Twitter-esque dunks, or the gleefully dehumanizing an aggressor who has branded his victims “Nazis.” The game’s backstory blends sci-fi with historical information. It aims to challenge the selfish “editing” of Ukraine’s past by the Russian state and the “invisible poison of Russian media manipulation” elsewhere. It’s both “a parallel fictional world more connected to the present and the present than any other game,” and a spirited arcade shooter aimed at those who may be put off by overtly political art. “Truth is a natural disinfectant for propaganda,” notes the lead developer of Bunker 22. “But the problem is how to get people interested in that truth and how to get it across.”

Daria Selishcheva
Daria Selishcheva Photo: Daria Selishcheva

While some Ukrainian developers see their games as an extension of the war effort, others, like Selishcheva, just want to testify. She was influenced by Anna Anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, from which she took the principle of democratizing video games through accessible development tools like Bitsy. “The position of witnesses is democratic and simple: you can’t draw conclusions if it’s too hard to generalize,” she says. Unlike Bunker 22, Selishcheva feels the truth needs no further elaboration, although there is “creativity” in “choosing which side of the world to highlight,” she says. “Just capture this clip and leave it to others. And don’t try to influence people’s thoughts, just give them your experience.”

Selishcheva finished her game after being evacuated to Lviv, where she now rents a small house with four others. Initially, life in Lviv felt like “a continuation of the situation in the asylum”, where “we were constantly talking about politics, playing board games and trying to support each other”. But this “cohesion began to fade” as the group adjusted to life in a relatively quiet city. “Going to fetch bread no longer required moral and physical preparation to rush to the nearest cellar; being together was no longer an achievement.”

At the same time, Selishcheva has faced “misunderstanding, aggression and guilt” from Western Ukrainians who have not gone through the same hardships. She now sees her project as “a game primarily for us migrants: so that we would not forget what we have learned”.

Zero losses.
Zero losses. Photo: Marevo Collective

Again, language is an important consideration. Selishcheva’s game can be played in Russian, as this is her first language – avoiding the occupying forces’ native language, as many Eastern Ukrainians are now being pressured, has caused her a lot of stress. But the addition of Russian is also an attempt to involve Russian players who are themselves the subject of Putin’s tyranny. The game features a phone conversation with an unnamed Russian, who insists the description of the asylum is just Ukrainian propaganda.

“I messaged several of my friends in Russia with the same question: ‘There is war, I am in a shelter – what do you think about this?'” Three respondents were shocked by Selishcheva’s account and offered money to help her move . “The fourth was my great-aunt, [and] it turned out she was firmly on Putin’s side. The words in the game are hers.”

Selishcheva’s family no longer speaks to her great-aunt, but at least her playing has struck a chord with Putin’s internal detractors – it has been republished on Russian anti-war blogs. She argues that it is vital that any political artwork reaches the unconverted. “A person is not the same as his beliefs. Political views are not eternal. And before you cut ties with the Russians, remember that these are people living in a poor country that has become one of the quintessential examples of totalitarianism in the 21st century. You shouldn’t demand much from them, but like all people, they carry a responsibility. You can and should talk to them.”

Leave a Comment